On Saturday, October 27, under mostly sunny skies, 500 Wagner Homecoming guests enjoyed the barbecue, and a stadium full of fans cheered the Seahawks on to victory over Robert Morris University — a fifth straight win. Life looked beautiful, but it was the calm before the storm — a storm that has changed life on Staten Island and in this region.
By Sunday evening, with Hurricane Sandy bearing straight at New York City, only about 50 students remained on the Wagner campus. At the urging of the College administration, all others had gone to their homes or to friends’ homes. President Richard and Carin Guarasci and other key administrators remained on campus, spending the night of the storm along with the students in the Spiro Sports Center.
In the days after the storm, it became clear that the campus could not reopen for the entire week. It took four days for full power to be restored on campus; throughout the area, power outages, blocked and flooded roads and tunnels, lack of public transportation, and fuel shortages brought normal life to a standstill. And then there were those areas that experienced devastation from the worst of Sandy’s wrath: the massive storm surge.
PHOTO: Elisabeth Cardiello ’06 M’07 calls her life “a bubble of devastation” after her Staten Island neighborhood was severely flooded. Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Cardiello
The campus reopened on Sunday, November 4, and classes resumed that Monday, but at that point there were at least 50 students who couldn’t make it back to campus yet. Most had transportation problems — lack of fuel or public transportation — but a number had suffered serious losses to their homes and property.
Gabriella Maldonado ’14, a math and education major, lives with her parents and two sisters in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island, about four blocks inland from the beach itself. They were all at home the night of the storm. When Maldonado’s father saw water in the street, he told his daughters to go upstairs and get some things together. Minutes later, she recalls, he was screaming, “Get out now!” The house started filling with water. The refrigerator flipped over, floorboards started popping up, and the couch was bumping into the wall. The family went out into the chest-high, icy water.
Two doors down, they reached a house that was built up higher than theirs. Maldonado says they “barged in” and asked for shelter, and they were able to wait out the storm there. Their own house was submerged in eight feet of water. The family’s cars were flooded as well.
In another part of Oakwood Beach, Hayley Semo ’16 and her family were experiencing similar circumstances. After Semo’s brother noticed a boat floating down their block, they had minutes to escape upstairs, where they were able to stay out of the flood’s reach. Their first floor and the family’s three cars were flooded.
Allison McKeefrey ’15 (pictured above) and her family are part of the Breezy Point community in Queens, where she was living while commuting to Wagner to study nursing. Located at the western end of the Rockaway peninsula, Breezy Point was devastated by the storm surge and a fire. McKeefrey evacuated to her boyfriend’s parents’ house in Long Island before the storm surge hit. In Breezy Point, the homes of her parents, two of her brothers, other relatives, and her boyfriend’s own home were burned or destroyed by the flood.
In the Wagner alumni community, many have suffered great losses as well. The Staten Island house where Elisabeth Cardiello ’06 M’07 grew up was severely flooded. Cardiello had been living there with her mother for the past two years, since the death of her father, a general contractor who built the house. Fortunately, they had evacuated and moved all of their family photos and important papers to an upper floor that was not damaged. Neighbors took them in, and Cardiello is now focused on restoring the house. “My whole life is sort of on hold right now,” she says. “I’m in a little bubble of devastation.”
Maldonado is one of four commuter students who took Wagner up on the offer of free room in the residence halls after their homes were destroyed in the storm. “I feel a little bit better,” she says. “Living at school brings some normalcy back to my life. But it’s a weird feeling not having a home to go back to.”
Having lost her father two years ago, Semo was unwilling to leave her mother. She was living in her house’s second floor with her mother and brother while they worked to restore the first floor. As of two weeks after the storm, they were still without power and heat. She missed the first week of classes after they resumed, and she says returning to school was overwhelming. But, she says, “the teachers are being pretty flexible with me.”
McKeefrey and her boyfriend, along with their dog, were staying with an aunt on Staten Island. “What happened [in Breezy Point] is devastating, but we are a strong community and will rebuild,” she wrote in an email. “Although the new Breezy won’t be like the old one, filled with so many memories we hold so close, maybe it can be better.
“I feel lost,” McKeefrey adds. “School, especially the nursing program, is so tough to stay focused on with all of these other thoughts I have. When can we rebuild? When will Breezy have power? When can I sleep in my own bed and see my lifelong friends I’ve grown up with? Everyone is scattered everywhere, since we are all homeless. Where are my friends, my support system?”