Sandy's Wake: Courage in Chaos


When the surge struck, it hit with mind-boggling speed and force, throwing up a terrifying wall of water that proved ruthlessly destructive. Within seconds Vickie Rietheimer of Seaside Heights, N.J., found herself standing in water up to her chest. “We heard someone yelling for help and opened the door, “says the 33-year-old mother of three. “Our neighbors were clinging to a fence. We got them inside our apartment.” As Sandy raged across the northeast throughout the night of Oct. 29, the 900-mile-wide storm, the largest ever recorded in the Atlantic, flooded tunnels and airport runways, disrupted power grids, ignited devastating fires and swept away anything in its path-even two little boys as their frantic mother fought to save them. By the time the rains and winds stilled, at least 110 people were dead and damage estimates ranged up to $50 billion. Though power crews labored round the clock, some 2 million people remained without electricity a week later, most in New York and New Jersey, the hardest-hit states. By then, tears of grief were leavened by tears of gratitude as neighbors, friends and strangers extended a helping hand to ease each other’s distress.

Dave Brown, 59, of South Seaside Park, N.J., lives less than two blocks from the Star Jet roller coaster, now wrecked and sitting adrift in the surf.

It came in fast and furious. We were getting the ocean and the wind, which we clocked at between 80 and 100 miles per hour. With all the noise, you couldn’t hear the Casino pier fall. Tuesday I saw the devastation. Pieces of the boardwalk were everywhere, 20-ft.-by-40-ft. sections. It seems like we’re in a movie and everything’s been staged for a horror show-except it’s real.

Lisa Michon, 41, of Staten Island, was among those ordered to evacuate at 7 p.m. the night of the storm.

[Authorities] said, “Grab your valuables.” And before you know it, the water just came. One shot just flooded everything. We have three cars, and they were demolished. The house, 12 years of hard work, is gone. I’ve got photo albums floating in the basement. You can never get those back. It’s just a nightmare. My niece, who’s only 4, thought she saw a doll floating in the water. She said, “Oh, the toys are floating.” [Tears up] But it was actually a child, floating upside down.

Charles Denson, 59, lives in Sea Gate, a gated community near Coney Island, Brooklyn.

There was no escape. The water got up to six feet, a wall of water that burst across, bringing pieces of everything in the neighborhood. The sound of it was something I’ll never forget. Houses started exploding and coming apart. The lights of the cars were on as the horns were honking; it was like the cars were screaming for help as they were being swept away. The next day I saw a car sitting up on a mailbox.

James Traver, 20, a volunteer firefighter in the Rockaway Point neighborhood of Queens, was trapped for hours in the firehouse by flood waters while homes burned.

I saw a glow in the distance. Then we saw the licks of the fire. We started to see the transformers blowing up. Our trucks wouldn’t start; we were at the mercy of the water. The last text I had gotten from my mom was, “James, we’re going to sleep.” In my head, they were all dead. I kept thinking, “What am I going to do? How am I going to raise my brother? How am I going to become an adult tomorrow?” Once the water was just waist high, we took a payloader truck to the fire. The entire block was on fire. I looked at my house burning to the ground. I’m not a religious person, but I gave prayer a shot. Later, I got a text from our live-in housekeeper. She said my family had got out. They managed to take four dogs, a cat and a bird in a 50-lb. cage. My dad and I don’t get along, but that day I forgave him for everything.

Camille Cantanno, 42, of Staten Island, felt helpless with her paralyzed mother in the basement.

The first wave came around the corner, about 15 feet high. I thought we were going to die. Neighbors were standing on their roofs screaming. I also heard a hissing noise because the electricity was going in the water. I don’t know how God gave my brother the strength to lift up my mother to bring her upstairs. By then, the water was up to my father’s waist, then his chin.

Christine Schleppy, 34, of Skillman, N.J., was five weeks shy of her due date when Sandy struck.

I had a few strong contractions, but I brushed it off. Then at 5 p.m. the power goes out. The contractions got a little stronger. I called the doctor at 7 p.m. and he said, “Have a glass of wine to calm your nerves.” I did, but it didn’t help. I called the ambulance, but about 10 minutes down the road the rig got stuck. Another ambulance, about 20 minutes away, picked me up. We couldn’t get to Princeton, where my doctor was waiting, so we headed to Somerset. But 10 minutes away, there was a huge tree in the middle of the road. So we turned around and headed to a [mobile medical emergency shelter], which had only basic equipment for a premature baby. I was petrified. When my son came out, I didn’t hear him cry right away so I panicked. I’m like, “Is he okay?” He was perfect. Five lbs. 2.8 oz.

Samuel Johnson, 54, a Nigerian native who lives in Willingboro, N.J., loaded up his food truck one day after losing his job in a soup kitchen.

This country has done a lot for me. I said, “You know what? This food truck is needed on Staten Island.” I got propane tanks that cost me almost $300. When I got here on Saturday morning, I was the only one with a truck with hot food and coffee. My kids are texting me, like, “Daddy, you sound happy.” I am. Money can’t buy this. It is cold out here-people need a hot meal.

Peter Drasher, 49, of Manchester, Vt., drove with friends to Coney Island to deliver food and supplies.

We had Hurricane Irene last year in Vermont. It devastated us, but a lot of people came up to help us out. So we thought we’d return the favor.

Eugene Flynn, owner of Amanda’s Restaurant in Hoboken, N.J.; he and wife Joyce fed some 2,000 residents.

We set up lanterns and flashlights in the kitchen and had our staff cook everything we had. There were 1,000 sandwiches-ham and cheese, pastrami, roast beef-phyllo-wrapped shrimp and key lime pie. We had a sense of purpose. When you can help people feel a bit of contentment, it’s a great thing.

Vickie Rietheimer, 33, of Seaside Heights, fled to a Red Cross shelter in Toms River with her fiance-and three children, ages 4 to 10, where she dove into helping many of the other 400 evacuees camping out on cots.

I’m not moving back. I’m done with hurricanes. But we’re all here. We’re all alive. And that’s what matters.

Updated by Alicia Dennis,
Janine Rubenstein About Us Page headshots

Janine Rubenstein is Editor-at-Large at PEOPLE and host of PEOPLE Every Day podcast, a daily dose of breaking news, pop culture and heartwarming human interest stories. Formerly Senior Editor of music content, she's also covered crime, human interest and television news throughout her many years with the brand. Prior to PEOPLE she's written for Essence, The Cape Times newspaper and Los Angeles Magazine among others. On-screen Rubenstein can be found featured on shows like Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight and she routinely hosts PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly's star-studded Red Carpet Live specials. Follow the San Francisco native, Black Barbie collector and proud mom of two on Instagram and Twitter @janinerube

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