Climbing is the only cure for gravity.
Climbing is the only cure for gravity.
It’s a perfect summer Friday in Long Beach, N.Y. — all big waves and blinding sun.
On days like this, it’s easy to forget the night that Superstorm Sandy ravaged this barrier-island city – which is exactly what Mary Anne Trasciatti has spent much of the last year trying to prevent.
Dr. Trasciatti, who has lived in Long Beach for more than a dozen years and is a professor of rhetoric and women’s studies at Hofstra, is compiling an oral history of Sandy’s impact on the city, collecting the personal stories of survivors on film.
She views the project, which will eventually be housed in Hofstra’s historical archives, as a vital part of the city’s recovery efforts. Besides technical support, the University is providing funding, through the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, for translators for some of the interviews.
“ … I understand how people need to frame their experiences and how important it is to historically document those experiences … ”
“I’m not a contractor, I can’t rip out insulation, and I can’t offer legal advice, but as an academic I understand how people need to frame their experiences and how important it is to historically document those experiences,” Trasciatti said. “I can take my background and my interest in historical research and use it to help my community.”
It began in December 2012 with a simple flier posted on telephone poles all over town: “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?” Every Saturday for months, Trasciatti and a graduate documentary film student at Hofstra, TIannah Bruce, set up shop at Gentle Brew Coffee Roasters on East Park Avenue and listened.
Nearly a year later, Mary Anne Trasciatti is still listening, although she now conducts many of her interviews at the main branch of the public library, where officials have offered her use of a room on the second floor.
“I think this project is really important because having a record of everyone’s personal stories from the storm will be incredibly valuable for the history of Long Beach,” said Gordon Tepper, the city’s director of communications.
The idea of preserving history through personal narratives appealed to Mike Fiore, a high school English teacher who heard about Trasciatti’s project and offered to help.
“ I went to the door and the ocean had already breached the dunes and was rushing up the block … ”
He also felt a need to tell his own story. Sitting in a folding chair one afternoon in July, Fiore stared into the camera and began.
“I went to the door and the ocean had already breached the dunes and was rushing up the block – that was the moment I realized we probably had made a grave, grave error in staying,” he said.
One afternoon in July, four women sat together to talk about Project 11561, the new grassroots community group they launched, about their own experiences with Superstorm Sandy, and about a friendship forged by a shared sense of purpose.
Jessie Farrell, who lives near the bay, evacuated for Hurricane Irene in 2011 but stayed for Sandy.
“I remember the sound of all the car alarms going off,” she said, her voice catching. “The water kept coming up and up and it stopped literally at the front door and began to recede. But then I looked to my left and the canals were on fire.” It is the first time she has talked about that night in months, and the emotion sneaked up on her. “Wow. You don’t realize how much it still gets to you.”
Jackie Wilkinson lives on the west end, about 10 homes from the ocean. She evacuated.
“Coming back the next day, I was so afraid,” she said. “There were power lines everywhere, boats everywhere, cars everywhere … I personally had a lot of survivor’s guilt about evacuating.”
Even after more than 50 interviews, Trasciatti tears up along with her subjects. With each story she hears, Trasciatti processes her own feelings about the storm, and her decision to stay.
“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she said. “It’s a lot of emotional work.”
And, after stories about her work appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, people from all over the metropolitan area reached out to her with their tales of Sandy.
A man from New Jersey sent her a long letter detailing his story. A woman from Long Beach sent a poem every day for weeks.
“People,” she said, “want someone to remember for them.”
For more information about the Long Beach Oral History project, go to longbeachsandy.org.