Epic Trip: From Breezy To Roxbury
Despite mandatory evacuation orders being in place, Breezy Point resident Mari Ellen Mack had no plans of leaving her home during Hurricane Sandy. However she also wasn’t expecting a mass fire to tear through her neighborhood. October 29th, 2012 would be the last day she would spend in her house.
Mack, like many residents, did what she could to prepare for the storm. Expecting to lose electricity, she bought proper supplies including logs for her fireplace, filled her cooler, set up pumps in her basement, cooked herself a meal that would last a few days, charged her electronics, walked her dog, even took some time to color her hair, knowing that it might be a while before she would be able to do so again. “I was prepared,” Mack said.
Having dealt with several severe weather situations while living on a boat for nine years of her life, Mack wasn’t too worried about the impending superstorm and if it was anything like Hurricane Irene, Sandy wasn’t going to be such a big deal, “Water wasn’t an issue for me,” she said.
Yet even she was surprised when the surge came rolling through. After receiving a phone call from a friend, Mack looked outside at around 6:30 p.m. to see the oncoming ocean’s attack. “Water was coming down Gotham Walk like the Amazon. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was dry and then in a second, there was a flash flood of ocean,” she recalled.
Mack later heard a window break and went down into her basement to try to block it with a piece of furniture. With seven feet of water in her basement, Mack says she fought her way through floating debris to block the window, but eventually knew that trying to fight the water was a lost cause. “I thought I was going to die in the basement,” she recalled, adding that the water was filling the basement to the ceiling as her belongings floated all around her. “There’s nothing else I can do. I’m done,” she said to herself.
She retreated back upstairs and took her dog Jeter upstairs to ride out the rest of the storm throughout the night. However she wouldn’t spend much time there. “I looked outside and that’s when I saw fire,” she said. “I saw a big ball of orange flames, two blocks away. I opened the door, and the wind was so brutal and the embers were already coming towards the back of the house,” Mack said. “I can do water, I can’t do fire.”
Mack says she might have stuck around a little longer if she didn’t have her Shihpoo Jeter to worry about. “He saved my life. If it wasn’t for him, I would have hung around longer, but I knew I had to carry him out,” she said.
She says that at the time, she didn’t consider that her house might not be there when she came back. “The smoke was so intense because of the wind. It’s smoke that kills you, not the fire,” she said. “I was annoyed. I figured my clothes were going to smell, the house was going to smell, the bed was going to smell like smoke.”
Mack left everything behind when she left a little after 9 p.m. She remembers every piece of jewelry that she had left on her vanity, including special pieces that belonged to her mother and grandmother. She would never get to wear them again. Although she didn’t take the time to grab anything besides her dog, she did think to write her social security number on different parts of her body in case something were to happen to her as she entered the floodwater. She suited Jeter up in a lifejacket and left everything behind.
Mack says she started walking through chest-high water and came across a house full of kids who were having a hurricane party. They asked her to come in and join, not knowing what was going on behind their house. She told them that Breezy was on fire and urged them to leave. They didn’t believe her until they looked out a window in the back. “The whole sky was orange,” Mack said. She linked arms with the group of revelers, held her dog Jeter on her shoulder, and headed back into chaotic night.
“It took us two hours to get to the main road, which usually takes about eight minutes,” Mack explained. She said that trying to walk in a line of people with the wind blowing embers and smoke around, made the usually short trip more difficult. Moving quicker didn’t help. “The water was chest high. If you walked faster, it wound up in your mouth,” she said.
Despite having to deal with the deep water, floating debris, and strong wind blowing smoke and embers around, Mack said she wasn’t scared throughout the ordeal. “I don’t know if it was survival mode, shock or whatever. I didn’t feel upset. I just felt that I had to keep going,” she said. “The only thing I was worried about was electrical wires. You could hear snapping and crackling behind you. I thought, ‘What is it going to feel like to be electrocuted?’” she said. “I turned around only once. I thought the fire would hit one or two houses. I had no idea what was going on. I just kept walking towards the road.”
She stopped by St. Thomas More church at some point after midnight. At that point the water had started receding and was down to waist level. Mack said the church was black and full of water, but she wasn’t alone. Several Breezy residents gathered at the space.
She bumped into some neighbors who let her know just how bad the situation back on Gotham Walk was. They had left their home a little while after she did. “They looked at me and just shook their heads,” she said. “I shook my head but I didn’t know why.” “All of it?” she said to her neighbors. “Everything,” they replied. At that point, Mack knew she would never see her home again.
She spent about 45 minutes at the church. She was told by police that they were transporting people to a homeless shelter in Hillside. “I wasn’t going to a homeless center. I didn’t know if they would take the dog and I didn’t know how I’d get back,” she said. She decided that she would go to Roxbury to her partner Bob’s house, thinking that the destruction couldn’t have been as bad on the bayside of the peninsula.
She asked the police if they could drop her off by Roxbury. At that point, she found that not everyone was very friendly. “The cop said, ‘We’re not a bus service,’” she recalled. Shocked by his rude response, but still determined to move on, Mack continued on her mission to get to Roxbury by foot, while still holding on to Jeter.
When she got to the Silver Gull, another cop came around. She asked them for a ride and they dropped her off closer to Roxbury. The water was up to her calf at that point. Despite making it to Roxbury, she quickly found that getting to Bob’s house wouldn’t be easy. “I tried a million different ways of getting into Roxbury. Everything had collapsed,” she said. She tried different routes but would come across a fallen tree that was blocking a route, mangled decks, or parts of homes that had collapsed.
She managed to get to the beach and eventually to Bob’s house, which had the windows blown out and was completely flooded. “I tried to open the door and it wouldn’t open. I hit it really hard and everything came flying out,” she recalled. Bob had awoken with the noise and said “Who’s there,” Mack said. “It’s me and Jeter,” she replied. It was 4:40 a.m.
Before going to stay with a friend in Staten Island, Mack went back to Breezy Point the next day to look for her home. “I couldn’t find my house. The Gotham pole was still standing, which was crazy because there was nothing around it. Everything was just incinerated,” she said.
She was able to figure out which burnt lot was once her home when she found a piece of her upstairs bathroom tile on top of a piece of her downstairs bathroom tile. “I lost everything I owned. Everything,” Mack said.
Mack spent several months living with family friends in Staten Island and Brooklyn before renting an apartment in Bergen Beach. She recently picked out a modular home, which her contractor says should be done by Thanksgiving, but she isn’t holding them to that. “If I’m in by New Year’s, I’ll be happy,” she said.
In a way, Mack thinks Sandy gave her a new chance at life. “The ocean came in and wiped my life out, which was a good life, but it’s given me a new life. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose,” she said on losing all of her belongings. “I don’t have to worry about anything anymore. It’s nice not having anything to worry about.”
On October 29th, 2013, Mack will spend the night on her empty lot on Gotham Walk. She rented a tent, bought a sleeping bag and plans to sleep on her foundation. As a symbolic message, Mack’s plan is a way to say “this is what has happened in a year.”