Jan 31, 2013
This story was written by Dan Cunningham, a member of CWA Local 1180 who works at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Isabella Burns, who shares her experiences of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, also is a member of Local 1180.
The sun was about to set on Staten Island on Monday, October 29, 2012. A storm called Sandy trolled the waters off the Midland Beach neighborhood. Wherever Sandy had landed, she left death and destruction in her wake. Drawing first blood in the Caribbean, she fueled her appetite in the Carolinas, the Virginias, and Maryland. She served another deadly dose of savagery along the Jersey Shore. But by sunset on the 29th, the monster off Midland Beach was a behemoth, at the height of its fury, meaner, more murderous than ever. Little did the residents of Midland Beach know that they were about to receive Sandy’s most lethal brew of storm and surge.
As darkness fell, 60-year-old Isabella Burns of 164A Grimsby St. scurried around her one-story bungalow. She closed windows, sealed doors, and took out her three shop vacs. No water on the street yet, hardly any rain falling, and it was well past sundown. She decided to stay and ride out Sandy with her darling cats. Her neighbor, 79-year-old Beatrice Spagnuolo, also stayed. She lived in the attached bungalow at 164 Grimsby St. with her daughter, Lucy. The majority of Midland Beach residents decided likewise. Those who stayed admitted hearing the warnings. But they had heard the same about Hurricane Irene, and Irene never did much damage in Midland. “There have been storms here since I can remember,” one old-time resident was heard to say. “We always get by without much fuss.” Sandy would be no different, many assumed. The reasons people stayed varied — stubbornness, denial, a false sense of security, defiance, certainly disbelief. Most just didn’t believe the warnings.
Isabella Burns had no idea that she was smack in the middle of Sandy’s crosshairs. She didn’t know that the eight-block area around her bungalow would be Sandy’s maximum-kill zone. She didn’t know that eight of her neighbors would die. Sandy beckoned for Isabella as well, but she spurned the offer. To paraphrase a poem by Dylan Thomas, she did not go gently into the night, she raged and raged against the dying of the light.
What follows is a story of courage and survival. It is based an interview taped Dec. 10, 2012, and subsequent conversations with Ms. Burns. Isabella Burns still struggles to tell the story. She finds it difficult to relive. But she needed to tell it, and it needs to be told.
Interviewer: Was there a point in time when you knew you were in mortal danger? If you can, pick up the story from there and tell what happened.
Ms. Burns: My mind is still unclear about some things, but I remember watching the television. It must have been 6:30 or 7 p.m. by then, but I'm not sure exactly. A news report says the water level is nearly 16 feet at the Battery. That gets my attention. But I still think I have time. I have phone service, and lights. I don’t see water on the streets yet. I guess it’s about 7 or 7:30 when things start to go wrong. The Internet goes, and the lights start to flicker. I look out the door and see water flowing past my gate. But I still don’t think it will be bad here, maybe elsewhere, but not here. I don't know why but I start to line my front and back doors with paper towels and shut the screen doors -- as if that will keep the water out. I get my shop vacs out and try to use them as the water comes under the doors but I nearly get shocked 3 times.
When the water level reaches ankle deep, Isabella knows that efforts to preserve property are futile. It is life or death now, and the odds for life get shorter with each passing moment. Isabella alludes to unexplained forces at work, forces beyond the powers of man and nature.
Ms. Burns: I put two cats in carrying cases. Now the water is coming from behind the television and gushing through the louver doors. My phone rings. It’s my neighbor Bea. She says, “Bella, my fence is down and the water is coming into the house.” I ask “Bea, where is your daughter Lucy?” Bea says, “To get the car.” “Get out of the house right away” I tell Bea. My phone goes dead. The water is waist-high now. I pick up the cats and try to get out the back door, but the water is too high. I see a neighbor's shed float by. I try the front door but it is too late. I can’t push it open. I use my cell to call my daughter. I tell her I’m stuck, call 911. I go to the second bedroom with my cats. If I try to save the cats we're all going to die. I take them out, put them on a high shelf, and kiss them goodbye. I see the water is up to the window sill. My window of opportunity is closing fast. I jump out. The water is over my head. I've never been afraid of water but I can’t swim. I'm wearing boots, a raincoat, sweatpants, and my pocketbook is strapped across me. I go under and resurface. Oh yeah, I turned off the power before I jumped out. Somehow I have the presence of mind to close the window behind me. It’s not my presence of my mind. It’s not me inside there. Something took over me.
Isabella Burns navigates the distance between her bedroom window and the fence that runs along her yard and that of her neighbor Bea Spagnuolo, Pulling along the fence, head bobbing above the rising tide, she gets as far as Bea’s gate, but it’s open. The current hits her hard. The water is cold and pushing strongly in the direction of Bedford Avenue. She clings to the fence -- clings to life. Twisting in the current, she spots a house on the corner of Grimsby and Bedford with a deck still above water. She jumps back in and heads for that house.
Ms. Burns: I jump back into the water and make it across the street to the yard. I make it to the deck. The water is rising again. I can't stay here. I see a series of about five, three-story houses up Bedford and maybe I can make it to one of them. I throw myself back into the current. I manage to grab a staircase railing in the front of the first house as I drift. I pull myself up the steps. I'm exhausted and so cold. But the water keeps rising and I can’t stay. I toss myself back into the flood. I don't know where I think I'm going. I drift to the last house on Bedford. The current pins me behind the fence. I reach out my hand and catch a railing again. I start to pull myself up the steps, but I can barely grab at this point. I get as far as I can, about halfway up the stairs. The water is at my chin and rising. I can’t fight anymore. I utter a prayer: “Mom, please don't let me die here tonight.” I feel my body being pulled from the water. Am I dead, going up to heaven? I soon realize that it wasn’t heaven pulling me from the water; it was a big Russian man. This man says "upstairs." And so I go upstairs.
Interviewer: And so you utter a prayer to your deceased mother, and in that instant, you get plucked from rising tide in the nick of time? Something remarkable seems to be at work here. Did you think this was your last move? Can you recall your thoughts at this moment, what you’re thinking, feeling, or reflecting about your life?
Ms. Burns: Yes, and I still don’t know how it happened. It’s dark, I have dark hair, and these people are on the third floor. They have water past the second floor. I never yelled or screamed. I don’t know what made this man come at that instant. I remember thinking this is it, my last gasp. But I didn’t panic. I didn’t think of my daughter. My life didn’t pass before me. I was methodical, calm even as the water rose. It wasn’t me doing that. Something got inside, took over, and guided me to where I’d be saved.
Isabella Burns stayed with her Russian rescuers. None of the family spoke English. They provided dry clothes, kept her warm, and offered potent beverages. Isabella chose cognac to keep the chill at bay. Eventually, she controlled the shaking and shivering.
At the dawn of October 30, a flotilla of boats rescued storm victims from rooftops and third-story patios. Isabella Burns boarded one of the boats, and finally came to ground on Hylan Boulevard.
In the days that follow, Isabella learns that Sandy claimed the life of her neighbor; after Bea Spagnuolo’s daughter Lucy couldn’t start the car, she waded through waist-deep water screaming for help, but it was too late. When she tried to return to her mother, the current pushed her away; she barely escaped drowning.
Nearly a week after the storm, Isabella finds her two cats alive, still in the bedroom where she left them. They apparently remained on the high shelf, until the water receded. It seems that Isabella’s last-second notion to shut the bedroom window saved them from drowning. As for Isabella’s personal belongings, virtually everything was destroyed and her house is currently red-tagged and awaiting word from officials if it will be demolished. Two days after being rescued, Isabella returns to her job with New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and is fortunate to have found an apartment near her daughter in Brooklyn.
I spoke with Isabella again on December 28, 2012:
Interviewer: How do you feel these days? Can you talk a bit about your life now?
Ms. Burns: I’m usually the strong one, always there for people, especially my daughter. I pride myself on being independent, decisive, and able to deal with whatever comes. Now, I cry for no reason. I don’t sleep well, and have nightmares. I’m not the same person. Last night during the nor’easter, I woke up scared by the rain and wind. It brought it all back. I’m not the same.
I’ll never live in Midland Beach again. Yet, I feel something pulling me back to the place, and the people who suffered from Sandy. Before Sandy, the culture, for me anyway, was to be private, independent, friendly, but not overly so. Now, we tell our stories to each other, and hug, and comfort each other. Now I feel a kinship with them. I have compassion. I grieve for what I lost -- the house I bought on my own, and the good years spent there. I grieve for what my neighbors lost. I’m conflicted, repulsed, yet drawn back all the same.
Interviewer: Have you tried to made contact with your rescuers, the Russian family?
Ms. Burns: I've been by the house but it always appears empty, like they've relocated. I'm afraid to knock on the door. I know I'll break down when I see them. It'll bring it all back. I’m not ready.
Interviewer: Have you considered talking to someone about your feelings, I mean a professional?
Ms. Burns: Yes. But I won’t unless it involves people that had Sandy experiences. People right in Midland Beach would be best.
Interviewer: Did any good come out of all this, any rainbow at the end of the horizon?
Ms. Burns: I’m closer to my family now. My daughter really stepped up and showed strength and compassion. She knows I need help now. My sister has been great. We're closer now and say “I love you” more. I look at the people I work with differently now. They are more than people I work with. They're family. When I made it to the office afterward, it was so good to be there, to be where I had things of my own, after losing everything. They embraced me. My attitude about what's important has changed.
Interviewer: Have you reflected at all on the meaning of this event in terms of your life or even in a larger sense?
Ms. Burns: I'm not real religious, but I am spiritual. I don't know whether it was an angel, a spirit or something else that took over and allowed me to survive that night. I had no fear, but when I look back, it makes me scared. I see myself in and out of the water. I never could have done that alone. Whatever it was, it kept me in a calm place and allowed me to survive. I could have been a statistic. My neighbors, Bea and Anne, died in their houses that night. Somehow I survived.
I am 60 years old and I've lost everything. But those are only things — only stuff. People are more important. People tell me I survived because God has a purpose, and maybe that's true. If it's only to be alive, and close to my family and to appreciate life, then that's enough for me.