Editor’s Note: We got Luis’ heartwarming story several weeks ago about his harrowing escape from Hurricane Sandy flooding, and decided to run it during the holidays for everyone to enjoy.
When we moved to the Shades section of Weehawken in the summer of 2011, we did so because of the quiet atmosphere and the proximity to New York City. As time progressed, we got to know some of our neighbors, but for the most part, on Oct. 29, 2012, we still didn’t know many of the residents in this area.
That was the day Hurricane Sandy hit.
There was a foot patrol that came by earlier to let us know that we could move our cars to a parking garage provided by the town. After speaking with my wife, we decided to move her car to the parking garage and keep mine out front.
On my way back, I noticed a group of men walking in the street who seemed to be talking to all residents. They seemed to be in charge of something, but being new to town, I was unsure who they were. As I walked by, one of the men, a purposeful fellow with neatly combed white hair, loudly said, “Hey make sure you move your car to the garage just in case.”
I realized he was talking to me, and not knowing who he was, I told him that I’d just moved my wife’s car but we were keeping my car out front. I told him we had a newborn in the house (one month old) and if things started to look bad, I needed to transport them quickly.
He asked me where I lived. After I told him, he said, “Listen, if things get bad, I’ll come get you out... you should move your car.”
I still remember thinking, Yeah right, who in the world is this guy? Superman? The only person that will be responsible for my family getting out will be myself.
However, something about his concern made me decide that at least I’d move my car a little further to higher ground. My thinking was that as soon as I spotted any trouble, I’d run get my car, and get going. Now I should mention that after Hurricane Irene and speaking with some longtime residents, my idea of trouble in our area was downed trees and power outages. Perhaps the street around the corner would flood since it had in the past and we’d need to drive in an alternate direction.
I never in a million years expected even one-tenth of what happened.
Fast forward to around 8 p.m. It seemed to me like the worst of the storm had passed and we were in the clear. I’d been walking outside periodically checking to see if there was any flooding where I expected there might be some. Compared to Irene, it seemed to me like there was actually less flooding in the spot I was using as a reference point. I came back inside and noticed that my wife and baby had fallen asleep. My son, Nicholas, was only one month old at the time, so you can imagine that sleep was not something we were getting much of.
The water rises…
I sat down for like 10 minutes, watched more of the news, and noticed the reports started getting much worse. This was especially worrisome because it seemed to be in all the areas much closer to us. I went outside again and this time there was water much closer than for Irene. The weird thing was that it didn’t seem too deep, but it was much closer than was comfortable.
I woke up my wife and told her that I might be overreacting, but that I thought it was best to leave now. She got up and started to get last-minute things for the baby. Sensing that she wasn’t moving fast enough I told her that she should go take a look outside. She went outside and came back crying in less than 10 seconds. This surprised me, and I remember telling her, “Hey, it’s not that bad, I just wanted you to move faster.” She informed me that the water was now only a couple houses down.
I couldn’t believe it had moved that fast and this got us into crisis mode.
As we really started running around trying to gather everything, there was a loud banging on our door. I opened the door and who was standing there? Superman, aka the loud guy from before!
He said, “Guys, the water is moving really fast. We have a truck outside for you and you need to leave now.”
I said okay, let’s go, and my wife said in a panic, “What about Johnny [our cat]?”
I can’t type what I remember thinking at that exact moment, but knowing what it takes to stay happily married, I muttered something like, “Oh yeah,” and quickly tried to find the cat.
Now the guy looked really worried and he said a bit louder and with more force, “We have to leave now.” I remember telling my wife, “Leave now, I’ll find the cat, and I’ll catch up to you in a few minutes.” My wife nodded with huge tears in her eyes but didn’t move, and instead said, “I can’t leave my husband, I can’t leave my cat!”
The man responded in a much louder and forceful voice, “Your husband will catch up to us, and lady, your cat will outlive us all, now move!” With that they both left and I kept looking for the cat.
An unwelcome visitor
The water came in quickly. Within 15 minutes I had about three feet of water in our apartment. Within 25 minutes it was almost five feet deep and we had lost pretty much all our possessions.
I found the cat, scrambled up the stairs to my neighbors’ apartment, and was able to join my wife hours later when our amazing Fire Department came by in rescue boats and took me to dry land.
It took me a few hours to fully process what had just happened. When I finally did, I remember feeling very thankful to have my family alive and safe.
I also felt very scared about our immediate future. We had a newborn (our first) and we had just lost our home and all our possessions. We had prepared for our son for almost a year, and just like that all the diapers, formula, baby clothing, crib, etc., were gone. I remember being in a complete daze and trying to plan the steps to attack this problem. It seemed so overwhelming and impossible.
Then, little by little, a miracle took place.
This amazing town of Weehawken and this incredible “Shades” community started to come alive. It was like a small whisper that gained strength until it was a roar. I’ll never know exactly how, but suddenly it seemed like everyone knew of our situation.
Little by little, the offers of help started to pour in. Before long, we had formula, baby clothing, and diapers to get us through the next few days. Then it was enough for the next week. Before long I realized that Nicholas and my family were not alone and that we had been clearly adopted by this community. Perhaps they didn’t know exactly who we were but everyone it seemed wanted to help and little by little we had everything we could possibly need for Nicholas.
It was such a blessing to us and helped my family in a way that I will never be able to fully express. The relief of knowing that one of our immediate needs had been met allowed me to move forward and focus on the rest of the issues.
It was around this time that I discovered that, “Superman” was actually Mayor Richard Turner and that in fact as it turns out, he was, well, actually really Superman. I can’t tell you how much it meant to my family or to this community to have him as our leader during this time. All the news coming in from the state was bad and overwhelming, and yet it seemed that the mayor and his team knew exactly what they needed to do. They moved efficiently and with purpose.
It would be impossible for me to list all the things that they did right during this troubling time or how much it meant to my family, but it’s clear when you compare how other communities responded that we were lucky to have the leadership in place that we did.
The rest of the story takes place over the course of almost the entire year. We didn’t get to move back home until the end of June and didn’t completely finish rebuilding until the end of September.
As amazing as Mayor Turner was during the initial crisis period, his people like Gio Ahmad were just as essential during the time it took us to rebuild our lives. He was always available to us when we needed anything and although I’m sure the amount of pressure he was under must have been high, Gio not only handled himself with poise and grace, but also treated us with respect and dignity.
More than anything, my family and I want to say thank you to everyone that has taken part in our personal recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Without our friends and family this would have been an impossible task but equally as important to us was the township of Weehawken.
It’s not possible for us to mention everyone specifically who helped us over the course of the year but we’d like to point some groups out. The Shades community and the many volunteers from throughout Weehawken that manned the community center and provided us with hot meals, clothing, all the baby essentials we could use, and more than anything, hope. The DPW crews that worked tirelessly to help clean up the neighborhood in the immediate aftermath. Our police officers, amazing fire fighters, and emergency service personnel. The Weehawken Housing Authority, the great employees who work at Potter Place (Frank and Neil), and all the wonderful residents of 2-4 Potter Place who welcomed us with open arms and made us feel immediately at home.
Councilwoman Rosemary J. Lavagnino visited with us immediately after we moved in to Potter Place and then again with Christmas gifts for Nicholas. Frank Tattoli and the entire building department staff. Last but certainly not least, both Gio Ahmad and Mayor Turner, both of whom have been there by our side since day one and saw this thing through until we finally finished. We are forever grateful to you both.
To the entire Weehawken community, from Luis, Vanessa, Nicholas Argueta, and Johnny, my family and I are forever in your debt.