‘It Was Like a War Zone’: Hurricane-Ravaged Staten Island Reels

On Staten Island, Paula Szuchman talks to the families of the dead—and to the survivors begging for help.

On Saturday, Damian Moore was seen putting up Halloween decorations outside his home on New York’s Staten Island.

On Monday, he left for work as a garbage collector in Brooklyn.

On Tuesday, he found out his two boys, Brandon, 2, and Connor, 4, were missing.

On Thursday, he learned they were dead.

One of the more horrifying tales to emerge out of the emotional wreckage of Hurricane Sandy is that of the two toddlers—one swept from his mother’s arms, the other losing his grip on her hand—who drowned when a massive storm surge overtook them as they were fleeing for their lives.

Neighbors say they can only guess what drove Glenda Moore to pack her boys into her Ford Explorer at about 6 p.m. on Monday, just when Sandy’s wind gusts were beginning to clock in at 80 mph and high tide was approaching. The Moores live in the neighborhood of Great Kills, on high ground and beyond the mandatory evacuation zone. Yet she made the decision to drive to her sister’s home in Brooklyn, taking the fastest route—Father Capodanno Boulevard—which also runs parallel to, and within eyesight, of the shoreline.

“Why did she leave?” asked Linda Caristo, a homemaker who lives across the street from the Moores and says she has been “sick” over the boys since she saw Glenda brought home by the police on Wednesday to await news of her missing kids. “The power went out. She was alone. Her husband was working. She must have panicked.”

Panic. It’s what many of the nearly 60 Staten Islanders interviewed by The Daily Beast say they endured late Monday, when Sandy sent 12 foot-high rivers racing down streets, knocked out power to 139,000 residents and took the lives of 20 people—and counting—by the far the highest body count in New York’s five boroughs. One FEMA contractor who had driven here from the Midwest to inspect homes said the devastation here was “on par with Katrina.”

Neighbors Denise Fastaica and Jennifer Tierney panicked when they saw water coming up their street and their basements began to quickly flood. Tierney, seven months’ pregnant, and her husband Michael, grabbed a bag of clothes and raced away in their car. “Every street you went down had a downed tree and you had to make a U-turn,” said Jennifer. “It was dark. You could smell smoke. It was like a war zone.” By Tuesday, there was a temporary morgue set up across the street from the Tierneys’ home.

Al Ramic panicked as he soon as he turned onto Nugent Street from Midland Avenue. “I was with my brother and I see the waves coming at us, and I start screaming, ‘It’s coming! It’s coming! Get the fuck out!’ And we ran to car and just drove,” said the 28-year-old hairdresser. On Friday, Ramic, his brother, mother, and father were emptying the ruined contents of their flooded home and wondering if anyone was ever going to come by with food, water, or relief of any kind. They had seen no one—not the police, not the Red Cross.

Lucy Spagnulo panicked when she looked out the window of the Grimsby Street bungalow she shared with her 80-year-old mother and saw the water rising. “I said, ‘Oh my God,’ I said, ‘I’ll be right back,’” she recalls. “I go outside, there’s water up to my waist, it’s going up to my chest, water gushing down the block. There’s a lady stuck in her truck, beeping her horn. I fell down, I got so scared, I panicked, I’m gonna get electrocuted, I couldn’t go back. I never even told my mother to open a window and jump—if you get electrocuted, at least you tried.”

Spagnulo’s mother, Beatrice, didn’t open the window and never made it out alive. She died in the house she lived in for 31 years. She died after sharing a bowl of chicken soup her daughter had made her. Lucy, a postal worker, and her brother Vincent, a garbage collector, were wandering the house—or what was left of it—on Friday, not knowing where to begin rebuilding. “We can’t even have a funeral because the cemetery is in shambles. It’s flooded,” said Vincent. “We’re in a fog. They took her body to Manhattan instead of Staten Island. No one tells you nothing. They give you a FEMA number and you call and can’t get an answer.”

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David Pagan panicked, holed up in his boarded-up house on Foxbeach Avenue, as the winds picked up. He and his wife camped out on the top floor, and felt like they “were in the middle of the ocean.” By morning, they were alive, but their truck had floated away, and Lenny Montalco, a postal worker and father of three who lived up the street, was dead, drowned in his house. On Friday, the Pagans were preparing for another cold night without power—temperatures were expected to drop into the 30s. “It’s pitch black at night and there are looters,” said Pagan. “We lock ourselves in, we got blankets and sweatpants, that’s it.”

Samantha and Ronald Forster panicked starting at about 7:30 p.m. Monday when Ronald went outside and saw the water coming. “I said, ‘You know what? This don’t look good. Pack your bags.’ In the 20 minutes it took them to pack there was a four-foot river outside,” said Ronald, a conductor for Metro-North Railroad. “We called 911— there was no answer. The water was coming up the porch. We climbed over the rail, busted through the neighbors’ door and went in there, up to their top floor.” The Forsters and their eight kids are safe. Not so Ella Norris, 89, who lived across the street and died despite her daughter’s cries for help through the night.

There are those who panicked and came through—and those whose stories we will never know.

Jack Paterno was 65 and confined to a wheelchair. He lived in a tiny bungalow at 787 Nugent in the Midland Beach section of town. On Wednesday, his body was found in his bed. Few neighbors knew anything much about him, just that he had a white pit bull, a blue parrot, and that he barely went out—except in the summer when he was sometimes seen being pushed up and down the block by an aide.

On Friday, the floor of his home was littered with the stuff that marked his life: pill bottles, adult diapers, cans of baked beans, a wheelchair, tearless shampoo for puppies, Christmas lights and a battered copy of Introduction to Financial Management. A dream catcher hung by his bed.

Just around the corner, Eugene Contribus also died alone. He was 62, and neighbors recall him simply as a nice man who lived for many years with his mother and mostly stuck to himself. Two days after his body was removed from his house on Kiswick Street, the mail was still being delivered: a letter from Medicare and Medicaid of Staten Island, from the Easter Seals, and a bunch of coupon mailers.

On Friday, Glenda Moore’s SUV was still sitting just off Father Capodanno Boulevard, in a parking lot by itself. The front window was shattered, the tires twisted. Glass littered Brandon and Connor’s car seats, which were miraculously still strapped in to the back seat. Moore had clearly planned—there was a giant jug of apple juice on the floor of the front seat, and in the trunk, a bag filled with diapers and a stroller.