Survivors in NYC, N.J., observe Superstorm Sandy anniversary

Workers with the Student Conservation Association remove timbers and debris from marshland in the Gateway National Recreation Area in the Queens borough of New York, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. A year ago Superstorm Sandy flooded the oceanside park, depositing tons of water-born debris. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

NEW YORK The anniversary of Superstorm Sandy was a day of reflection for many -- a time to ponder still-missed loved ones who died when coastal communities were hit by an unprecedented surge of seawater and a chance to take stock of how far recovery efforts have come.

And for some taking part in those rebuilding efforts, it was just another day to keep working in hopes of getting homes repaired and people's lives back in order.

Sandy came ashore on Oct. 29, 2012, sending floodwaters pouring across the densely populated barrier islands of Long Island and the Jersey shore. In New York City, the storm surge hit nearly 14 feet, swamping the city's subway and commuter rail tunnels and knocking out power to the southern third of Manhattan.

The storm was blamed for at least 182 deaths in the U.S. - including 68 in New York and 71 in New Jersey - and property damage estimated at $65 billion.

Here is a look at anniversary observances through a series of vignettes detailing how people are commemorating the unprecedented storm:

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A group of volunteers in neon orange T-shirts was busy at work outside a Freeport, Long Island, home on Tuesday afternoon, cutting pieces of tile and molding on power saws in the driveway and garage of the split-level ranch they were helping repair.

The volunteers are part of the Samaritan's Purse organization, a charitable group founded by the Rev. Franklin Graham that helps with disaster relief throughout the country.

Samaritan's Purse supervisor Kevin Vallas said volunteers have been on Long Island since the days immediately following Sandy. He said the group has rebuilt four homes and assisted with cleaning out and repairs on dozens of others, both in New York and New Jersey.

"I get my rewards in heaven. I'm a Christian," explained David Ray, a married father of two from Chillicothe, Ohio. "We're commanded to be the hands and feet of Jesus. What we're showing people here is love."

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Beatrice Spagnuolo was one of 23 people on Staten Island who died when Superstorm Sandy struck a year ago.

The 79-year-old woman was killed when her Midland Beach home flooded.

On Tuesday, her son Vincent Spagnuolo joined about 200 others who marched on a Midland Beach boardwalk to honor the memory of those who died on Staten Island.

As bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," Vincent Spagnuolo said he still hadn't gotten over his mother's death. Spagnuolo's own Staten Island home was also destroyed when Sandy struck.

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Myra Camacho's home in the Rockaways still has no electricity.

She spent nearly two months after Sandy trying to survive in her frigid, powerless home with her boyfriend, Walter Negron.

"We wrapped ourselves in blankets. We ate out of the churches," Negron said.

They moved out after Camacho had a heart attack. She moved in with relatives. He's been staying elsewhere.

Their luck might be about to change. The couple spent Tuesday morning with an inspector from a nonprofit housing group, who told them he could help with the restoration. He estimated it would cost $15,000.

"He said, 'Don't worry about it. We're going to take care of it,'" Camacho said. "I don't know. We've heard things like this before. I'm hopeful."

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When Sandy darkened much of the city, some New Yorkers were only hours old. Others weren't even born.

On Tuesday, babies filled a Manhattan hospital room to celebrate their first birthdays - and their survival. Their parents and hospital staff lighted candles atop cupcakes and sang, "Happy birthday, dear babies."

Kenneth Hulett III weighed only 2 pounds when emergency medical workers rushed him out of the New York Hospital intensive care unit and down the stairs while hooked up to an oxygen tank. His mother, Emily Blatt, says her faith sustained her as she was evacuated on an orange sled.

That day, more than 40 babies were safety moved from the hospital to other facilities.

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Visiting a flood-damaged firehouse in Seaside Park, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday was a day to remember volunteers and first responders who risked their lives to save others.

"I want us to think of how much better things look today than they did a year ago and celebrate that," Christie said. "We also have to acknowledge that there's still thousands of people out of their homes."

New York Gov. Cuomo visited the National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan, which was temporarily shut down last year by flooding and power outages.

Cuomo recalled the "feeling of powerlessness" seeing the southern tip of Manhattan submerged in water. He also warned that extreme weather is "the new normal" but said the city and state is now better equipped to withstand it.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stopped by Staten Island, Coney Island and the Rockaways, where he thanked and chatted with workers.

"Most New Yorkers are I suspect are struggling with somber memories today, which is only natural," Bloomberg said. "A year ago we endured the worst natural disaster ever to strike our city."

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Aiman Youssef found out the other day that one of his neighbors has been living in his own Staten Island garage.

He says many people in his shorefront neighborhood are still displaced or living in partially restored homes, often without basic facilities.

"A lot of people have moved out of the area," Youssef said. "A lot of houses went into foreclosure."

Some homeowners are still reluctant to accept help, Youssef said, while others have been stymied by bureaucracy. He pointed to a bungalow across the street from his property on Midland Avenue.

A woman is living there without heat despite a city program that was supposed to restore heat, electric and water service, he said.

"We were lower middle class," Youssef said. "Now we're poor."

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The lobby of the Wall Street Inn, a boutique hotel located in a 19th-century building in lower Manhattan, was lonely and empty. But manager Rachel Fogel said business is steady again despite initial fears that the hotel started by her grandfather might never come back.

The hotel was evacuated as the storm hit. The scene on South William Street the next day was discouraging, she said.

"It was dark. It was cold. It smelled like gasoline," Fogel said.

Weeks of work were needed on basement electrical and heating systems before the hotel reopened in December. Contractors were the first post-storm guests.

Now the regulars are back. One was a man who came back months later to retrieve dry cleaning he sent on the eve of Sandy.

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