On Oct. 29 of last year, as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast, Michael Motherway and Jennifer Schanker debated evacuating. Their nearly 90-year-old 1,200-square-foot house on New York City's Staten Island was eight blocks from the water, and city officials were warning residents to leave the block or, better yet, to leave the island.
In the end, Motherway, a heating and air conditioning technician, and Schanker, an assistant in the trust department of a Manhattan bank, remained. The evacuation wasn't mandatory, they reasoned, and the couple had heard similar warnings in anticipation of Hurricane Irene a year earlier, only to suffer no more damage than a few broken tree branches.
Motherway and Schanker, his partner of six years, figured they were far enough away from the beach to withstand this storm relatively unscathed too. The couple had plenty of company: Most of their neighbors decided to stay put as well.
As the day turned into evening, and the winds picked up, Motherway walked to the beach for a firsthand look. He came back around 7:30, reporting that the surf was impressive but that everything else seemed normal. Tired of the drumbeat of TV news, the couple switched channels, hoping to distract their 1-year-old daughter, Adriana. She fell asleep watching a movie about Alvin and the Chipmunks stranded at sea.
Around 8:15 p.m., Schanker heard a neighbor scream. Looking through the window, Schanker saw a woman jump out of a red hatchback that had been driving the wrong way down their one-way street, leaving the car door open as she ran toward the neighbor. Then the woman appeared to panic and reverse course, heading back to the car, just as two waves of seawater rushed down the avenue, one from either side.
Schanker watched, horrified, as water filled the car's interior through the open door, forcing the driver to once again abandon it. Schanker never learned what happened to the woman but recalls, at that moment, "I knew we were trapped."
Within minutes the water outside their house was several feet high. Frantically, Motherway and Schanker began moving their belongings to the second floor. By 9 p.m., the water level had reached eight feet. "The sea filled the world outside like a bathtub filled with water," Schanker says. "We were literally in the ocean. Waves crashed against our house."
As Schanker held her daughter, now awake and crying, the electricity went out, leaving the three of them huddled together on the second floor, the wind outside howling. Downstairs, they could hear pieces of furniture crashing together, the washer and dryer hitting each other. "We're going to drown here, aren't we?" Schanker asked Motherway.
Instead, around midnight, just before the rising water hit the second floor, it leveled off, then began slowly receding. The next morning the couple was able to wade through hip-deep water to safety, Adriana in Schanker's arms.
Their home, though, was in ruins -- one of more than 60,000 damaged in New York City that night. "Everything left on the first floor was destroyed -- the couches, the boiler, the electrical panel, washer, refrigerator, tables," says Motherway. There was structural damage too. The water warped the walls and caved in the flooring; part of the fence was swept out to sea.
Before it finally broke aparton land, Sandy would become the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, exacting nearly $70 billion in damages across 24 states. Of that total, $19 billion was in New York City, where the transit system was crippled and more than 1 million people were left without power.
The storm hit Staten Island with particular brutality, causing mass flooding and killing 24 people (286 died in all). Power outages lasted into January. A year later an estimated 27,000 on the island and throughout the New York/New Jersey area are still unable to return to their homes.
Count Motherway, 43, and Schanker, 37, in that group. The couple have spent the past year working with insurers and government agencies trying to come up with the money to rebuild their house. But the roughly $95,000 that insurers have paid out in claim