Sandy-affected residents find ways to give thanks
When Patricia Boylan saw her Long Beach home for the first time since superstorm Sandy, it was clear there wouldn't be any Thanksgiving dinner on her dining room table this year.
Outside the nearby Knights of Columbus community center, she sobbed about the extensive damage to the house where she raised her children.
"I'm devastated, I don't know what to say," she said, adding that she and her disabled husband don't have enough money to rebuild right now. Still, she found reasons to give thanks.
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"Where I am going to have [Thanksgiving] dinner, I don't know. But wherever it will be I will be thankful. I don't even know where we'll have turkey. I don't care. We will all be thankful - we're still here."
About three weeks after a hurricane-turned-tropical storm ripped through the East Coast, causing billions of dollars in damage and taking more than 110 lives, some of the hardest hit areas still struggle to return to normal. For hundreds of families displaced by Sandy, a change in Thanksgiving tradition is a somber reminder that full recovery will take a long time to achieve.
Lorraine DeSantis, also from Long Beach, said she would have to spend her Thanksgiving cleaning up. The water surge from the storm completely flooded the first floor of her home, destroying the boiler, the washer, furniture and some electronics.
"We had plans to fly down to Florida and then meet up with my parents and take a cruise over Thanksgiving and celebrate my father's 80th birthday," she said, her eyes welling up with tears, "and we had to cancel the cruise and make sure we gave the attention to our home it deserves ... luckily our beautiful friends invited us for Thanksgiving."
The total number of people displaced by the storm remains unclear. Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated earlier this month that tens of thousands of people were displaced in New York City alone, and the Red Cross counted about 10,000 people in the tri-state area were staying in shelters the week after Sandy.
The number of people staying in shelters had dwindled to 750 by Monday morning, according to the Red Cross Shelter System: 300 in New Jersey and 450 in New York. But that number doesn't include people who are crashing with relatives, staying at hotels, or found rentals through a service like Air BNB.
Among the most damaged areas in the northeast are Long Beach, much of the New Jersey shore and the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.
Terence Tubridy, one of the owners of Bungalow Bar on Rockaway Beach, said he and his family would have to break a 30-year Thanksgiving tradition of eating at their restaurant and will relocate to one of their other locations in Manhattan. Dr. Bob Saporito of Brick, N.J., said he and his wife will spend Thanksgiving alone this year because "the stress of each day" makes it too difficult to travel elsewhere.
Every year churches, food banks and community centers open their doors and feed the less fortunate around this time of year. But this Thanksgiving can be a particularly humbling experience for those who never needed charity before.
Austin Watts, a New York City fireman from Highland Park, N.Y., said the original plan was to have relatives over. Now, he's just going to try to work on Thursday.
"A couple of days ago we were DVRing shows and making dinner in the kitchen. Now we have to find a stable place to live and what clothes to bring with us," he said.
Local officials say they are doing what they can to help out on Thanksgiving, but they are mostly concerned about basic needs. For example, Mayor Bloomberg announced New York City is distributing 26,500 Thanksgiving at 30 sites in areas impacted by Sandy, as well as 2,400 turkeys. Almost all of the people interviewed in this article expressed thanks to the Red Cross and federal and local officials in their emergency response.
The most holiday-related cheer may come from regular folks who try help out. Elle Aichele, a former administrative assistant from Toms River, N.J., started a Facebook group last week that connects displaced families with others willing to host Sandy victims for Thanksgiving. So far she's heard from 50 volunteers.
"I had one woman who offered not only her home for dinner," she said. "They're providing transportation, offering guests to stay overnight, take a shower. They have restored my faith in humanity. They just can't do enough."
Lending a hand comes with its challenges. Aichele has invested a large amount of time vetting Sandy victims to weed out "opportunists" and to match potential guests by location, all while considering childrens' ages, pet allergies and other factors. She made numerous calls to local shelters to look for displaced families who might need her help, but sometimes the phone kept "ringing and ringing." Social media helps; her Facebook page is growing and had 400 "likes" by Monday afternoon. But even if she makes only one match, she believes it's worth it.
"I'm going to do the same thing for Christmas," she said. "It's warming my heart."
And many restaurants are using their kitchens to help neighbors who still can't use their own stoves or fridges. Paul Shanab, the owner of Atlantic Beach Bagel and Deli in Long Island, said he his holding a Thanksgiving dinner for the entire Five Towns area.
"I had an old lady that came in last week," he said. "She was so happy to see lights on. Because there was no lights on. And she had somewhere to sit down. We gave her a cup of soup, we gave her some pizza, and she was happy to be around people in a place that was lit and warm."
Despite all the destruction, loss and struggle, victims of superstorm Sandy are still looking forward to the holiday. They see it as a welcome break to during a stressful time to be with loved ones and reflect on what's important.
Colleen Zaballa of Rockaway Beach, like many other displaced residents, said she has plenty to be thankful about.
"I'm looking forward to having something to smile and celebrate about," she said. "I'm thankful to have a one-year-old daughter."
Kevin Hayes contributed to this report
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