Staten Island, revisited

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Hurricane Sandy claimed the lives of 23 Staten Island residents.

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- On Sunday morning, a sea of 48,000 runners will converge on the northeastern edge of Staten Island, only a few strides from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Here, they will begin the 2013 ING New York City Marathon, crossing the bridge and quickly putting Staten Island behind them, as they wind their way through the four other boroughs, past throngs of cheering spectators. It is a rolling celebration that New York sorely missed last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when the marathon was canceled just 36 hours before it was to start.

On Oct. 29, 2012, a wall of water pounded Staten Island and much of the coastline of the metropolitan region, flooding neighborhoods that had seen plenty of storms before, but never one like this. Even now, a year after Sandy, there are sobering reminders of the destruction that uprooted thousands of lives. Hang a left on Guyon Avenue, then a right on Mill Road, and you'll find one such place, a community of people still dealing with the physical wreckage while struggling to cope with the emotional damage.

But you'll also find something else in Oakwood Beach: a collection of volunteers, many from beyond Staten Island, teaming up with the locals. Before Sandy wreaked havoc, these people were strangers. Today, they're kindred spirits, bonded by shared experience.

These are their stories.

The miracle worker

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Derek Tabacco launched Guyon Rescue, a volunteer organization that provides assistance to Staten Island families.

Meet Derek Tabacco. He works on Wall Street and lives on Manhattan's Lower East Side, but he grew up on Staten Island and now owns a bar there. On the night Hurricane Sandy hit, he was at his bar, staying open late because he knows people like to congregate in warm, familiar places -- preferably with beer on tap -- when the world seems to be tilting off its axis.

Hours after the worst of the storm, Derek and his brother John went to check on their mother's house. It was devastated; flooding had turned the home into a murky bathtub. (Their mom had waited out the storm elsewhere.) The next morning, Tabacco showed up across the street from the Oakwood Heights VFW Post, at 575 Mill Road. He wanted to do something, anything, to help. He started handing out hot coffee and blankets from the back of his car, and within an hour, the site had morphed into a full-blown relief station, as food and supplies poured in from other people who wanted to help, too.

Tabacco, whose job at a technology company allowed him to work outside of the office, returned to 575 Mill in the days that followed, and he kept going back, day after day after day. Despite having absolutely zero experience in disaster relief efforts, he launched Guyon Rescue, which continues to work with locals, trying to get people back into their homes, one piece of donated drywall at a time.

He has also built something else along the way: friendships.

Hope on wheels

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Guyon Rescue works with donors locally and nationally, providing food, supplies and disaster recovery assistance.

This is Guyon Rescue, an 18-wheeler parked alongside a military tent that can withstand arctic temperatures and winds. Anyone with a FEMA registration number can stop by to collect items, such as diapers or canned foods, all neatly shelved inside the truck. Sometimes, people from other parts of Tabacco's life will ask what he's still doing here. After all, it has been a year since the storm -- isn't it time to move on?

"Five to seven years," he says bluntly. "That's how long this whole process will take. That's how long before we restore everyone's quality of life, physically and mentally, to how it was before the storm."

Government relief agencies aren't getting people back into their homes fast enough. There are too many forms to fill out, too many phone calls to make, too much red tape to overcome. So it's up to folks like Tabacco and his army of volunteers to make it happen sooner rather than later, to help residents find a way.

Running, with purpose

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Cyrille Adam: "This race means something more to me. ... To me, going back [to Staten Island] will turn a page."

Cyrille Adam lives in Queens. He was supposed to run the marathon last year, his first official attempt at 26.2 miles. But New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, amid mounting pressure, canceled the event. The announcement came less than two days before the race, and three full days after Hurricane Sandy hit. During the delay in decision-making, runners often were criticized for seeming to be more concerned with the marathon than with the storm victims, especially because race participants were occupying the majority of hotel rooms on Staten Island --  shelter desperately needed by people displaced by the hurricane.

On the day of the marathon, Adam biked to Staten Island from Queens. He joined about 2,000 other marathon volunteers, men and women who spent the day running supplies from one spot to another, mucking out houses that had been filled with up to 15 feet of water.

"The runners were in the middle of this war between the mayor and the residents, and the runners volunteered in some ways to redeem themselves," Adam says. "I'm sure that was part of my motivation to go there, but it was only a small part, because in the end you don't volunteer just to prove a point."

That November day, as Adam looked around, he thought to himself, Sure, this is great, but how many of us will come back tomorrow?

So Adam came back the next day, and the day after that, making Staten Island part of his life for the next six months, just like Derek Tabacco and others. "Each day that I thought might be my last one there, we would be working on a house and the people would come out of the house next door and ask, 'Will you be here tomorrow to help me?' " He often slept on a cot at the VFW Post across the street from Guyon Rescue to save himself the commute from Queens.

Adam is running this year's marathon, his first, and the significance of the occasion moves him in a way he couldn't have imagined before the storm. "This race means something more to me," he says, tears filling his eyes. "It's going to close a circle. Seeing people's pain, the misery in their eyes at what their homes and lives had become, that was something I'd never seen before. To me, going back there, it will turn a page. The start will be so much more emotional than the finish."

A twist of fate

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Cathy Fossella: "Some think there is tension between Staten Island and the runners, but I see only good will."

This is Cathy Fossella, who goes by Cat. She and her husband, Tom, live on one of the blocks that was hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, and they've come to consider Cyrille Adam a friend. Whenever Adam showed up at their front door last fall and winter, Cat would roll her eyes and say in her raspy voice, "Oh, great, it's you again!" And then she warmly welcomed him inside.

Three people on this block died the night of the storm. Cat can't explain why she and Tom survived when others didn't -- a twist of fate that leaves her shaking her head. The two of them had evacuated on other occasions, during storm warnings that turned out to be false alarms. They decided to stay put that evening, while remaining vigilant; every 10 or 15 minutes, Tom walked down their street, toward the water, to check the tide.

At exactly 7:06 p.m., Tom went outside to look again, and immediately called to his wife that they needed to leave. Cat's heart jumped at the urgency in his voice, the way he said her name. Tom could see a shimmering outline in the distance, which quickly came into focus -- a giant wall of water, rushing in from two directions.

Cat and Tom got in their car and tried to outrun the wave. At the stop sign just up the road from their home, their car stalled. Water poured in Tom's window, which he had left open as an escape route, while Cat leaned against her door with all of her weight, trying to get out. A truck happened to be driving past, and three men jumped out and pried open Cat's door, helping her and Tom climb out of the car and into the truck, driving them to safety.

Even now, a full year later, Cat will sometimes call out to her husband, asking for the location of some household item or keepsake -- a coffee maker, a toaster, a framed photo -- and he will respond, somewhat baffled, "Cat, what are you talking about? It's gone. It's been gone for a year."

She often finds herself just wandering up the street to Guyon Rescue, not really sure why, wanting to fill the loneliness in her heart. Derek Tabacco will ask her, "What do you need?" And Cat will say, "Nothing. I just want to be here."

On the day of last year's scheduled marathon, the Fossellas' yard was filled with volunteers. The street was, too, as everyone worked together, even if just for one day. "I will never forget that they showed up for us," she says. "Some people think there is tension between Staten Island and the marathon runners, but I see only good will."

'Living in a Third World country'

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Aiman Youssef and his dog, Samson, rode out the storm in flooded houses for 15 hours.

The home of Aiman Youssef no longer exists. In its place is a large tent filled with relief supplies. Hanging outside the tent are clothes; more supplies line the sidewalk. In back of the tent is Samson, a 2-year-old German shepherd, playing inside his fenced-in space, among dirty toys that look like they've washed up from the ocean.

"We feel like we're living in a Third World country here," Youssef says. "And this is New York City."

The night of the storm, Samson was trapped in a back room of Youssef's house, which was filled with water. For 15 hours, the dog kept his head above water, paddling and crying. Youssef was in the house next door -- he owns that one, too -- and yelled encouragement to Samson all night, telling him to stay strong, to stay alive. There was nothing else Youssef could do; the conditions were unsafe, with the house's electrical wires dancing dangerously close to the water.

"But I didn't give up on him," Youssef says. "And he didn't give up, either."

'He saved my life'

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Madeline Fradella was recently able to move back into her home, thanks in large part to the efforts of Guyon Rescue.

Madeline Fradella volunteers at Guyon Rescue, working inside the 18-wheeler, tracking down items for people who stop by in need. A few weeks ago, Tabacco finally got Fradella back into her home, although she won't be there for long, as her property sits within the buyout zone designated by New York state. The houses in the area, exposed to future floods, are scheduled for demolition so the state can turn the land into a park, giving it back to Mother Nature, who so desperately seems to want it back. (The state is offering pre-storm, full-market prices for these homes.)

"He saved my life," Fradella says, pointing to Tabacco. She doesn't mean that he saved her life on the night of the storm -- her son, Rocco, made sure she wasn't in the house that night -- but rather the work she does with Tabacco helps to sustain her, giving her purpose and hope.

"I kept telling her I needed to get her back into her house so she could make us all her famous lasagna," Tabacco says later. He explains that Fradella had endured the deaths of a son and her husband in recent years before Hurricane Sandy struck. The loss of her home, and now her entire neighborhood, is pain being stacked on top of pain. "Seeing her smile is amazing," Tabacco says. "We held our first official meeting at her house, and she cooked. The food was incredible."

And the work continues ...

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Volunteer groups are still a driving force on Staten Island.

This is how people such as Fradella get back into their homes: volunteer groups. Tabacco teams up with a man named Brandon, who works with at-risk youth in the Bronx. Most mornings, Brandon drives a van filled with kids to Staten Island, where they pitch in clearing yards and putting up insulation. Tabacco also works with other groups to get trained carpenters into homes. The house pictured above belongs to an older married couple who have been staying on a friend's couch for 11 months. Tabacco expects to have them back in their own home in just a few more days.

"At first, you think the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, will show up and save you, put everything right," Tabacco says. "But it doesn't work like that. This is neighbor helping neighbor here -- the only way things really get done."

Tabacco hopes that maybe, just maybe, the spotlight of this year's marathon will spark another surge in volunteering.

He certainly could use the help, so the folks on Staten Island can get that much closer to finishing their long, hard run.

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