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For most Superstorm Sandy survivors, the date Sandy struck will forever remain a sad occasion. But for one family that received help from the American Red Cross after the storm that date may soon be a reason to celebrate.
Justin O’Donnell, 42, and his wife, Lucie, 29, are parents to a 14-month old son, James. The couple is now expecting their second child, and Lucie’s due date is Oct. 29, the one-year anniversary of Sandy, which severely damaged their Far Rockaway home and displaced them for five months.
“When my obstetrician told me, I said, ‘Oh I know that date; I’ve written it a thousand times on forms as the date of loss,” Lucie said.
The O’Donnells’ home is nestled just feet from the water along the southern edge of Jamaica Bay. On Oct. 29, anticipating that some water would reach the house, they evacuated farther west to Justin’s parents’ home in Belle Harbor, N.Y.
The O’Donnells, their three dogs, and Justin’s parents and brother decided to ride out the storm watching TV in the basement. But after only an hour, Sandy made landfall and water began flooding in.
“All of a sudden we heard gushing,” Justin said. “When it came, it came fast.”
They emerged from the basement and looked out a window to see an unusual glow in the sky. “We could see orange for 200 feet in the air,” Justin said.
The O’Donnells were seeing dozens of area homes on fire.
“Golf-ball sized embers were flying sideways past the house,” Justin said. “They were hitting the gutters, the trees, and the power lines and exploding. You couldn’t see across the street because the smoke was so thick.”
When the house across the street began to burn, they knew it was time to go. “That whole block was gone and [the fire] was jumping, so we got out,” Justin said. “It was a tough decision, the anxiety was pretty high.”
Justin’s father suffers from Parkinson’s disease and uses a wheelchair. Outside, with water up to his chest, Justin grabbed a piece of picket fence floating by. He and his brother picked their father up out of his wheelchair, positioned him on the picket fence, and carried him through the water to safety.
After walking for several blocks, the family found shelter in a friend’s home.
The next morning Justin and his brother returned to their parents’ house; it was untouched by fire and sustained only basement water damage. Later, the pair went to Justin’s home.
“All the furniture was flipped over,” Justin said. “The carpets were wet; the tile was cracked.”
For the next five months, the family stayed with family and friends. Justin, a union iron worker, began to clean-up his home. With help from volunteers and co-workers, he gutted the home and performed mold remediation.
But much of the work required skilled labor—plumbers, electricians and other contractors. Bills began to pile up. “We had tapped out all the resources,” Justin said.
One day, as he worked on the house, two Red Cross volunteers knocked on his door. They were canvassing the neighborhood visiting families who had registered for help from FEMA. The two volunteers helped him fill out paperwork for Red Cross assistance.
The O’Donnells began working with Red Cross Case Manager Ashley Hilton. “Something was being done, we were getting help,” Justin said.
Hilton helped the family receive funding through the Red Cross Move-In Assistance Program to pay for home repairs.
“We’re grateful that the Red Cross was there to help,” Lucie said. “When we were in the position of needing help, the Red Cross provided that for us.”
The O’Donnells moved back into their home in March and are making preparations to welcome a new family member as the one-year anniversary of Sandy approaches.
“And no, she will not be named Sandy,” Justin said, with a smile.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or follow us on Twitter at @RedCrossNY.