Hurricane Sandy still devastating lives, land one year later

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Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 12:10 am

BUCKS COUNTY, PA -- Mark Westphal thought the storm was over.

Huddled in the basement with his wife and three children, the Lower Makefield, Pa., resident felt the ground shake and the house rumble. Winds were whipping and trees were swaying. When conditions settled, he went upstairs to survey the damage.

That’s when he felt a breeze.

“I knew it was bad,” said Westphal, who recalls the sight of the 60-foot-plus oak tree that had sliced through the center of his home, stretching from the bedroom to the kitchen.

“We are still fixing it,” he said recently. “We should be done by Christmas.”

Sandy began as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa on Oct. 11, 2012, that initially produced widespread showers and thunderstorms in the eastern Atlantic. It reached the Caribbean on Oct. 18 and gradually strengthened into a hurricane by Oct. 24. The storm grew significantly as it passed through the Bahamas.

By the time it made landfall near Atlantic City on Oct. 29, its estimated diameter was about 1,000 miles. And while the hurricane was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone when it hit the Jersey coast, Sandy still produced winds so high they tore houses from their foundations there and tossed towering, healthy trees onto homes in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

POWER PLAY

The storm killed at least 117 people in the U.S., closed schools, damaged homes and businesses and knocked out electricity to 1.8 million Pennsylvania residents — including more than 300,000 in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

Of PECO’s 1.6 million customers in the Greater Philadelphia region, 850,000 were without power at some point, topping the previous record of 520,000 during a 1994 ice storm. At the time, PECO spokeswoman Martha Phan called Sandy “the worst storm in PECO history.” Representatives of PPL and Met-Ed, the other two major utilities serving the area, also called it the worst storm in their history.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency reports the state’s damage from Sandy topped $16.4 million. Sandy was the second most expensive Atlantic hurricane after Katrina, costing an estimated $71 billion in damage nationally. Katrina cost an estimated $148 billion nationally.

The storm forced area schools to close for days and pressured several area communities to reschedule Halloween. Montgomery County added 57 additional workers to back up its 911 dispatch center, answering 1,000 calls an hour at the height of the storm.

"It was the worst in terms of power outages and road closures," said John Corcoran, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Safety. At the peak of the storm, he said, half of Montgomery County — 188,000 homes and businesses — was out of power. "It took some people a week to get their power restored."

In Bucks County, the challenges during Sandy were "twofold," said Scott Forster, director of Bucks County Emergency Management.

"The first one was the lack of utilities," he said. "The second one was the inaccessibility to some of the more rural areas."

STORM RECOVERY

For some, Superstorm Sandy meant a few days without power, a few extra branches to clean off the front lawn. But a year later, others are still trying to rebuild their homes and restore their lives to normalcy.

Despite the expense and length of time needed to recover from the storm, Westphal considers himself an optimist and he's grateful no one in his family was hurt.

“We’re just lucky we were not sleeping in our bed at the time of the storm; the tree crushed it," he said. "At the time, my daughter Julia said, ‘Daddy, you can fix it this weekend,’ and I told her 'it’s going to be a bit longer'.”

For a year, his home has been transformed into a construction zone. Wires still dangle from the rafters. One recent day, plastic sheets and blue tarps surrounded him as he made his way through the room that was once his kitchen. Walls would be nice, he said, so would ceilings.

But he’ll take the renovations as they come and keep the family confined to the basement until the kitchen, living room and hallways are safe. His neighbors aren’t as fortunate.

“I still have at least two neighbors that can’t live in their homes,” Westphal said, pointing to a tarp draped over the roof of an empty home across the street.

Insurance came to the rescue, he said, but didn't cover all the damages. Westphal had to shell out more than $20,000 out of pocket to repair his Shelly Lane home. FEMA couldn’t help because the state wasn’t declared an emergency disaster area. But at least, he said, he didn’t have to leave his house empty for very long.

BITS & PIECES

Andy and Veronica Franks of Falls were out of their home for more than 10 months after two trees toppled onto it, crushing the chair Andy had been resting in just hours before neighbors convinced the couple to leave.

"The worst part of Hurricane Sandy was coming into our home the next day and seeing everything destroyed, the insulation hanging in our living room," Andy Franks said. "Our furniture was all destroyed. The shock was so great; my wife had a terrible time with it."

But then their neighbors stepped in, helping to pack the belongings they were able to salvage into more than a dozen garbage bags. They offered shelter, food and kindness during those difficult days.

"Without them, I don't think we would have survived. We were going to pieces fast," he said. “Our house was completely destroyed.”

The elderly couple moved in with a son in Lansdale until the bulk of the repairs were completed on their home. The recovery took much longer than they expected. Permits for repairs were needed. The electric company shut off the power.

"We didn't get any money from the insurance company until May 15," said Andy Franks, noting they were back in their home at the end of August.

"As we stand now, our house is 99 percent complete," he added. "It's lovely; everything is just brand new. But I wouldn't want to do it again."

Still, nearly every room needs furniture.

As he walked into one freshly painted green room, he raised both arms, looked at the stacks of boxes and storage containers and said: "This is all of our belongings. We cry a lot. We laugh a lot. But we are thankful. I thank God that everything worked out for us. We are just ready to move on, and we hope the upcoming days and years will be real good for us."

SHELTER FROM THE STORM

It will be another few months before Laurie Crecca of Jamison is back in her Lavallette, N.J., beach home.

Crecca and her in-laws had just purchased a beachside house with a neighboring cottage in September 2012. The house needed repairs and renovations before the storm struck.

“A month later, Sandy hit, and it was another three weeks before we were allowed onto the island to see the house,” she said. “In the end, we had 5 feet of water inside both the front house and the back house.”

After nine months of navigating the red tape with insurance companies, the city of Lavallette and the state of New Jersey, they learned the homes had to be demolished.

Still, she looks on the bright side.

“We know that we are far more fortunate than many, many others who lost far more than we did,” she said.

Though thousands of homes were damaged by Sandy, lost power was the most common impact the storm had in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

In Upper Bucks County, some residents lost electricity for close to two weeks after Sandy blasted past. Palisades High School in Kintnersville was transformed into a Red Cross emergency shelter for residents and their pets displaced by the storm, according to Donna Holmes, district spokeswoman.

During the 10 or so days the shelter operated, volunteers served more than 4,500 hot meals to residents, many of whom showed up for breakfast, lunch and dinner, she said. The school also distributed pallets of water and MREs supplied by the National Guard.

"It was pretty neat to see the way people came together and just shared," Holmes said. "I can't tell you the number of hands that stepped up to help."

DEPRESSING DAMAGE

Tinicum resident Marion Kyde remembers the night of Hurricane Sandy as one of the most frightening of her life.

"The night that it came through, the wind sounded like a freight train," she said. "I don't think I've ever heard any natural thing quite that loud."

She and her husband, Neil, lost power for about 11 days. It was the third serious power outage they'd experienced since Hurricane Irene in August 2011.

After Sandy, the Kydes bought a generator, but in the storm's immediate aftermath, the couple had no electricity, heat or water, though they had bottled water and were able to cross the Delaware to Frenchtown — which had power — for meals.

Though their house was undamaged by the storm, they lost more than 200 large trees — mostly evergreens — from their 30-acre wooded property, which had been preserved nearly 20 years before the storm and serves as a state stewardship forest to protect plant and animal habitats.

"It was very, very depressing to see the damage," Marion Kyde said. "To walk out there where I had shade and coolness and trees ... and see nothing was very upsetting."

A doctor in mycology (the study of fungus) who served on the original board of the Tinicum Conservancy, Kyde knew she'd replace the fallen trees to protect the property's stewardship status, but it took her about three months to figure out how to proceed.

"My rule for the guys who came to do the cleanup was that nothing would leave the property," she said. "Those trees had been taking up nutrients and minerals for the 80 years that they'd been there, I didn't want to lose all that good stuff."

Small brush was chipped to cover walking trails, larger logs were chopped into sections, some plugged with mushrooms and left to decay. The Kydes planted 22 new chestnuts and elms.

"It will be a healthier forest than it was," Marion Kyde said. "It's going to be wonderful."

THE GOOD & BAD

Another local resident also tried to make the best of a bad situation.

Last year, when Kintnersville’s Nikki Bowen heard a storm was approaching, she didn’t spend time prepping her house or emptying her refrigerator. She had a much more important thing to do — prepare for the birth of her daughter.

“Having been through a week without power the year before with the snowstorm, we weren't taking any chances with Sandy,” said Bowen, who went to the hospital on the morning of the storm. “I was induced at Doylestown Hospital on the morning of the 29th, and a short 16 hours later, Olivia Hope was born a little after midnight on the 30th.”

Bowen recalls peering out the hospital window and seeing the storm’s destruction.

“We had a great view for the storm, watching the light poles sway and the power go on and off, seeing transformers blow in the distance, and the power flicker in the room as the generators kicked in,” she said.

Once the storm ended, she was grateful to have those few days in the hospital with power, running water and warm food.

While Bowen’s family was celebrating the birth of a child, Diane Cloud, of Levittown, was grieving the loss of her daughter — a process that was made worse by the storm’s aftermath.

“Last October 28th, my daughter passed away from an overdose,” said Cloud, a Courier Times employee. "She was found in an abandoned house in Philadelphia. This left her in the hands of the Philly medical examiner. Because Philadelphia was shut down, they could not perform the autopsy right away.”

Cloud had to wait nearly a week before she could see her daughter.

“Because Philly was closed, our funeral home could not bring her up here for her funeral until Thursday,” she said.

And because of the storm's aftermath, many of her friends didn't find out about her daughter's death until just before the Nov. 5 funeral.

“We actually felt like our grieving was put on hold because of the storm,” she said. “There were other things to think about: no power, losing phone service, caring for my elderly parents. Luckily, we had no damage to our house or property. But the storm still affected us in a big way.”

Power outages across the Northeast paralyzed hundreds of communities, where residents had to rely on generators or the kindness of others to pull through.

Having living through several storms and several power outages in recent years, Peg Haskell had pledged to stay prepared. The Tinicum resident was without power for more than a week during Sandy, and had no idea when it would be restored. Yet she was calm because she had been ready.

Haskell and her husband, Ron, didn’t face the last-minute rush to the hardware store to buy batteries because they had stocked up during the year. She kept a closet full of canned soups and other nonperishable foods. She filled containers with water. She gathered candles and had them ready. She charged her phones at work, powered her radio with batteries and fueled her kerosene heaters. Recently, she bought battery-powered lanterns for each member of her family to keep by their beds.

"Over the years, we've gotten used to it," said Haskell. "Nine days without electricity was tough. Over the years, you learn to cope."

She has lived for more than 35 years in the Tinicum home, not far from Cafferty Road, where thousands of acres of woods that were leveled by the storm.

"It's amazing how one storm can change the topography over there," said Haskell. "It boggles my mind to see how the landscape has changed. A once-wooded area is now open."

BRACING FOR WHAT'S NEXT

For Barbara Thompson, who lived along Cafferty Road for 35 years, Sandy was "the last straw."

“That was the end for me," said Thompson, who now lives in Doylestown. "I just couldn't invest in what was needed.”

She lost more than 500 pine trees on her 10-acre property, which used to be a tree farm. After the storm, she went three weeks without power and a month without phone service.

"Now, I'm in a townhouse, where I don't have to worry about trees coming down," she said. "It was just too much. Sandy took out everything. My life changed a lot, but things happen for the best."

Haskell, who still lives in the area, said locals are bracing for what's next.

"We are wondering what's going to happen this year," she said. "Last year, it was Hurricane Sandy, the year before that it was the snowstorm. Now, we wonder: What will Halloween bring this year?"

Reporter Crissa Shoemaker DeBree contributed to this report.

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