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After Superstorm Sandy, seniors forced to start over

Kathleen Campbell has had a bad night. It’s nothing a cup of fresh brewed tea won’t fix, but Campbell, 85, likely faces many more less-than-comfortable nights on her daughter’s living room sofa.

Just three months ago, Campbell was riding her three-wheeled cycle on the smooth and level streets of Breezy Point, a cheerful and close-knit community at the far end of the islands called the Rockaways in Queens. Now she is shuttling among three houses – her daughter Ann Marie Pawlowicz’s 1890s home in Westchester, N.Y., another daughter in New Jersey and her sister’s home near Philadelphia.

Campbell’s lifestyle is one of the many casualties of Superstorm Sandy, which sent floodwaters surging through homes when it hit Oct. 29, damaging more than 2,000 homesand starting a fire that burned more than 100 houses to the ground. The beachfront village, whose population plummeted from 12,000 in the summer to around 4,000 the rest of the year, provided a way of life not often seen in the sprawling suburbs of most cities. Generations of the same family jealously guarded their modest homes, and they took care of their own.

Like so many other elderly residents there, Campbell could “age in place”, living alone after her husband died in 2009, despite a heart condition and the onset of what might be dementia. It’s a concept that many communities have embraced, and that groups like the AARP and the National Council of State Legislatures are encouraging.  When people age in place, they stay in their homes, perhaps adapting them for more limited mobility, rather than moving to elder care facilities. And it’s a way of life that seems to have just evolved naturally in Breezy Point.

“It’s not uncommon to have three generations living within blocks of each other. It did offer that kind of stability and smalltown closeness,”says Msgr. Michael Curran of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, the main church on Breezy Point’s main drag and one of the places residents sheltered during the height of the storm.

Campbell’s house on Reid Avenue was completely flooded when Sandy hit. “It was like the ocean meeting the bay in your living room,” says Pawlowicz.

The house, which Campbell's late husband, Charlie, built in 1990, is on the first road to the left as you enter Breezy Point. Shelves at her house, filled with carefully catalogued photo albums, were soaked when the floodwaters filled the home. Campbell lost almost everything but the small suitcase she took with her when she fled to Pawlowicz’s home to wait out the storm.

Campbell was once a fixture of the community as she rode up and down the narrow alleys on her tricycle. Now it sits rusting in her empty, mudstained house.

The Westchester hamlet of Hawthorne where Pawlowicz lives doesn’t have many level streets. Its Victorian, Craftsman and Care Cod homes are tiered one above another along streets built into a steep, rocky hillside.

“I miss riding my tricycle,” says Campbell in a soft Irish accent. “I was on it twice a day.”

Although Campbell is clearly enveloped in the loving arms of her family, her independence is gone. “She felt safe,” Pawlowicz says. “Even though she has a touch of memory issues.” She sleeps on the sofa because she is uncomfortable with stairs.

Within walking distance to many Breezy Point homes in the 500-acre cooperative were a bank, auto repair shop, the Blarney Castle pub and Deirdre Maeve's Supermarket and, perhaps most important for Campbell, St. Thomas More Church. Most remain damaged and closed months after the disaster.

Breezy Point had naturally what states like Georgia and New Jersey have been spending money to develop – safe, walkable neighborhoods with homes friendly to arthritic bodies.

A survey AARP did in 2008 of Americans over age 50 showed more than half would like to walk, bike or use public transportation, but nearly 40 percent complained about a lack of sidewalks and safe crossings, bicycle lanes or safe places to catch the bus near their homes.

'A hidden little gem'

At Breezy Point, three of Campbell's cousins and a neighbor used to regularly look in on her, making sure she ate her meals and keeping her company. Now they're all displaced too.

Veets Pawlowicz, second from right, is aided by a gang of family, friends and even volunteering strangers as they clean up his mother-in-law Kathleen Campbell's house on Nov. 2, 2012, in Breezy Point.
Veets Pawlowicz, second from right, is aided by a gang of family, friends and even volunteering strangers as they clean up his mother-in-law Kathleen Campbell's house on Nov. 2, 2012, in Breezy Point.David Friedman / NBC News file

“I feel like a lot of the neighbors looked out for each other. It was a very simple life. It was great,” Pawlowicz adds as she sets a cup of tea in front of her mother. “It’s all gone now.”

Pawlowicz, 41 and the mother of two girls aged 8 and 16, finds herself a member of the “sandwich generation” – trying to juggle her job as a nurse with raising children and caring for an elderly parent. On weekends she and her husband, Witold, make the hour-long drive to Breezy Point to try to rip out drywall and salvage what belongings they can in Campbell’s home. It’s not clear what it will take to rebuild.

“We have pumped out the basement like 35 times. Whatever happened with this storm, it shifted everything. Now it’s like it’s on a spring,” Pawlowicz says. Getting insurance sorted out has been a chore for many Breezy Point owners.

“I haven’t been back to see it yet. Please, God, let’s get back there,” Campbell says.

“Not now, Mom,” Pawlowicz answers gently. “It’s a ghost town.”

The seaside neighborhoods in the Rockaways are among the last to recover from Sandy. Breezy Point is nowhere close to being back to normal. Empty foundations yawn open on the blocks that burned. Elsewhere, houses remain shifted off their foundations. There is still no electricity, so almost everyone clears out as the sun sets. Breezy Point is the last New York neighborhood left without clean water.

Like Campbell, many long to go back home. But for seniors, that will be especially hard, even with family support. “It is going to be tough for an elderly person living alone in a badly damaged home to get that home restored,” says New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley.

Curran tries to remain in touch with the seniors who are now scattered to new homes. They're resilient, he says, but "late in life it’s a big adjustment that folks are making.”

Just as they found their own solution when the community was whole, the elderly of Breezy Point have found their own solutions to being homeless. “Most people were able to find a family member or a friend they could move in with and have their needs met,” says Curran, who now commutes himself to attend to his duties at St. Thomas More.

Many families don’t want to talk publicly any more about their situations – a man who moved his elderly father to Dallas, a family who brought their aging parents to Long Island. “I was just talking to a couple – they took their parents in, they are safe,” says Curran. “But they are 85-plus and this is the first time they have ever lived in an apartment.”

Campbell misses the beach, but she doesn’t complain. “We’re on top of the hill,” she says, smiling as she gazes around her daughter’s antique-filled home. “It’s beautiful.” But she mentions again that she misses her tricycle.

“I always say everyone should have a touch of dementia during a disaster,” says Pawlowicz. “The best thing about dementia – my mother laughs. We have been able to cry a little bit, but nobody died.”

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