Sometime around November, on or about our nineteenth consecutive day of multiple unfortunate occurrences, a friend suggested I write a book or a blog—just to keep track of everything and because, like they say, you couldn’t make it up. My stories were way more rollicking fun than even the most creative misfortune memoirs she had read. Her idea was born on a day when our basement was filled, again, with oil-slicked water, and we couldn’t find a soul to get it out. In those first few days, when Long Beach was the Wild West, you could corner some company at a neighbor’s house and offer them cash to come help. Now, everyone around us was dry because none of our neighbors had basements like we did, that would refill daily with seawater from below. The people pumping had moved on to neighborhoods with basements, and they were booked for months.
We begged. We cried. We got a water cleanup company. They came. They said there was too much oil remnant in the water for them to do the work. We called the environmental cleanup company. They said there was not enough of an oil problem and they had more important jobs to do. The guy who would repair our pumps and drainage system so we could get the water out couldn’t help until we had electric—but the electrician wouldn’t come until the water was out!
Then, the cycle was broken—in a most unexpected and unfortunate way. We were staying in Wantagh (on one of the only blocks still without electricity) and borrowing a sturdy car from longtime family friends. Steve, unemployed since the storm, had been waiting on gas lines in the middle of the day when everyone else had somehow gotten themselves to jobs they still had. Previously during the gas shortage, he would ride a broken bicycle to fill a gas can for the generator, but now he would wait for hours in style in our borrowed Chrysler LaBaron. One day, the day of the phone call, we had a full tank but the car wouldn’t start.
That day our basement drained itself. The desperate call was from the neighbors behind us who would, and practically had, given us the shirts off their backs. Neighbors are really neighbors in Long Beach. We could almost reach out through our bathroom windows and turn each other’s showers on. Our combined “backyards” were one alley where we each stored sandbags and sacks of garden rocks. Their girls made a playground of our metal cellar door and never tired of stomping on it, their joyous dances turning our whole house into a steel drum. We woke one morning after Hurricane Irene to find their parents stretched out in the dirt, scooping handfuls of debris from the ineffective drywell that had contributed to the flooding in our basement. They had already been to the hardware store and back, with a shiny new grate to replace the crumbling original. For us. Who were these people? They were angels, calling us now in a panic. Our house was drowning theirs.
We had left one breaker on for Sandy—the one connected to the pump, with the hope that the brand new drainage system we had dug with the powerful new pump and backup would do its thing. But even an $8,000 French drain can only sputter, “Oh non,” before expiring in a nine-foot wave. Now, that breaker was still on, because switching it off was too dangerous. You would have to stand in three feet of water, and the box, though no longer submerged, was still wet and severely compromised.
After the storm, we’d received notifications from the city and the electric company outlining the steps we would need to take before power would be restored. Step one was to have an electrician willing to step foot in our still-flooded basement. After paying thousands in cash to get pumped out twice, we now knew that without power and a working permanent pump, the water would continue to rise up from below no matter how many times we sucked it out. And if we couldn’t keep out the ocean we could not restore our electric—or the pump whose very purpose was to prevent the water from rising. We were about thirty problems away from the rest of the process, which was (1) an electrician would need to do the repairs and (2) submit a certification to LIPA (our power company), after which (3) LIPA would inspect and (4) issue their own certification before (5) turning us back on. It would be weeks, maybe months, until we had electricity.
As we searched for my wedding ring in the street to pass the time while waiting for a friend to jump start our borrowed car 15 miles from home, water had begun rushing out of our house, onto our property and our neighbors’, rising quickly.
How could this be? We couldn’t get our minds around it. But the answer was simple. For all the talk of safety double and triple checks and certifications, they just went ahead and turned. Our. Electricity. ON. While we, miles from this mayhem, were meandering haplessly around a dead car.
Could you make this up?
By the time we made it to the house, having called every emergency number we could think of on the way, our poor weary neighbors had finished sandbagging their crawlspace and all along the back of their house. Steve rushed to the basement and sloshed random ruined objects into place, so he could cross them like stepping stones in a path to the electric box. I went out back to tell them our plan and try to save our friendship. Thankfully, the oil had clung to the top of the water (oil and water really do not mix!) and we would be cleaning it from our basement instead of from their yard. And thankfully, our neighbors are still our friends. I’m sorry those sweet girls’ steel drum dances will never again resound through our house. We are filling in the basement, eliminating that cellar door. But even if we weren’t, at this point it seems more and more likely that by the time we return, the girls will be away at college.