Wind, rain, snow and fire: The storm that broke records — and hearts
Luz Martinez sat next to her baby, who was swaddled tight in pink, blue and white cloth inside an incubator. Born at 26 weeks with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, Emma Sophia weighed less than 2 pounds and breathed with the help of a respirator.
Every day since her baby’s birth, Martinez had visited the neonatal intensive care unit at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. A good day was measured by the tiniest progress: Emma drinking a couple of extra drops of milk, her eyes opening just long enough for mom and daughter to connect.
Still recovering from an emergency cesarean section, Martinez couldn’t drive. For 22 days, she had bummed rides to the hospital with relatives and friends.
It was Sunday, October 28.
Martinez, 42, had heard about Hurricane Sandy while shuttling from her home on Roosevelt Island to be with Emma. But she met news of the impending storm with the grittiness of a lifelong New Yorker: Humbug.
She was focused on one thing: Emma’s health.
On that Sunday, Hurricane Sandy chugged northeastward off the North Carolina coast with winds stretching 175 miles from its eye. The Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland were already getting pelted by rain and whipped by wind. Forecasters warned the storm would collide with a cold front from the west to create a superstorm that would slam the Eastern Seaboard by late Monday.
Mass evacuations were ordered up and down the coast, from the Carolinas to Connecticut. The storm had already killed 67 people in the Caribbean.
Claudene Christian could feel the storm’s wrath. At sea about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, aboard the three-masted 180-foot HMS Bounty, Christian and a crew of 14 others tried to help their captain outmaneuver the storm.
At 42, she had been looking for an adventure and signed on with the Bounty in May. “Sailing the seas for these past several months has definitely agreed with me,” she wrote on her Facebook page in August.
But now, 20-foot waves and rattling winds raged against the 50-year-old wooden vessel.
About 500 miles north, in a waterfront neighborhood in Queens, residents had come to expect the unpredictability of Mother Nature. The place was called Breezy Point, after all. Its inhabitants knew the gentle winds and pleasant sound of lapping surf. They also knew the power of Hurricane Irene from a year ago.
Tom Duffy, 47, had evacuated his Breezy Point home when Irene approached. The beach bungalow, built in 1928, sustained minor flooding then — nothing too bad. Seeing the warnings on Sandy, Duffy wasn’t taking any chances. “Better to be safe than sorry,” he thought.
Duffy rallied his family to the task of evacuating the neighborhood where he had lived since he was 12. He and his wife, Deidre, and two daughters, Corinne and Louise, 23 and 20, planned to hunker down in a Manhattan hotel.
The Duffys left Breezy Point midafternoon on Sunday with three changes of clothes.
Soon, Luz Martinez would end her visit with Emma in the hospital just a block from the East River. The storm was the last thing on her mind.
Destruction in all forms
It broke records, and it broke hearts.
More than 8 million people lost power, the result of wind, flooding and heavy snow. New York City’s intricate subway system suffered the most extensive damage in its 108-year history. The New York Stock Exchange closed for two consecutive days, the first time that had happened because of weather since 1888. The surf in New York Harbor reached a record 32.5 feet — 6.5 feet taller than a wave spawned by Hurricane Irene. A record high water level also was set at Battery Park in Manhattan, where the surge peaked at 13.88 feet.
Damage estimates put the cost of the storm around $50 billion, the second costliest storm in history, behind Hurricane Katrina.
At least 23 states felt the effects of Sandy, which morphed from a hurricane into a wintry superstorm stretching nearly 600 miles. Sandy was so big, forecasters said, that if it had been a country it would have ranked as the 20th-largest in the world.
It killed at least 106 people in the United States.
The destruction came in all forms: Wind, water, snow and fire.
The sailor’s risk
The Bounty had set sail on Thursday, October 25, from New London, Connecticut, as Hurricane Sandy pummeled Cuba. The ship was en route to its winter berth in St. Petersburg, Florida, determined to outsail Sandy.
Claudene Christian’s interest in the Bounty began after she toured a replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship Nina last year, her family said.
She wasn’t a sailor by trade, but she had a personal connection to the original Bounty’s mutineer. A former Miss Teen Alaska, Christian often boasted of being a descendant of Fletcher Christian, the 18th-century sailor who led the infamous mutiny on the real HMS Bounty.
“I’m sure my ancestor would be proud,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “However, this time there will be no mutiny on this Bounty — at least not at the hands of me, a new generation of Christian Family Sailors!”
Built for “Mutiny on the Bounty,” the 1962 film starring Marlon Brando, the famed ship also had been used in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. More recently, it sailed from various ports serving as a museum to tourists.
At the helm was Capt. Robin Waldridge, a veteran of the high seas who had commanded the ship for more than 20 years. He predicted the Bounty and Sandy would pass each other late Sunday or early Monday on different paths.
“Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision … NOT AT ALL … irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested,” a message posted on the ship’s Facebook page said at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 27. “The fact of the matter is … A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”
The ship bobbed in the sea, churned by the hurricane.
By late Sunday, October 28, Sandy was winning the man vs. nature bout. The Bounty lost power and began taking on water.
At 2:53 a.m. Monday, a desperate message was posted on the ship’s Facebook page: “Your Prayers are needed.”
Luz Martinez couldn’t find a ride to the hospital on Monday morning. Winds were picking up on the streets of New York. None of her relatives wanted to risk the journey.
A Section 8 case manager for the city, Martinez had not worked since September 21, the day she was first admitted to the hospital because of vaginal bleeding. She had been bedridden until Emma’s birth on October 6 at 12:01 a.m. Memories of that day were never far from her mind.
She’d endured a C-section and the trauma of witnessing her baby struggle for life, the umbilical cord wrapped three times around Emma’s neck.
Martinez didn’t want to miss a day by her baby’s side. But, as the storm approached the city, she had no choice. She stayed in touch by phone with the nurses. They reassured her: “Everything is going smooth.”
Tom Duffy and his family were experiencing a different kind of separation — from the home that provided a lifetime of memories. The bungalow on Breezy Point was the only place the Duffy girls had ever lived.
Tom had grown up in Breezy Point. His parents first bought a house there in 1969. It was a quaint community — close enough to the city but far enough away to relax.
Tom and Deidre bought their home on Ocean Avenue in 1989; it was a perfect spot to raise their budding family. Their first daughter had just been born.
As Sandy’s outer bands lashed New York, the Duffys fixated on the storm reports on TV. Both Tom and Deidre were structural engineers, but they didn’t need an advanced degree to know that their home would sustain water and wind damage.
Swept into the sea
In the early hours Monday, a high seas rescue was in motion.
A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft, then a helicopter, braved the elements to locate the Bounty, about 90 miles off the North Carolina coast. Radio contact had been lost.
The captain had ordered that the ship be abandoned. Its crew members, wearing orange survival suits with strobe lights — intended to keep them afloat, warm and visible at sea — attempted to board two lifeboats.
A giant wave swept three into the sea, including the captain. One crew member was able to climb back into the lifeboat. The Coast Guard rescued 14. They recovered the body of another: Claudene Christian.
The captain has not been found.
Christian was the first U.S. fatality of the storm.
She died living out her dream.
Unable to sleep
Monday night, Sandy hammered the East Coast, especially Staten Island and the Jersey Shore. Giant waves swamped homes, apartments and buildings. Power lines fell. Subway tunnels in New York filled with rushing water. All bridges to the city were closed.
At 7:45 p.m., 10 feet of water inundated the NYU medical center in Manhattan.
Luz Martinez was watching the news when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the hospital was being evacuated.
Her heart pounded.
Then, the power went out in the apartment.
Martinez got on her cell phone. She spoke with a nurse who said Emma would be moved a few blocks away to Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was on the priority list, to be transported first. Nurses would use hand pumps as respirators as they carried Emma and other babies in critical condition down several flights of stairs in the dark.
An hour and a half would pass before Martinez heard back. Emma was safe and stable at Mount Sinai.
Martinez paced her apartment, unable to sleep.
Deidre Duffy woke her husband at 3 a.m. Tuesday, October 30. He was prepared for damage from wind and rain. Not for what his wife was about to tell him.
“Breezy Point,” she said, “is on fire.”
As floodwaters smashed into the neighborhood, transformers blew and power lines snapped. Fanned by high winds, the flames engulfed the wooden homes like kindling.
At first, authorities reported 40 homes were gone. But with daybreak came the news that more than 100 had burned to the ground.
It would mark one of the worst residential fires in New York City history.
On Tuesday, the Duffys made their way to 164 Ocean Avenue. Their home was in ashes.
Tom Duffy isn’t sure yet if the family will rebuild, but he is certain of one thing about Breezy Point: “It will never be the same.”
Reuniting with Emma
Luz Martinez’s sister is a New York cop. Tuesday morning, she knew which streets and bridges were open. She sent her boyfriend to fetch Luz on Roosevelt Island and take her to Emma’s side.
The ride, usually 40 minutes, took 20. No one was on the road.
At Mount Sinai, Martinez found Emma in the neonatal unit. “She gave me so much peace of mind, just looking at her, sleeping like nothing had happened. She wasn’t aware of what was going on.”
The hospital’s CEO, Kenneth Davis, was making the rounds. He was the one who had agreed to take Emma and other NYU patients into his hospital. He walked into the room, arms outstretched.
“You need a hug,” he said.
Martinez began crying and thanked him.
Emma was less than a month old and yet she’d already been through so much. Her mother has given her a nickname.