Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
IN LATE OCTOBER, the National Weather Service forecasts a “Superstorm”—a hurricane they’re referring to as Sandy. For the first time ever, the NWS sends a representative out to Long Island to prepare us county leaders and our first responders for how serious this storm will be. “Death and devastation,” they tell us repeatedly. “Your residents have got to take this storm seriously. The devastation won’t be because of the wind or the rains, but because of the storm surge. The topography of Long Island and most likely all of greater New York City will be changed forever.”
“Do not let any of the kids leave your house,” I tell Camille. “There will be power outages and fallen trees and worse—in fact you all need to sleep in a part of the house that’s far away from trees.”
The thousands of homes along Long Island’s coastline are extremely vulnerable … including mine. I lock it up and say a prayer, spending the next few nights at the county’s emergency management unit in Yaphank. The center is filled with the U.S. Coast Guard, New York Army National Guard, social services, police, fire chiefs, Red Cross, and swarms of other emergency response units. With them I stay up through the night as they work to protect as many Suffolk County residents as possible. We also figure out ways to keep communication lines open to the people who are in flood zones and refused to evacuate before it was too late.
It’s a night of heavyheartedness that I’m certain will stay with me forever—we’re witness to the flooding that causes complete neighborhoods to be destroyed. It’s a harsh reality check as I hope that these citizens’ homes will be the worst thing that they lose.
In the light of day, I join the team of emergency responders and leaders whose job it is to find emergency shelter, food, and supplies for the hundreds in the county who are suddenly homeless or without power. Now I’m working to put the lights back on for the very same community that, decades ago, did the best it could to keep mine from dimming.
The National Weather Service’s dire warnings to our emergency responders were not overstated. Sandy stretched almost two thousand miles as it traveled up the Atlantic coastline. Adding to the depth of the storm was a disastrously timed high tide in a full moon cycle, resulting in tremendous storm surges. Sandy brought parts of the Northeast to a standstill and resulted in extensive flooding in Manhattan and the shorelines of both New York and New Jersey. And sadly, as predicted, Sandy brought many untimely deaths and utter devastation to some of our communities.
At one point during the storm, electric service was lost to several million customers in New York alone. The loss of power crippled hospitals, fuel ports, fuel terminals and gas stations, mass transportation, and telecommunications. The impact this had on the region led New York’s Governor Cuomo to issue an executive order creating what is referred to as the Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response that was charged with investigating the emergency preparedness and storm response of utilities within the state, with recommendations for stricter oversight of utilities and to assist in determining how best to restructure the Long Island Power Authority to provide safer transmission and distribution to its customers going forward—in emergencies and fair weather. On November 13, 2012, he appointed a panel of esteemed commissioners to preside over this investigation … and on November 20, Governor Cuomo appointed me as the Commission’s executive director.
As I write this epilogue, I am a few weeks into the Commission’s vital tasks. My sister Camille is still working to build up her strength from multiple consecutive strokes, and her doctors still have not concluded what caused them on that cloudy September day. It was while Camille’s entire family was huddled around her hospital bed that I suggested we change the topic and try, as a family, to select a title for this story. Considering the main events I’d detailed in the manuscript, we reflected on our countless homes—fragile, temporary sand castles that we were forced to create in the most resourceful ways, only for them to be knocked down by the rising tides and uncontrollable elements around us. Thus, we decided together that my book should be titled Etched in Sand.
I am also writing this on December 16, a day which I acknowledge is the anniversary of Cookie’s death—but I much prefer to remember it as Aunt Julia’s birthday. This is the first year since 1999 that I have not called nor visited Julia for her birthday: She passed in April 2012, one day before the passing of my uncle Sonny.
That simple, beautiful message that Rosie wrote almost three years ago has closed that gaping hole in my heart that was ripped open on that dark November day in 1980 when I revealed to the social worker that indeed we were being abused. Further healing came when Cherie moved from Pennsylvania back to Suffolk County this past spring. Her fiftieth birthday celebration this past September brought all five of us together again in one place … for the second time in thirty-two years.
Despite the challenging seas we had to navigate and the limited beacons of light that were available to guide us on our journey, we all landed safely. We pushed ourselves up through the riptides. Through our journey, my siblings blessed me with plenty of nieces and nephews, who through Etched in Sand will be learning our story for the very first time. We created a whole generation of children that will never suffer intense poverty, homelessness, or abuse. Together, we stopped the cycle.
Through his strength of character, stoicism, and love of family (and my pets), Todd has guided me and for the first time in my life provided me the consistency and stability that I actually welcome.
Today, I have my own happy home.
However, every year in the United States, forty thousand children in foster care will age out of the system and have nowhere to go and no one to help them. It is still a generally accepted policy to deem older foster children unadoptable. So rather than working toward finding older foster children forever homes, they are provided brief instruction on how to live independently and are sent out to find their own way at the age of eighteen or twenty-one. When a young adult ages out with limited resources and no safety net, they risk becoming homeless and the cycle starts again. With the opportunity to benefit from the unconditional love of a forever home, a foster child can eventually pay it forward. In my commitment to this belief, I rejoined the board of You Gotta Believe to ensure that more foster children will also one day have their own happy home. If there’s one thing I want every foster child to know, it’s that.
We all have to believe.