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Emotional Trauma Part Of Hurricane Sandy's Lasting Damage


Let's talk about human resilience because a less-visible effect of Sandy is the mental and emotional toll. That's especially true in Ocean Breeze, Staten Island, which suffered the highest death rate from the storm. Here's Jim O'Grady, of our member station WNYC.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: Until last October, Santo and Gale Lisa had spent 30 dry years in their house on Oceanview Avenue. But then Sandy pushed a white-capped surge of water down their street.

SANTO LISA: That's how fast it came in - boom, boom.

O'GRADY: Santo ran outside. He heard a voice from across the street.

SANTO LISA: I'm standing on my back deck, and I'm hearing her: Please help me.

O'GRADY: The cry was coming from a house down the hill. He recognized it as the voice of Diane Norris, a 65-year-old woman who lived with her 89-year-old mother, Ella Norris.

SANTO LISA: Now, it's dark and she's saying: Please help me. And I'm saying: Where are you at? So, she showed me her flashlight.

O'GRADY: Santo was less than 100 yards away, but separated by a rush of water 12 feet deep.

SANTO LISA: I says, you know what? I'm going to get you help, if I can't get there. So I called 9-1-1, at least five times. And they kept on telling me: We're going to get somebody there. We're going to get somebody. I says, listen, I'm a fireman. I know what's going on here. I says, I cannot get to her, no matter what. You need a boat. You need a helicopter or something. This woman's going to die. They never got here.

O'GRADY: The water was now pushing up through the floorboards, so Santo and Gale climbed up to their second-floor bedroom. They later found out that Diane and Ella Norris spent the night clinging to each other as the water rose around them in their dark living room. Before dawn, Ella told Diane: I can't do this anymore, and died in her daughter's arms.

SANTO LISA: The mother was 89, and I'm pretty sure that water was cold as ice. At 89 years old, I don't think you have the same resistance.

O'GRADY: A neighbor rescued Diane from her house the next day. She has since moved about an hour north of New York City.

DIANE NORRIS: It's almost a year, and I miss her like the same day it happened. I miss her like crazy. My heart is still broken.

O'GRADY: She's still recovering from the trauma. And so are Gale and Santo, who are burdened by survivors' guilt and anger at the wreckage brought by the storm. For weeks, Gale would find herself sitting outside her house, crying. But when someone tried to comfort her...

GALE LISA: I would just lash out and, you know, I was like, a wreck. And I was more like ranting and carrying on. And I was mad at everything and everybody.

O'GRADY: Right after Sandy, the couple moved in with her sister while their house was repaired. That's when Gale sought counseling.

GALE LISA: I do group. I do one-on-one. I'm on medication. I'm doing much better. I don't cry every day anymore, and I'm laughing a little bit more. So I'm grateful for that.

O'GRADY: She's not alone. A Gallup survey showed that clinical diagnoses of depression increased 25 percent in ZIP codes most affected by Sandy. A few weeks ago, in Ocean Breeze, Gale and Santo gathered with their neighbors for a memorial service at the end of their block. A small, stone marker was placed in the ground, flanked by flowers and American flags. Engraved on the marker were two names: James Rossi, a neighbor who also drowned in the storm; and Ella Norris. Diane Norris was there.

GALE LISA: It was an honor to be honored that way, for my mother - with the stone; and the guards, with their rifles; and all of people; and the politicians. It was a beautiful, beautiful memory.

O'GRADY: The neighbors will gather again today on a boardwalk, to help dedicate a memorial to all 23 Staten Islanders who died in Superstorm Sandy.

For NPR News in New York, I'm Jim O'Grady. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim O'Grady
Jim O'Grady is a contributor to NPR's Planet Money podcast.