THE WISDOM OF AUGUSTUS MCCRAE in Hurricane Sandy's Aftermath

Published on: November 13, 2012 | Written by: chayesesq

By Craig Hayes

In the classic western Lonesome Dove, there is a wonderful scene where the novel's resident philosopher, Augustus McCrae, implores the beautiful, yet tragic character Lorena, to appreciate the everyday, little things in life, rather than build up big dreams in your head, only to be disappointed in the end. For Gus, those things were a soft mattress and a glass of buttermilk.

Today, for me, it's being safe and warm with my family, eating takeout together as we listen to the radio, sharing a small apartment as we wait for the lights to go back on. If there was ever a time to heed Gus' words, for the people of the northeast, that time is now.

Hurricane Sandy was a beast of a storm, but you all already knew that. And yes, I am the same guy that mocked the politicians, and joked about the impending doom that was coming, and I've taken some abuse for it, and it was well deserved. But I can't worry about on-line comments when I have friends that lost their entire homes. Just like my house, I am bruised, but not even close to being beaten.

Did I feel a bit like General Custer's lead scout at Little Big Horn? Or like the Charger executives that thought making Ryan Leaf your franchise quarterback was a good idea? Maybe a bit, but applying humor to rough times is in my nature, my Irish heritage I suppose.

The storm itself was a sight to see, Mother Nature at her most furious always is. The winds began on Sunday night, and unlike Irene, this hurricane didn't come with a great deal of rain, just a ton a wind at first, that steadily increased overnight and into Monday as the miles per hour picked up from 30, to 40, to 50, then peaking at about 80 mile per hour gusts on Monday night.

I lost power at around 7:30 that night, and just before I was about to lay down and rest for a bit I decided to take a look outside to check for water. All day long there was nary a puddle in the street, the sand dunes that lie about 200 yards from my house were doing their job. Hitting the street with my spotlight, I saw debris flying by, the full moon tide hit just as Sandy was at peak strengh, and the surge emptied a torrent into the street from the bay on the north side. Almost within minutes, a previously clean street in front of my house was under about 4 feet of water and closing fast.

The next hour was pretty much a blur, I fortified sandbags to the garage, and blocked the water as best I could going from room to room with more bags, towels, blankets, anyting I could find really. But when doors were blocked, it came through the floor tiles, the flood surrounding the house's permimeter. Our house is a split, so I waited on the second floor with my dogs preparing to go up to the third floor, running wedding photos and family keepsakes up the stairs, after a couple of hours, the flood receeded back to the street. Once low tide hit, I passed out from exhaustion. 

In the end, we were incredibly lucky. When you can measure the water in your house in inches and not feet it is a victory in a storm like this. The large dunes down the block did not stop Sandy, but they did a hell of job minimizing her impact in our neighborhood. We lost furniture, carpets, electronics, stuff like that. But what really hurt was some of the irreplaceable items; school projects, baby photos, things that mean a lot more than any damn computer. I saved most of it, but some got lost nevertheless.

Unfortunately, other areas west of us, Long Beach, the Rockaways, and Breezy Point were annihilated. Driving through the damage the next day you just saw house after house with their contents strewn across the sidewalk. Breezy alone lost 100 houses to a fire that ignited around the same time the surge hit. So you had a situation where New York City Firefighters were literally strapping their bodies to tower ladders to prevent being thrown in the 75 mile per hour winds as they fought to save a neighborhood. I'm not sure that heroic is a strong enough word for these men.

For a week we stayed at the house, using every bit of daylight that we could. Ripping out what was destroyed, cleaning the items that could be salvaged, and bundling up at sundown, each night getting progressively colder. My daughter's school was shut down, so she was safely sent off for a week with relatives.

Once the forecast came for a snowy Nor'easter and the temperatures dropped into the 30's, my wife and I got out and found a place to stay for a bit that was warm and illuminated. My office got their power back so I could go back to work, and my daughter returned to school. Some normalcy returned.

With hundreds of thousands still with no heat or power, and twelve hour gaslines a common occurence, it is an understatement to say that I have lost a bit of faith in the ability of my local government to get things done. Now we are getting reports from the media that our local power authority ignored recomendations to revamp their storm preparedness after Hurricane Irene hit. To give you an example, for those of you that are computer savvy, their disaster computer protocols still use COBOL, and repair crews don't have GPS and still use paper maps and pencils in an era where 12 year olds own tablets. This mind you in an area with some of the highest electrical rates in the country.

In contrast though, what this storm has done is give me an incredible new appreciation for the people in my life; my family, my friends, and the incredible community that is the south shore of Long Island. For those of you unfamilar with the area, this is not the ritzy Hamptons that was devastated. Places like Lindenhurst, Long Beach, and the Rockaways are mainly blue collar: cops, fireman, teachers, union workers. People whose net worth is typically the equitiy in their house, if they own one. This was a storm that blasted the middle class more than anyone else.

Cynics will say "Why rebuild? This is God's way of saying not to live too close to the shore." But when you think about it, there are few places in this country that don't present a certain amount of risk to the unpredictability of Mother Nature. The west coast has mudslides and earthquakes, a huge chunk of the midwest is aptly nicknamed "Tornado Alley", and on the entirety of the east coast, we get hurricanes. Every place you choose to live is essentially a balancing test of what you are willing to risk to get the benefits you enjoy. We love the beach; this time we got our asses kicked for it.

So my family and I will repair the damage, and my friends who lost far more will rebuild what was lost, and I will be there for them, as they have been for me, every step of the way. Coastal people are hearty types, and stubborn too I guess. I think our readers in Louisiana, Florida, and the Carolinas know what I am talking about.

When I look back on this storm, of course I will remember the sight of sea water creeping up my garage floor, heading for my daughter's playroom. And I will never forget the sound of the wind shaking the rafters of my house for hours on end, but there are actual memories that I will cherish from this past week.

I will think of my mother's neighbors, who watched over her, and gave her food and her morning hot coffee, and even a movie night, in the days when I couldn't be there. When we shared a dinner a few days after the storm, she said that material things mean nothing (despite all that she lost), it is the people in your life that matter the most. I am biased, but my Mom is right.

I will remember being on the phone with my wife as the storm was at its worst, telling her I loved her as she sat 25 miles away at her sister's house, and letting her know that we were going to have damage, but nothing we couldn't fix. When she replied that she loved me, I shed a tear for the first and only time during this ordeal, because even though we say those words each night, there were few times I have ever felt it as much as I did in that moment. Because it was there, amongst the chaos, that her words reinforced to me something I have always known, but at times neglect to think about, I married the right girl.

And the last thing I will think of was the day after, sitting in my living room, the house smelling like an aquarium, my daughter Sydney running through the front door, and giving me one of those hugs only Daddy's girl can give, kneeling down to greet her on swollen knees, her arms around my sore shoulders, l looked up at my beautiful wife. We were together, we were safe, and everything was going to be all right.