WASHINGTON,D.C. (WUSA) - If watching the footage of Sandy's wrath feels like a punch in the gut, it was for me too. Two friends, Diane Schutz and Allegra Dweck, and I collected money and supplies and handed them out in Staten Island Sunday, November 11th.
But this story isn't about us, it's about survival, perseverance and the inextinguishable spirit of those who lived through hell, and one who didn't.
85-year-old WWII veteran Jimmy Rossi lived in a 1-story bungalow in the Ocean Breeze section. His niece Arlene Hague says he was found dead, days later, behind his home."The surge took him out. He was a tough cookie, he was a tough man..I don't think he thought that, nobody thought this was gonna happen and he didn't I guess he figured he was here his whole life, and as my cousin said at his wake, he determined how he was going to go out."
Hague, her daughter and just about every family member who lives on the island lost their homes. The only warm place they'd seen in two weeks was the funeral home for Rossi's wake.
Anthony Gatti lived in an apartment in his parent's home in the Ocean Breeze neighborhood. When Sandy struck, water rose quickly. Anthony's dad texted him, asking him to check on his brother three miles away. Gatti started driving towards his brother's home, and the roads were already flooding. In a matter of minutes, one foot of water turned into three, and the car was floating. Anthony escaped. The water was chest-high. In moments, it was up to his neck.
He swam to his brother's home, trying desperately to find him. He tried the door. It was locked. He called his brother's cell. It went straight to voicemail. He started screaming his brother's name. He noticed lights flickering near his brother's car and dove off the back deck into the water to find his brother trapped inside his car. The car was full of water, save for an inch of air at the top. Anthony tried repeatedly to open the car door, but it wouldn't budge. Finally, after several tries, he managed to open it, grab his brother and pull him up to the deck, the whole time fearing they would be electrocuted by nearby downed power lines.
The two brothers spent a terrifying night and morning in the house, dodging danger and moving debris, waiting out the treacherous storm. At 6 am, Anthony sent his father a text, that read in part, "Love you dad so, so much and you know I would never compromise my baby bro's life. I will always protect him. It looks like the water is receding, but the house is so unstable, that's all I am worried about. I'm really scared, Dad, but our survival instincts kick in and you know me, I can make it."
The two brothers were rescued the next day by police boat. They survived. So did their parents. But, their homes didn't. Gatti lost everything he owned. He's now living in a tent, sourced by Three Ladies Helping Staten Island, on what used to be the home's front lawn.
Allegra Dweck, one of Three Ladies, keeps in touch with Gatti almost daily. Below are excerpts of some of Gatti's communications.
Friday, November 16
"Thanks for helping to keep hope alive and your encouraging words. It's still hard to comprehend, I guess because I am a New Yorker and we are really not used to our own being so kind and showing this kind of support. What I mean is that you don't even know me or my family, you do now , but before all this you didn't even know us from Adam, but yet you and your friends have personally reached out and took your time and energy to help to make our lives a little easier and more comfortable."
Wednesday, November 14
"I sometimes wonder if the man upstairs purposely directs our lives to restore character, maybe faith, or our hearts. There are so many people that were affected by this storm, and me and my family are just a few, but you guys walked into our lives and offered help that none of us are really used to. We have all Been very self-sufficient and we prided ourselves on our independence and integrity - as a family and as an individual. Then, we get hit with Mother Nature and a complete 180-degree life change occurs in a matter of minutes. I have really tried to hold it together, for my mom primarily, because my dad, I think, is still in the denial stage, but being a rock for another leaves myself completely vulnerable and over the last 24 hours, I have been feeling like I am falling apart at the seams.
"It's the ones such as yourself as your friends that have allowed me to keep hope alive. Like when I am shoveling sand from my driveway, it feels as if I am doing something but not getting anywhere. I don't know if I am making any sense but I guess I am trying to just express myself, and I do appreciate you reading and encouraging me. You have no idea how that helps. Or maybe you do. Another case in point is FEMA. I applied for assistance because I rented from my parents and lost literally everything I owned along with them. FEMA denied me rental assistance for their own reasons. That does not make any sense to me. How is a person supposed to pick themselves up and try to start over if the government will refuse to help.
"I do not know of any private organizations or individuals that may offer financial help at the time of need for someone like myself. I know of a few that will take an application that can take weeks if not longer to help, but that is just too long a wait. If you know of any one that can help in that area with living expenses, please let me know because it is so needed, at least for myself at this time. My parents will be afforded assistance for their needs but they refuse to provide me with any, I believe, because we share the same address. I gave them all the information as far as my living arrangements and my rental agreement with them, I just do not get it. I feel like a man on the corner holding out a can about now, well not literally, but it's just that I never once in my adult life had to ask for help like this. You guys have been a godsend and I do really appreciate your love and support."
Wednesday, November 14
"I really do appreciate the offer to find us a place to stay but the reality is that we are going to need to stay in the property to protect whatever we have left. There has been a lot of homes being looted and people taking anything that is not nailed down. We pretty much lost over 95 percent of what we had, give or take, but whatever we were able to save is under tarps. It's all we have left of our memories from 32 years in our home, and it would be pretty sad to see someone just help themselves. I have had so much time to think and reflect on my life almost 45 years and I think about all I have done, 8 yrs in the army, learning my trade as an electrician, the places I have been, third-world countries with so much sadness and poverty, I helped as much as I could wherever I could and however I could, but I never once gave thought to me being on that same side.
It is a very humbling experience. "
Saturday, November 17
"Today my dad and I, along with 25 soldiers, were able to get our garage roof off from the neighbor's yard, and whatever contents floated over there as well. We will be here all day, as well as tomorrow together. And then I will be flying solo again because dad has to go back to work. But I am sure I can find some people who will help me from time to time getting the rest of the stuff to the curb. I can't believe how nice the weather has been to us lately. It's nice not to freeze during the day, while trying to get some stuff done. I really can't wait for you to meet my dad. I told him all about you and your friends and how you have been my rock since I have met you."
Sunday, November 18
"I am actually starting to see some results as far as cleaning up the place. I can actually see the driveway now. I'm just clearing away a spot where I can place the tent and whatever supplies I have gathered. I sometimes, well most of the time, get really choked up like when I go to a funeral and I just look around me in disbelief, then I get a reality check and start doing whatever it was I was doing."
We collected money and handed out $4000 in cash and supplies. If you would like to donate, please visit www.facebook.com/ThreeLadiesHelpingStatenIsland