Xiomara Abarca still remembers vividly when just one year ago she thought she and her 4-year-old son wouldn’t make it alive out of their apartment in Staten Island, NY when Hurricane Sandy hit.
Sandy’s record breaking tidal wave height of nearly 14-feet hit the shores of New York and New Jersey on October 29, 2012, causing at least 650,000 homes to be either damaged or destroyed. Approximately two million NYC residents were left without electricity, more than one million NYC children were out of school, and in NJ alone, approximately 8,000 jobs were lost.
“That day, I wasn’t very prepared, because there were warnings for the hurricane two years ago, and it wasn’t that bad,” Abarca told NBC Latino in her native Spanish.
The 33-year-old says at the time she lived with her brother, her son, and a young man they rented a room to. At around 6:40pm, she says she went to look out the window and the water was rising from the ocean and onto the street.
“I started to be afraid when I saw the water coming up the stairs of the house,” says Abarca. “That’s when I called Luis Laguna’s house.”
Luis Lagunas is a 36-year-old cook at a diner in Staten Island who works the night shift. He has a wife and three kids, and is from Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. She explains they are from the same town in Mexico, and he is known in their Staten Island for being a helpful member of the community.
“I told his wife that they should save themselves, and that I couldn’t do anything — I was crying,” says Abarca.
A few minutes later, she says Lagunas came in his van.
“By the time he came, the water was already the height of the floor of the van,” remembers Abarca. “My brother told me to go with my son — he was in shock, but I told him I wouldn’t go unless we went together.”
She says they got another car from another family member at his house, and in total picked up about 20 people in the neighborhood taking them to safety.
“I have lived 16 years in Midland Beach, and never in my life have I seen what happened with Hurricane Sandy,” says Lagunas, an undocumented immigrant, in his native Spanish. “I will never forget that experience.”
He says the water rose to about 12-feet, and that the water brought tree branches and garbage with its strength. He then took everyone to live with a relative who had a house with two rooms that weren’t damaged from the storm — 18 people in total with only one bathroom.
Today, Lagunas says he, and his family, are still living with three more people than they were before the storm, in a smaller space that costs $300 more than they were paying before.
“Thank God that I was off from work that day and that I was home,” says Lagunas. “I did what I had to do…my motor was under water and turned off, but thank God it turned on again and that is how we were able to arrive to a dry place. All of the families that came with me that day lost everything that they had worked so hard for.”
Abarca says she got lucky. As she worked as a babysitter, her employers helped her find a place to live two weeks after the storm.
“But the storm did affect my work, because my employers’ business was destroyed,” she says, explaining they couldn’t afford a babysitter.
Abarca and Lagunas reunited, with around 500 others, this past Sunday at Turn the Tide at NY’s City Hall to ask the current administration to rebuild with good jobs, affordable housing, community engagement, strong health care and sustainable energy.
“We want to make sure the recovery doesn’t leave the most vulnerable New Yorkers behind,” says Melissa McCrumb, a Sandy Response Coordinator from the organization, Make the Road New York, of which Abarca and Lagunas are both active members.
“The rents have gone up, a ton of houses haven’t been rebuilt, and a lot of people haven’t been able to return to the same neighborhoods,” continues McCrumb. “One of the things we are calling for is that these neighborhoods remain affordable. We are still getting a handle on how many people are still displaced and trying to make sure renters have the resources they need.”
Abarca is very grateful to Lagunas for saving her and her family.
“I don’t have words to express what he did,” says Abarca, adding that after the storm he also offered his car, blankets and food. “Not everyone would give their life like that. He has always been a humanitarian — he’s always helped people.”
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