Since Sandy: Our 10-Year Voyage

The house New York Rising built. Photo by Lauren Chenault.

By Shoshanna McCollum

Autumn, 2016

My husband John and I are sitting in a dreary municipal office room in Mineola, New York – the municipal seat of Nassau County. It has been a long journey that brought us here.

Superstorm Sandy was not long ago. My memories of packing a night bag with medication, cash, clean underwear, a camera and my computer hard-drive with shaking hands as water pooled around my legs inside our ramshackle beach cottage four years before were still fresh. Yet the memory of sitting in a Patchogue diner the following year, with pale faces and being unable to eat our food, felt like ages ago.

The overwhelming melon pink color scheme of that diner fatigued our eyes. A half-hour before we had been handed the largest single check either of us had ever seen in our lives by the government agency known as New York Rising. We were informed their inspectors deemed our lacey 106-year-old house was not feasible for elevation, and further told us this award would build us a new home. We were in shock.

New York Rising was an initiative conceived by former Governor Andrew Cuomo to centralize storm recovery and rebuilding efforts within in the state. Why did we qualify for this program? Yes, our property had sustained significant damage. We were also year-round residents of Fire Island, neither too rich nor too poor and this was our only home – their perfect demographic. It did not hurt that we looked like Ma and Pa Kettle sitting in that Patchogue office being screened by our first case worker in late 2013. John slim with his long white beard, me plump and 12 years his junior. 

When that check was presented to us in early 2014 John knit his brow in confusion.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” he exclaimed. “I just replaced the windows and upgraded the electric, and now you are saying we have to demolish the house?”

It was then that I grabbed his hand and thanked the case worker as I led him out of that office before he said anything that might make the case worker change her mind about that check.

“They want to tear our house down,” John said in an anguished voice inside that diner.

“Try and see this as an opportunity,” I did my best to say reassuringly.

Naive as we both were, we knew that check was not sufficient to build a new house on Fire Island. The building contractors we knew confirmed our suspicions. Plus, neither of us even knew where to begin.

The next two years were a dizzying array of paperwork, reassigned case workers, false starts and dashed hopes. New York Rising building inspectors would come by every once in a while, and their different personalities would set the tempo on how that day’s inspection experience went.

“You should just drop out of the program,” said one of them as he eyeballed the interior of our house in disgust while wearing multiple ID badges around his neck like army dog tags. Another was friendly – too friendly – I came home to find him emerging from our outdoor shower with a towel wrapped around his waist. I still don’t know what that was all about.

Periodically we would get calls from our mortgage holder asking if we had rebuilt our house yet. They were eager to disperse the flood insurance money they were holding in escrow for us.


Spring 2016

The clock was ticking. We had friends also living on Fire Island who had completed their New York Rising rebuilds, but our project continued to languish. Over that time our house had taken on water from multiple seasonal floods and storms since Sandy. Each time this happened the structure looked ever more fragile.

Knowing this could not go on, I made a call my old boss – the former administrator of Ocean Beach Village Joseph Saladino and told him our story.

“Prefabricated homes have a lot of advantages Shoshanna,” Joe offered. “That might be your answer.”

He recommended a company based down south and suggested I call them to see if they could connect us to Long Island based contractors that worked with them. The company recommended a fellow in the Hamptons.

“I’m a disabled veteran who has plenty of time to fill out New York Rising paperwork,” the gentleman said cheerfully. “Send me your project budget and let me see what I can do.”

Did we just have a breakthrough?

John and I were giddy as we looked at the various prefabricated houses this company had on their website. One bore a resemblance to our present house – except this new version would be up to code. Sadly, that pipe dream ended abruptly with a grim phone call only days later.

“I’m sorry Mrs. McCollum but I can’t make this budget work,” the contractor said. “The cost of barging the house over to Fire Island would not leave me enough money to pay my people.”

This kind of disappointment was not new. Politely thanking the prospective builder for their time after being delivered the bad news had become habit by now. This time however I took a slightly different approach.

“Can you please send me what you just said in writing on your letterhead?” I asked.

He obliged, and that letter became our key out of this mess.

Autumn 2016

So now here we were, sitting in a dusty office in Mineola being evaluated by a team of three people – a woman and two men.

The letter transferred us into another program called Recon100, a subsection of New York Rising. It was sort of a remedial program for people like us who could not get it together. It was the program of last resort.

“Okay, this is how it will work,” said the woman named Kelly as she described the program. “You will transfer your grant award and insurance settlement to us, we in turn will build you a complete house under New York State contract. Understand this will be a basic house. There will be no granite countertops or hardwood floors – you will however get Formica countertops and linoleum floors. Do you understand?

Like obedient children John and I shook our heads in agreement.

For the next hour John spoke amicably with one of the men named Mr. Gonzalez. At least John seemed at ease. I was quiet for the most part, as was the other gentleman named Dominick who just appeared to listen and observe.

A few days later Dominick called me and requested some paperwork, which I provided. This would be our pattern intermittently over the next 18 months. Mr. Gonzalez would call as well. He would speak to both John as well as myself about planning aspects of the project.

March 2017

We are examining blueprints.

“That house will look like all the other ugly houses being built out here,” John said sadly.

“We will make it our own,” I answered.

“All our memories are in this house.”

“We will make new memories in that house.”

April 2017

We are back in Mineola to hand over our New York Rising money to Recon100 as agreed. Never was I so glad to hand a check over to someone in my life. Kelly informed us that her office could not accept the check. Instead, she handed us an addressed envelope with a stamp on it.

“There is a mailbox in the lobby,” she said.

We were escorted to that lobby by a young man who watched us place the check in the mailbox.

“That was strange,” I said to John as we left the office building.

“Just do what they say,” he answered.

August 2017

The permitting process for Ocean Beach Village seemed to frustrate Mr. Gonzalez, but he and his people eventually got it together. Then on the Friday before Labor Day Weekend I received a call from him while taking workshop training at one of my jobs.

“It’s time to roll,” he said. “You have to vacate your property by Oct. 1, a demolition crew is set to begin taking down the old structure by then.”

That announcement was a long time coming, but still it was jarring. After a busy summer season on Fire Island packing was not a thing either of us had much considered. Luckily John had the forethought to talk with a local real estate agent, and she found us an off-season rental only a block away. I met with the agent after the holiday weekend and took a tour of the place. This too was an older house, so it felt familiar. A small room in the front that could serve as a home office sealed the deal for me – besides the price was right and the landlord never asked how many cats we had – I paid the young lady a security deposit on the spot.

October 2017

Cats. We have to talk about cats. We have far too many of them and the process of moving them one by one in pet carriers took days. None of them were too happy about the move, but then it was only a block away. A few got into the mode quickly – especially Cutie my office cat. She settled into that home office quickly, eager to assist me with my work. Others snuck out the door of the rental digs and tried to go back home. Even when our house had been torn down, they stubbornly sat on the empty lot.

Another creature also refused to leave – and that would be my husband who was in a state of denial that this was actually happening. I however continued to transport our possessions on a wagon in small batches at a time, and stuffed them into the spare rooms of the rental house as best I could.

As our dear old home became empty, John eventually accepted that it was time to go. Once there, he inspected the rooms until he determined which was the “best” finished room and proceeded to seal off the high ceiling by stapling a clean tarp into the wall beams.

“This will be our safe room in case it gets cold,” he declared affirmatively.

Soon we met our assigned contractor. It was a Nassau County based company call DRG Construction that specialized in building marine bulkheads – but they were the winning bidder for our property. Apparently, the state sent the bids out in lots, which meant we were part of a package of projects they bid on. I suspect we were the bastard child of the bunch. Never the less, Mike, the fellow heading our project, introduced himself graciously – and if bulkheads were their specialty, I felt assured we would get a strong, solid house out of the bargain.

Mike asked John if he had any special instructions for him and without hesitation John took him around the property to show him swaths of overgrown trees that he declared off limits to clear cutting. I saw the color drain from Mike’s face upon hearing these instructions.

The next day Mike gave me a call with a request of his own.

“I want you guys to protect us,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We’ve heard stories about Fire Island contractors not liking new comers. I don’t want to find the tires on my golf cart slashed.

“Oh, the wild west days are long gone out here,” I laughed. “Things like that don’t happen anymore. You guys will be fine.”

A few days later some of Mike’s men appeared finally ready to break ground. This time I introduced myself to his crew.

“We are just a block away. Anything you need, just let us know.”

“Well, if you know of anyone who can help us fix this golf cart that would be great,” said one of the guys said. “Somehow, we already have two flats and I don’t understand why.”

The color drained from my face this time.

December 2017

John’s safe room became very important to us. The rental was an unwinterized house intended for summer occupation and while some recent winters had been reasonably mild, this one was already a problem. I remember some mornings seeing my breath as Cutie and I put hours in that niche of an office. Me, bundled up, plucking away on that keyboard, and she calmly watching on.

I remember those as idle days. Yet I was also being kept busy by Mike or Dominick (the fellow that said nothing at that first meeting in Mineola), or the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery in Albany hounding down receipts, talking to insurance companies and chasing paper in general. During this time the mortgage holder sold our loan to another company, and our escrow money went missing temporarily. That was fun!

Still, overall, our movements felt restricted in this house. John and I spent a lot of time watching reruns of “Friends” on TV. I was not too crazy about that show when it first aired, but gained a newfound appreciation all these years later. We also talked more. Just sat in the living room filled with garish overstuffed furniture and talked.

“You know a lot of stuff,” John said to me one day out of the blue. “I never really noticed that about you.”

We had been married almost 19 years at that point.

February 2018

It was exciting to watch the construction of our house progress – first the frame, then watching it get filled in, followed by the roofing and eventually the interior being fleshed out. John would go there almost every day to inspect their work, and often he had the self-appointed escorts, Goodie and Bamboo, who were our two most powerful young male cats at the time. The construction crew got used to these visits.

I accompanied them on these tours less often, but started a nesting of sorts shopping online for furniture and housewares I thought we might need. Dominick sent me a catalog that outlined some of the choices we had in the detailing of the house: Did we want faux marble or faux granite counter tops? Faux granite. Did we want a white or maple colored vanity? Maple. Faux walnut, faux oak or faux driftwood vinyl flooring? The driftwood of course! We agreed on pretty much everything, but when it came to the bathroom tiles a terrible argument ensued.

Our choices were faux marble, faux Spanish tile, and something that I can only describe as faux slaughterhouse. I wanted the Spanish tile; John wanted the slaughterhouse.

“John no!” I begged. “Please not that.”

“It will hide the dirt.”

“It’s hideous.”

“You got to express yourself in most of the house choices, this one is my choice”

Well somehow, I lost that one, and cringed as I checked off the box for the faux slaughterhouse.

Around Valentine’s Day John came to me expressing a concern. A swelling in his body that he had tried to keep hidden from me, but it was not going away. I told him to consult the 24-hour nurse line offered by our health insurance carrier. She recommended some participating urologists in the South Shore Long Island area and I promptly made an appointment for him.

Tests were made. It was prostate cancer. Scans determined it had already spread to the bone. I sat with stiff posture next to John at that urologist office in West Islip as the doctor told us what our options were. All of them were lousy. What was supposed to be the next chapter in our new house now was shaping up to become our final chapter.

March 2018

A storm rolled though that was given the name Bomb Cyclone Reilly. It was a terrible storm that left atypical winter flooding in its wake. I watched a herd of deer pass by our rental house foraging for food in a group with storm surge water coming up to their shoulders. I felt like those deer, almost drowning in frigid water. I thought of our old house. Had it still been standing; Reilly would have surely been the last coffin nail to take it down like a wet house of cards.

Construction of the house still went on, and all the business that went with it continued as well. Mike called me. It was our first conversation since John received his diagnosis and he offered uncomfortable condolences before giving me instructions of the paperwork he needed from me this time around. I agreed to supply him with whatever it was.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked.


“What’s up with that bathroom tile you chose?”

Suddenly I lamented my woes about how that happened. There was a long pause on Mike’s end of the phone.

“The lady of the house should be happy with her bathroom!” he said in quiet rage.

April 2018

John and I acclimated to our new normal, which now included regular visits to surgeons, oncologists and other specialists to manage his condition and extend his life. Now having lived in the rental property for almost eight months, our cats had also acclimated, each staking claim to various corners of Wilmot Road. Residents who were making returns to their summer homes seemed bewildered, wondering where all the cats had come from.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be leaving soon,” John assured one neighbor.

It was time for one of the final walk-throughs of the house. I accompanied John this time. Things were looking pretty good. The cabinetry was lovely, as was the staircase. Then John entered the bathroom – it was tiled in faux marble.

“This is not the floor tile we chose!” he snapped at Mike.

“Terribly sorry Mr. McCollum. That tile pattern was so popular that they ran out of stock. We had to go with a substitute pattern,” Mike answered while shooting me a quick glance with dark eyes.

Then over Mike’s shoulder I noticed shelving units built into the shower wall. They were made of marble – the real thing. I knew the New York Rising catalog well enough to know those marble trimmings were not government issue.

“They were left over from another job,” he whispered in my ear.

May 2018

Now we were packing to move back home – our new home. The cats did not need to be loaded up in carriers this time. They knew what to do and followed at our heels. It was a bit of a shock, all those shiny new appliances as if we won a game show. Yet the house was sort of a doppelganger of what had stood there before and the generic nature of the house New York Rising built for us makes it ironically unique for Fire Island.

December 2012

I am standing before a small audience at East Islip Library. They are eating free donuts the library provided as enticement. The presentation to promote my first book had been arranged there months before Sandy made landfall. Having moved back in our home only about two weeks before, things were in disarray. I could not customize my PowerPoint presentation to the East Islip audience as I would have liked to do. Also, instead of wearing a smart outfit for this talk, I wore thrift shop clothes that a high school friend mailed me after we lost almost everything in that storm. I might have considered that talk a failure, until a heavyset man in the back of the room spoke up.

“What was it like to live through that storm?” 

I put my book presentation materials aside.

“You couldn’t hear it,” I said. “Hurricane Sandy was an oddly quiet storm. We lived under Martial Law on Fire Island during the great storm’s aftermath, which was a strange experience. However, there was also great stillness to the island. Not a single motor or engine running a building was operational while Fire Island was off the electric grid, and just the sound of that stillness was hauntingly beautiful.”

The audience was quiet for a moment. 

“I was stationed at Fire Island when I was with the Coast Guard,” said the heavyset man. 

Then a woman chimed in: “I was staying in Ocean Bay Park when Hurricane Carol passed through.”

Everyone in that room had a Fire Island story to tell.

When John and I got home that night, we sat on the sofa bed we were using until adequate repairs could be made to use our bedroom again. We were relaxed and mused about our future. Always having a bit of the shaman in him, that night was the first time John described the house we would live in one day, and in hindsight his vision turned out to be reasonably accurate.

With a modest dose of sixth sense myself, I too saw his vision, but a sad expression came over my face. He asked me what was wrong.
“I see the house too John, but only one of us is inside it and I don’t know who it is.”
“Well,” John said thoughtfully, “of course that’s eventually going to happen, but hopefully it will be a long time from now.”

October 2022

For the past four years this house has been our refuge. It has sheltered us in comfort through summer heatwaves and wild winter storms as John’s condition deteriorated over the last four years of his life. I sit in it now in my upstairs home office writing this essay.

Seven months has passed since he’s been gone. There are many days that it feels like all I have left is a plate of crumbs. Yet my heart is still beating and sometimes I even see glimmers of what just may be possible over the horizon.