Boarded-up houses near Midland Beach on Staten Island, N.Y. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Patterson Avenue, in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island, is just a few hundred feet from the ocean. Head southeast, climb over a small rise and you’re on the beach. That’s the appeal of living there.

In October 2012, the ocean headed for Patterson Avenue. Pushed by Tropical Storm Sandy, the waters of the Atlantic quickly covered Midland Beach and flowed over that rise on Father Capodanno Boulevard. Once over that barrier, the area around Patterson Avenue filled up like a bowl, which, in a sense, it was.


Water was eight, 10, 12 feet deep, depending on where you were. The houses were often not much taller than that in a beach community made up of a number of small bungalows. Days later, the water had fully receded, leaving behind destroyed homes, flooded basements and human bodies.

Five years later, the street not only still shows scars, it still bears open wounds. With an eye toward understanding the pace of the recovery process after a hurricane, The Post visited Patterson Avenue on Tuesday. There are 42 houses, apartment buildings and lots over a three-block stretch of the road. By our count, 25 of those structures or spaces were in use. An additional six were undergoing renovation to one degree or another. Three lots that once housed structures stood empty.

Eight buildings — nearly a fifth of the total — were standing empty. Some of those had windows covered with boards; some had specialized metal covers designed for vacant properties. Some looked like regular houses, the only indication that they were vacant being a sign in the window:

“WARNING: Home damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Not suitable for habitation.”


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Mike Dodge, 58, lives in a small bungalow around the corner from Patterson Avenue, where he grew up. His lot used to have three similar houses on it. During the Sandy storm surge, the two closest to the road were all but swept away; his house, tucked behind a larger building, survived.

It was nearly submerged, though, which Dodge didn’t realize until it was almost too late. He was at home the day of the storm, watching TV, when the power went out.

“I figured that was going to happen, you know. So I got up. I just happened to go to the front door — and there’s the ocean. Right there,” he said. He grabbed his cat and climbed the ladder to his attic. Within an hour or two, the water was to the ceiling of his first floor. All night, he stayed in the attic, listening to a nearby neighbor crying for help. Eventually, he escaped out of a window and was rescued by the fire department.

“I hated that attic,” he said, “It was a waste of space. But then when the storm [hit]? I was like, thank God!”


Dodge’s home is the small red bungalow visible in the third image above. (Google Street View)

After he escaped his house, though, things didn’t immediately get better. His car had washed away. He had nothing left and spent days just wandering the neighborhood.

The government wasn’t much help.

“These poor people, these people who just went through Harvey,” he said, “now they’ve got to deal with the government. The government was worse than the storm.”

Dodge said that he received only $5,000, despite extensive damage to the house and losing his car. “They’re going to be miserable people,” he said of Harvey victims — once they have to deal with the authorities. “They don’t know it, but they’re going to be miserable people.”

What was inspiring to Dodge was the outpouring of nongovernmental support. Politicians drove by in the days after the flooding and only looked out their windows. But the weekend after the storm, he said, thousands of volunteers showed up to donate supplies and help clean up damaged buildings.

His advice to Harvey victims, in short: “Be patient.”

A home on Patterson Avenue being rebuilt through the “Build It Back” program. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

That advice was echoed by Lyn Governale, 50. She was renting a house on Patterson while the house she owned was being rebuilt — a process that is only now nearing completion. She, too, owned a small bungalow into which she’d put a lot of work — but, unlike Dodge, her house ultimately needed to be rebuilt from scratch. (Her house was covered by the federal flood insurance program, but she also enrolled in New York City’s “Build It Back” program, designed specifically for those affected by Sandy.)

“Prepare yourself for a long haul,” Governale suggested to those who suddenly find themselves in her shoes. “Try to be patient. It’s very important to take care of yourself emotionally. You. Your family. You’ve got to get away from it every once in a while, even if it seems like you should be here doing this all the time.”

More specifically, she had advice for dealing with government officials.

“Save. Every. Receipt,” she said, with emphasis. She learned this lesson when she discovered how often she needed to provide them to the insurer or Build It Back. Also: “Document all of your conversations with officials. Any agency that you’re dealing with — if you’re dealing with FEMA and you’re dealing with Operator XYZ, document who it was and the gist of what they said to you.”

Governale outside her nearly complete home. Built by Leeward Living, it’s designed to withstand the sort of surge Sandy created. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Again: This is advice that comes after five years of working through the process, held up by indecision on how her house should be repaired or rebuilt, on slow communications between city agencies, on waiting for permitting. Asked whether she felt as though it was taking an unnecessarily long time, Governale replied, “Absolutely.” The process, she said, was “shameful” and “a massive waste of money,” especially given that the government should know how to do disaster recovery more efficiently by now.

“I tell people: Stay the course. You’re going to want to give up, but don’t,” Governale said.

Kathryn Colt, 80, lives off Patterson with her husband, who is 84. They had lived there for 35 years, and Sandy was the first time that their home flooded. So when the city recommended that their house be elevated, as so many rebuilt houses in the area are, the Colts declined. A 10-foot elevation was simply too difficult for them to manage.

Her advice to those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will sound familiar.

“There’s going to be a lot of red tape going through FEMA,” she said. “We went through a lot of hell with that.”


Colt, outside her home. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

The trouble outlined by Fredo Zapata, 65, though, was exceptional.

His house ended up nearly completely underwater. Standing on Father Capodanno Boulevard the day after, all he could see of his house was the roof. “This was a swimming pool,” he said, gesturing at the street outside.

When the water receded and he went inside, things were worse.

“I thought, like, a blender was inside my house,” he said. “The refrigerator was in the living room. The couch was in the kitchen. Everything is upside down.” A contractor told him that it would cost $100,000 for repairs, but his insurance would cover only 70 percent of the cost. When he asked FEMA for help, they declined, since he had insurance. FEMA did reimburse others nearby, he said — even though they invented lost items that didn’t exist.

It took Zapata two years to rebuild, and he’s still paying off the $30,000 balance on the cost.


Fredo Zapata’s home. The floodwaters of Sandy covered his first floor. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

When he moved back into his house when it was completed, another surprise: The city had sent a bill for $1,200 for his water service — a service that he was not able to use because his house had been destroyed by water.

Obviously exasperated, Zapata didn’t have much advice to offer — the “system needs adjustment” he said at one point — but his story is instructive. Two years for his house to be rebuilt. Colt’s house took several months — but that was without the elevation that the city recommended and, she admitted, with some work still to be done on the floors. And Governale’s house, almost done, just in time for the five-year anniversary of the storm.

In a sense, they were the lucky ones. Their houses are (or soon will be) habitable, unlike a number of houses on Patterson and nearby streets. And, of course, they survived.

Mike Dodge had been paying attention to the storms in the south and realized that Hurricane Jose might end up near the city.

“I’m getting out this time,” he said. “I think everybody will leave this time.”


The home from the image at the top of this article, a month before Sandy. (Google Street View)