Sandy and Yolanda: Storms of Memory

Robin Hemley
Dec 3rd, 2013

The news of Yolanda triggered in me a delayed reaction to Sandy, another super storm a year earlier, which hit Long Beach, Long Island directly and devastated the small barrier island where my grandmother had a beach house and where I spent all my summers from infancy to the age of eighteen.  But I have memories of Tacloban, too, though not as vivid as those of Long Beach.  I spent a night there a few years ago on my return from the town of Balangiga in Samar, where I was researching a story for The Wall Street Journal.   What rises up out memory in Tacloban is a street named after Imelda Marcos, one of Leyte’s most famous citizens, my budget hotel, a restaurant I dined in, the bridge to  the island of Samar, campaign signs and banners hanging across streets, the typical whine of tricycles you can hear in practically every provincial town in the Philippines. 

My ties to Long Beach are so much deeper in memory – I spent just about every summer from a little after daybreak until dinner time on that beach, body surfing, skimboarding, out of the water when sharks were sighted or someone drowned, in the water when the red flags were replaced by green.  My friend Tommy Alfazy died on that beach when the sand fort he and my friend Vince built collapsed and smothered him.  He was ten and so was I, but I’ve never forgotten him or the beach on which this tragedy occurred.  Long Beach was not only where my grandmother lived, but all my relatives, it seemed, had beach houses in this middle class vacation spot, forty-five minutes (changing trains at Jamaica, Queens) from Manhattan, the city of my great aunts and uncles’ nightmares in the big, bad sixties and seventies. 

I knew Long Beach as well as I knew anywhere in the world.  So why did it take me a year before I woke up to the storm that devastated it?

All of my relatives who had lived in Long Beach or once had vacation homes there are long dead.  First, my great Aunt Frances in a car wreck.  Then my great uncle Morty’s wife Jane from a freak infection.  Then Morty, my grandmother, my uncle Alan – all the old places sold – the stucco houses with their flower gardens, my relatives gossiping, playing canasta, pausing their conversations when a jet from JFK flew over.  The last time I was there, in 2000, I briefly visited my ninety-year-old great aunt Carrie and an old friend of the family who was in the hospital.  That was the last time I saw any of them.  Carrie passed away a few years later. 

Memory seems as fragile the porcelain Chinese dogs that guarded my aunt Renny’s fireplace – keep the kids away, don’t handle them please.  Bound as we are to shatter someday in the inevitable calamities of our lives, we imagine that our cherished places will survive past us, past memory. As a child, I glanced often across the street from the beach house at an empty lot where a house had one stood, the stuff of nightmares for a child, the house carried away whole (according to my grandmother) and out to sea “when the ocean met the bay.”  A phrase redolent with all that I feared and was drawn to as a child, I imagined every house covered past its roof, the whole island a mini-Atlantis, and one house carried off completely, inhabitants inside, the East Coast version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy carried in this version to meet The Little Mermaid. 

In 1975, we were told to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Belle, due to hit our little barrier island head on.  Cars with loudspeakers urging calm in an ominous voice prowled the streets while I and the rest of my family tried to convince my reluctant grandmother to leave, afraid as she was that someone would break in while she was gone.  Eventually, she relented and we moved to a hotel inland, but the storm veered away from Long Beach and weakened considerably, hitting our hotel with its last paltry breath, some light monsoon rains.  But you can never tell with such things, what will fizzle and what will be ruinous.

I knew that Sandy, when it hit, caused catastrophic damage on the Eastern seaboard, and right after, I emailed many of my friends in the area to make sure they’d come through safely.  My thoughts for Long Beach were in passing, curious how the beach town of my childhood fared but no personal stake in the matter any longer. 

I’m not sure why Yolanda/Haiyan triggered in me a desire to visit Long Beach, but it did.  I spent much of the past three months in the U.S., and when I happened to mention to my literary agent that I wanted to visit Long Beach, she surprised me by saying she’d be happy to drive me there.  I’m still rather stunned by her kindness – but I took her up on her offer, and so one morning I took the train from New Haven, Connecticut to Penn Station and met Kathy, who had parked her car nearby, for the drive to Long Beach.  I prepared myself for the worst – empty lots like the one I had seen from my grandmother’s window growing up, whole blocks washed away. 

I often visit Long Beach in my dreams.  Usually, I’m driving through the streets of memory, or taking a bus through the empty streets full of small but pleasant stucco houses dating from the 1940s, familiar but strange.  The town has had an odd afterlife in my own life, popping up occasionally as if to simply remind me that it still exists, that apparently we have unfinished business between us.  My dreams of Long Beach usually end with me driving towards the Atlantic Beach Bridge, which connects it with the rest of Long Island, though I never actually reach the bridge in my dreams. 

This time, I was coming the other way, and when we drove over the bridge, I glanced at the wetlands and the waters of Long Island Sound, where my uncle Alan used to take me on his sailboat to fish during these long summers.  I knew that that not everything would be the same – even without a monster storm, that would have been the case.  The boardwalk had collapsed.  I knew that.  And many houses had been destroyed. The sound of buzz saws and hammers punctuated the air, but the place as a whole was largely intact.  We walked over the reconstructed hump of a dune to the beach where we could see for miles, the empty expanse unruffled in either direction, broken only by the jetties that separated one beach from another.  New houses with new roofs lined the beach and we marveled at the pace of reconstruction.  People had suffered here, yes, property had been lost, but almost everything looked better than before, better at least than I remembered.

And that made me think of Tacloban.  A year from now, what would Tacloban look like, I wondered?  As well as much of the rest of Leyte, Samar and other devastated portions of the Central Philippines – what about them?   There won’t be any insurance for the residents whose lives have been destroyed by Yolanda, allowing them to rebuild bigger and better.   What kind of place will Tacloban be in a year, in five years, in twenty?  It won't even fare as well as New Orleans after Katrina, I’m afraid.  My wife’s uncle and some cousins, who live on Panay Island, lost their new house in Yolanda as well as all their fish ponds, including a brand new fish hatchery.  In many ways I feel less of an outsider to Yolanda than I am to Sandy.

25 Kentucky Street.  My grandmother’s house.  This was my goal.  I just wanted to see if it had survived.   This house, too, had been wrecked, but not by storms.  By renters.  By neglect.  My grandmother’s gardens all gone, the stucco wall around her gardens partly removed to accommodate two hulking minivans, the earth beneath them bald.  A cat stared at us from a window, which mysteriously, still had storm tape cris-crossing it, as though the storm had just happened, as if it was yet expected, or unceasing.  But it was a sunny day, not a cloud in the sky.  We walked around the outside of the house and my agent snapped my photo in front of a one-way sign that had featured in one of my books, a photo of me in my Atlantic Beach Day Camp tee shirt beneath a similar one-way sign. 

I wished that someone would take better care of my grandmother’s house.  I fantasized as one does about buying back the house and restoring it to its former dignity.  I fantasized about the next storm ripping my grandmother’s house from its foundation, and floating it all the way to the Philippines. 

Tags: 
Yolanda
Haiyan
Long Beach

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Robin Hemley
Singapore
Last blog date: Dec 3rd, 2013

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