Inspiring Stories: The Heroes of Hurricane Sandy

When Sandy hit the East Coast, these American heroes sprang into action, proving that spirit can survive any storm.

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast with record-setting flooding and devastating winds. As communities rebuild, we celebrate four people among many who went above and beyond to help neighbors, children, and strangers in need.

The Rescuer in Toms River

heroes of the hurricaneWhen Jack Buzzi looked out the window of his parents’ Jersey Shore home during the worst of the storm, he saw something horrifying: His neighbor’s house was floating by on a surge of water from the Atlantic Ocean that had overwhelmed Barnegat Bay and flooded the area. Part of the top floor had broken off, and the rest of the house was in shambles. At the same time, Buzzi was on the phone with his friend Jack Ward, whose sister Kathey Ward, 60, owned the house. The men feared that Kathey was in danger.

Buzzi, who had hunkered down to ride out Sandy with his fiancée, Melissa Griffith, hung up the phone, threw on boots and a raincoat, and grabbed a flashlight and two life jackets. At a lull in the storm, Buzzi waded through knee-high water toward what remained of Kathey’s house. He tried to yell to Kathey over the howling wind, but she didn’t respond. “The roof had collapsed,” Buzzi says. “I thought she was dead.”

He waded back home and called Jack again. Jack told him he had finally reached his sister on the phone. She was trapped but uninjured. Buzzi headed back into the storm and found her standing on a slab of wood that had been part of a doorway on the second floor of her home. “She was surprisingly calm,” says Buzzi.

“I knew you would come,” Kathey said. She’d been sitting in the only room of the house that didn’t get crushed when the roof caved in. Buzzi gave her a life jacket and escorted her through the receding water to his house.

The next morning, Buzzi and Kathey used a kayak to rescue Kathey’s sister Mary Ward and Mary’s boyfriend, Dave O’Hara, who’d been trapped in the attic of Mary’s flooded bungalow.

Paddling back from Mary’s house, Buzzi spotted local carpenter Nick Spino. “He’d spent the night on his neighbor’s roof,” says Buzzi.

Despite a flooded basement, Buzzi let six neighbors stay with him until they evacuated five days later.

“It’s human nature, right?” he says. “We protect each other.”

Next: The nurses who saved 20 babies in an intensive care unit when New York University’s Langone Medical Center lost power.

heroes of the hurricane, Sandra Kyong BradburyWhen the power died, the nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at New York University’s Langone Medical Center in Lower Manhattan didn’t wait for the backup generator to kick in. They immediately snapped into emergency mode.

Sandra Kyong Bradbury, 30, and the other nurses in the unit knew that for the 20 babies in the NICU, some of whom were dependent on ventilators, even a temporary loss of power could be deadly. Using flashlights and the glow from their cell phones, they tended to each baby, checking vital signs and manually inflating ventilator bags. “Luckily it happened between shifts, so we had additional nurses on the floor,” says Bradbury.

[pullquote] She repeated to herself: Take it slow. Be steady with every step. Don’t slip. Don’t fall. [/pullquote]

Then came worse news: With no power, the nurses would have to quickly move the babies out of the medical center, even though floodwaters covered the streets around the hospital. “Think of the IVs, medication, ventilators,” says Bradbury. “It took a lot of coordination.”

With police officers, medical students, and firefighters helping to illuminate the stairwells, Bradbury slowly descended nine flights of stairs with a four-pound baby boy wrapped in a blanket in her arms. She repeated to herself: Take it slow. Be steady with every step. Don’t slip. Don’t fall. After the nurses reached the lobby, they climbed into waiting ambulances with the babies, doctors, and the babies’ parents. “Because they were in our arms, we were able to constantly monitor the babies’ color and heart rates,” says Bradbury.

Thanks to her and the other NICU nurses, all 20 infants were moved safely to one of three area hospitals. “We care for these babies every day,” says Bradbury. “This experience shows that we protect them as if they’re our own children.”

Next: How one high school teacher turned her scooter into an emergency vehicle.

heroes of the hurricane, Jennifer KaufmanBefore Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast, Jennifer Kaufman, 47, had used her little 2005 silver Vespa just to zip around Washington Township, New Jersey, where she lived. Kaufman, a high school English and computer teacher, had never thought of the scooter as an emergency vehicle.

The day after the storm, though, Kaufman heard reports of the devastation in her area and quickly decided to volunteer in nearby Little Ferry, where the Hackensack River had flooded the town. And she knew, with the roads nearly impassable and an impending gas shortage, that her Volkswagen wouldn’t navigate the tough conditions as well as her fuel- efficient scooter. So she headed toward Little Ferry, with the scooter’s tiny under-seat trunk stuffed with blankets and winter clothing.

When she got there, “huge piles of drywall, carpeting, and people’s personal belongings were out on the curb,” says Kaufman. She helped a woman clean out her ruined home and pitched in to collect food and warm clothing for needy residents.

In the frigid days following the storm, Kaufman used her scooter in a resourceful way. Because of gas rationing, local police, ambulance workers, and rescue volunteers were having a hard time getting to the Jersey Shore, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm. So Kaufman set out to locate the gas stations that still had fuel and to note how long the lines were. She relayed the numbers to reporter Myles Ma, who pushed the information to the nj.com website and Twitter feed. “Jennifer was a huge help,” says Ma. “Our gas lists were among the most read pages on the site after the storm.”

Kaufman insists she was just one of many charitable spirits on the scene. “There were so many people doing exactly what I was doing,” she says. “I was just doing it on a scooter.”

Next: The amazing story of a memorial that survived despite all odds.

heroes of the hurricane, Breezy Point, Queens, NYLocated on a small strip of beach in Queens, New York, and home to a large number of retired and current firefighters and police officers, Breezy Point has the unfortunate distinction of having lost the highest percentage of its residents on 9/11. Firefighter Lieutenant Kevin Dowdell, 46, was among them; he left behind his wife, RoseEllen, and their sons, Patrick, then 18, and James, then 17.

Perhaps drawn together by love and loss, RoseEllen Dowdell, 55, and Kevin Dowdell’s friend Tom O’Day, 57, now live together in Breezy Point, and on the evening of October 29, the wind was screaming outside their white bungalow. Dowdell had evacuated earlier that day, but O’Day and several hundred others decided to stay put in their houses in spite of a mandatory evacuation order from the mayor.

O’Day, a veteran firefighter, had planned to keep watch on the house during the worst of the storm. But as Sandy bore down, a surge of water overtook the neighborhood from two sides: the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Jamaica Bay to the north. O’Day and Dowdell’s home flooded immediately. “The water just kept coming,” he says. “It was mayhem. And then the fire came.”

Wind gusts of 70 mph quickly spread the blaze—thought to have started when a transformer exploded—igniting the bungalows and two-story houses built only a few feet from one another, in rows. Flooded streets prevented firefighters from getting close enough to douse the flames.

His house filled with five feet of water, O’Day gathered what he knew were some of Dowdell’s most precious things: photographs of her late husband with their sons. After gathering the photos, O’Day sought refuge at a nearby evacuation site.

Dowdell and O’Day’s home was spared from the fire, but many in the community weren’t as fortunate. Within three hours, the blaze leveled 111 homes, leaving scorched foundations in its wake and displacing hundreds of people. Miraculously, no one died.

“Add together all the fires and disasters I’ve seen: They don’t compare with this,” says O’Day.

Still, one of the few structures that remained untouched was the memorial to the 30 Breezy Point firefighters lost on 9/11, a cross made of steel from the World Trade Center, near O’Day and Dowdell’s house. Says O’Day, “It’s right near the edge of the beach, but it’s standing.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest