Rock Center   |  November 08, 2012

Sandy Survivor: ‘You’re homeless in the place you love’

NBC News’ Ann Curry first met Phyllis Puglia in the days after Hurricane Sandy hit. Her home was destroyed, leaving cherished photographs in the debris. One week later, Curry checks in on the Staten Island grandmother determined to rebuild her life.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> here have been consumed by two huge stories over the past few days. the election drama, of course, and the big east coast storm. and then the nor'easter just last night that came in right on top of those already affected. hundreds of thousands are still without power since hurricane sandy. a lot of people who had had power restored lost it again in the snow and wind storm last night. in this region where so many lost their homes, and where millions of people have suffered through it, some times in our coverage of such events, individuals stand out. that happened on this very broadcast a week ago. a woman named phyllis , who was interviewed by ann curry on staten island . and so many of you have inquired about how she is doing, ann curry returned to staten island to find out.

>> yeah, we are over oakwood beach, staten island . again the sights get worse and worse.

>> reporter: of the more than 100 people who died during hurricane sandy, at least 22 were lost here on staten island . as a storm surge estimated at 16 feet high crashed 14 blocks inland from the eastern shore . hundreds of houses were destroyed or made unlivable. 62-year-old grandmother, phyllis , had evacuated with her husband just before sandy struck. awe is that my house?

>> reporter: weep f first met her as she was beginning to comprehend the magnitude of her loss.

>> my house is gone, everything i own, everything i have is not there anymore. everything is gone. all the things i cherished and saved all these years for my kids, and my muother, my grandchildren, my mother 's wedding ring , and her heart, it's breaking my heart. because it is all gone.

>> reporter: in a state of utter disbelief, phyllis set off to find any pieces of the life she had been building here. a mile from where her home had been, she stumbled upon some of her greatest treasures, carried there by the storm surge . your wedding photograph?

>> see, my mom, there is so many more. there has to be more of my father.

>> reporter: but her world had been turned upside down.

>> i want to go home. but there is no home. i can't go home. and that's killing me. i don't know where we are going to relocate.

>> reporter: a week later we caught up with phyllis again to see what happened to her. by then about 70,000 emergency workers had poured into regions worst hit by sandy. and tens of millions of dollars in private donations had been pledged to new york city . some of them inspired by phyllis ' story. you touched a lot of people the last time we spoke. a lot of people saw you on television. and a lot of people said that you are one of the big reasons why they donated.

>> everybody -- you're home is the place you love, your home is where your family is, you build memories there, you build a life there. and that's what ripped my heart apart, you know. because i loved my home that much.

>> reporter: people were especially touched when you talked about your mother 's wedding photo.

>> my mother was my best friend. and as despaired as you are at the loss of everything, you find one thing that means something, you know? it's like you got something back. you got something back. out of all the devastation. it helps take away that, that helpless, empty feeling you have. you know?

>> those houses are gone.

>> reporter: this aerial shot was taken right after sandy struck. the flooded lot is where phyllis ' house had been. after the water receded she showed us what is left. how many times have you come down here since the storm?

>> i am here every day.

>> reporter: where was your front door?

>> this was my steps that went up to my main door.

>> reporter: amid all the disaster and pain, phyllis is able to salvage a few moments of joy.

>> every time i come here, for the first time, i can't breathe, you know. and i start to cry. and then i say, it's just shut off and, just doing the job. do what you got to do.

>> reporter: finding treasures. like this?

>> this is my dad. my dad and my uncle angelo.

>> reporter: found this just today?

>> just now.

>> reporter: one of the little things that when you find it?

>> yeah, yeah, means the world. i can't replace these. i can't replace these. there is only a handful. you see this is all my kitchen stuff.

>> reporter: as much as she has lost, she sometimes is surprised by what she find.

>> those plates, believe it or not, my mom bought me these before we even got married. when i was engaged.

>> not a chip on them.

>> not a chip on them. yeah. certain things, like i said mean ape lot. so i will hold on to them.

>> reporter: holding on in the face of adversity seems to define phyllis . an irish italian mother of three, the daughter of a sanitation worker and a seamstress. lived nearly 35 years on staten island . everything phyllis has put in she is getting back now. from neighbors and close family, like sister gladys.

>> every day of my life. every day of my life. i thank god for her.

>> we always have each other.

>> reporter: you are afraid for her, afraid for her now, why, why are you crying?

>> i worry about her.

>> reporter: you think this has been really hard, so hard --

>> too hard. too hard.

>> yeah, i am looking for my mother 's -- for a box.

>> reporter: unannounced the firefighters showed up on their own time before their night shift to help her from the same station house as phyllis ' fire fighter son.

>> reporter: you decided to come out today to help her?

>> yes, that's right.

>> she is a beautiful woman, a mother to all of us, whatever she needs we will be there for her.

>> with all the darkness, all the tragedy they make me cry because they're so generous and so loving and they want to do anything they can for me no matter what it, they'll do it for me.

>> reporter: it is that outpouring, that lifts her now. her family has even started a web page . so people can make donations.

>> i am so embarrassed. i say dent do that. my family, shut up, just let, this is offerings. to start new.

>> reporter: so far, $9,000 has been raised for phyllis .

>> it's hard at 62 years old. say all right, i have got to start over. but they keep calling me. my cousins keep calling me. don't worry. you'll do it. we will help you. whatever. they're all there for me.

>> reporter: yesterday, a second beg storm, a nor'easter brought snow and freezing temperatures to staten island . phyllis , one of annest ma estimated 40,000 newly homeless in new york city was able to take shelter in the warmth of her son's house, uncertain about her future. she still hasn't found her mother 's wedding ring but she vows she won't stop looking. can you imagine the neighborhood back again?

>> oh, yeah. when i sclez close my eyes and open is my eyes. everything back the way it was.

>> we'll keep a close eye on phyllis . special thanks to the fdny. after our broadcast last week on hurricane sandy and its aftermath, we had near-record traffic on our website. mostly viewers looking to help. and we have updated the information there tonight on what you can do for these storm victims.