Debris-Strewn Beach In Post-Sandy Sea Gate
The beach is littered with debris, including a piece of playground equipment, in Sea Gate, Brooklyn Connor Adams Sheets / International Business Times

Henry was in his top-floor bedroom overlooking the beach in Brooklyn's gated Sea Gate community when Hurricane Sandy hit New York the night of Oct. 29.

The $5.5 million waterside house he finished building for his family two years ago had weathered Irene and other, lesser storms, and he expected his retaining wall to again keep all but minor flooding at bay.

So when the businessman, who asked that his last name not be used, looked out his window and saw the storm surge coming in high and fast that evening, he knew he would have to wait overnight for the waters to recede.

But the water kept rising, and it didn't stop at his wall, his yard, or even the triple-thick 23" foundation he built his house on to keep it from being destroyed in a storm.

"The water had risen 17 feet and flooded everything. I swim out here and go 100 feet out into the water and it doesn't reach my shoulders. It's unbelievable how much it rose," he said Tuesday afternoon.

He went to sleep and woke up at 5 the following morning, when he headed outside to survey the damage and found himself in shock at the destruction that had befallen his home and his neighborhood.

"I figured it would just be flooding, but a whole piece of the foundation was missing, and my bedroom was just floating in the sky, meaning no foundation under it. I'm lucky I'm alive," he said.

Henry's worried about how he will recover from the disaster, estimating it will cost upwards of $1 million to rebuild. But he's thankful it wasn't worse for his family.

"It's going to take a long time and we don't have the money to do it. We spent money to build the house and were busy paying the mortgage, and can't even afford that," he said as contractors estimated the damage and workers hauled sand out of his basement. "But other people lost their lives, their livelihoods, people lost everything."

Walking the streets of Sea Gate on Tuesday, those words rang devastatingly true. Entire homes are missing along the water, leaving just piles of rubble and bare skeletons of frames to mark the spots where families lived their lives just a couple of weeks ago.

"The Most Ruthless People In The World"

And off the water, along Surf Avenue and other streets within a short walk of the beach, nearly every home has a mountain of debris stacked out front, left there for garbage trucks to haul away.

Steve, another Sea Gate resident who asked -- as many of those interviewed there on Tuesday did -- that his last name not be used, has lived in the same house less than a block from the sea for 40 years. He said Tuesday that he has never experienced anything like the destruction wrought by Sandy.

A painter, the whole first floor of his house was destroyed by the storm surge, along with countless pieces of original artwork.

"I lost a ton of irreplaceable things. I lost a ton of watercolors, etchings, engravings, everything. And how do you put a price on it?" he asked Tuesday in front of his home, with its gutted first floor and untouched second floor.

"When you say to me, did I lose anything of value, oh yeah, we lost couches, the water heater, washer and drier, all that stuff. That you can put a value on, the other stuff you can't."

And Steve, an older man with the two-week scruff so many Sea Gate residents have let grow out in the difficult days since Sandy, is still living without gas service, keeping warm by an electric space heater, and lamenting those who try to capitalize off his and his neighbors' misery.

"Now you have to deal with contractors and they're the most ruthless people in the world. They want cash up front. Cash. I've told a couple of them to go to hell," he explained.

"A couple of days after the storm there were contractors walking around the neighborhood handing out their cards. Mercenaries. It's bad enough the neighborhood looks like a war zone, these people are on a mission. And we were lucky, our houses are still standing."

But the contractors themselves see a long road ahead. They say they won't be able to do much if public funds and insurance payouts don't arrive soon to help residents of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island rebuild.

Tony Malanga, of Staten Island-based Malanga Construction, was at Henry's Tuesday, helping him figure out how to get his house back on solid footing.

"I've never seen anything like this before. No one has," the contractor said. "The way things are, if money doesn't start rolling in [from government and insurance], it's going to take forever. Speculation, bureaucracy, it's already starting."

Relief Efforts Underway

Still, Steve, Henry and other Sea Gate residents say hope remains, and community members are coming together to help one another in any way they can.

Army National Guard First Lieutenant Kevin McGee has been on the ground helping set up supply, food and water distribution points in storm-shattered areas of Queens and Brooklyn for nearly two weeks.

While helping coordinate a food and water distribution point outside Sea Gate Chapel Tuesday afternoon, he said he has been very impressed by the good will and sense of community that remain in the hardest-hit seaside areas.

"Neighbors helping neighbors is the story. We can bring water and food into a point of distribution and bring it door-to-door to some extent, but neighbors are going that extra five yards, bringing supplies to elderly and disabled people," he said, while firefighters cooked free hot dogs and burgers under tarp tents.

"They've been cleaning out neighbors' basements, helping clean their yards, everything. Neighbors are stepping up to fill the gap."

Coney Island Still Reeling

In South Brooklyn, the storm's impact wasn't felt only in the gated, upscale Sea Gate, a close-knit community that skews heavily Jewish and Eastern European.

Residents of lower-income areas of Coney Island just down the street are also doing what they can to survive until life gets back to normal.

Albert Anderson waited in a long line Tuesday morning at a food distribution site on Surf Avenue and 20th Street. 78 years old, he is the sole resident of a studio apartment on West 22nd Street in Coney Island, and he was still without heat and hot water two weeks after the storm, though he said a crew was working to get the boiler back on line earlier that morning.

"It's okay. It's pretty safe, and people come over here and other places for food, but without that hot water, hygiene's very hard to come by," he said. "I wouldn't want to see this happen again. It has such a great impact on the community."