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How a Staten Island community became a deathtrap

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NEW YORK » Eugene Contrubis heard the many warnings about Hurricane Sandy but decided to ride it out in his drafty, one-story bungalow at 162 Kiswick St., near the beach on Staten Island. Soft-spoken and frail, he was a retired Police Department clerk who wrote poetry, enjoyed chess and adored his nieces. When they were children, he hung a swing from a tree in his yard for them to play on.

Contrubis had lived alone since his mother’s death a few years ago. He had outlasted storms before. This one would be no different.

As night fell on Monday, Oct. 29, Contrubis, 67, talked by phone with his brother-in-law. The wind had felled some branches, he reported, nothing more.

But around 6:45 p.m., water from Lower New York Bay breached the beachfront road and poured into Contrubis’ neighborhood, knocking out power and eventually swallowing entire blocks.

At some point, Contrubis left a message on the voice mail of his sister, Christina Contrubis.

"The water’s coming in," he said softly.

His body was found in his house the next day.

Contrubis was one of eight people who drowned during Hurricane Sandy in Midland Beach, a small, low-slung neighborhood of one-story bungalows and newer two- and three-story houses. The eight lived within about eight short blocks of one another — apparently the highest concentration of deaths in the United States attributable to the storm, which killed more than 100 people in this country.

One of the bodies was discovered only Friday, nearly two weeks after the storm.

The deaths have raised unsettling questions about why the victims were in their homes when the storm hit and whether the city bore some responsibility for their failure to evacuate. Relatives, friends and officials have replayed the events of that night, pondering whether they should have done something different — and whether the city needs to improve its evacuation procedures for future storms.

Midland Beach is part of Zone A, a collection of neighborhoods around the city deemed most at risk of flooding. The city declared a mandatory evacuation of the zone before Hurricane Sandy.

Last year, in the days before Tropical Storm Irene, city workers visited the neighborhood, broadcasting evacuation warnings by loudspeaker, residents recalled.

This time, officials said, city workers were sent once again to Staten Island’s evacuation zones to issue warnings, some using loudspeakers. But many residents of Midland Beach said they did not hear them.

Still, it is not at all certain that such a measure, or even the police’s going door to door, would have made a difference. Like most of the neighborhood’s residents, the victims ignored numerous orders to evacuate, a decision that underscores an independent streak that runs deep on Staten Island.

"I tried very hard," Christina Contrubis said through sobs at her brother’s funeral Monday. "Before the storm I called him up and said, ‘Gene, the storm, it looks bad!’ And he said, ‘Everybody’s staying; nobody’s leaving.’He just told me, ‘I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to leave."’

The eight victims were mostly elderly — the youngest was 59. Most lived alone, and one was legally blind, paraplegic and had cerebral palsy. On that night, the neighborhood turned into a lake that was more than 8 feet deep in some places — nearly enough to fill the victims’ homes.

Councilman James Oddo, a Republican who represents the area, said he was distressed that a cluster of such deaths could occur.

"It weighs heavily on me,"Oddo said. "It means to a certain degree that we in government failed."

For all its attractions, Midland Beach suffers a chronic problem: flooding.

Keri Mullen, whose family has lived for six generations in a house on Moreland Street, said she remembered when water reached her porch during a storm in the 1970s. Her parents and grandparents told her about flooding in the ’50s and ’60s.

In the late 1970s, the city built a storm sewer system down Greeley Avenue, on the western side of the neighborhood, which helped relieve flooding during heavy rains. More recently, the city began work on a system of wetlands on the north side of the neighborhood to help address the problem.

But few residents had any memory of water rising high enough to threaten homes, let alone lives. Oddo said the last time bay water crossed the neighborhood’s beachfront roadway, Father Capodanno Boulevard, was in 1992. But even then it caused relatively little damage.

As Hurricane Sandy approached, residents’ thoughts turned to Tropical Storm Irene. In August 2011, many — including Contrubis — had been alarmed enough by the authorities’ warnings to evacuate in advance of that storm, only to find afterward that their homes were unscathed.

As a result, many viewed evacuation as a waste of time.

"They’ve warned us so many times before and nothing happened," said Graceanna Paterno, 45, a lifelong resident.

John Prisinzano, 64, who has lived on Grimsby Street for 32 years, recalled the brief conversations he had with neighbors before Hurricane Sandy.

"‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you going to stay?"’ someone would say.

"‘Yeah, we’re going to stay,"’ came the reply.

"I’m here 32 years, never had a flood," he explained.

And so as the wind picked up on the afternoon of Oct. 29, and a light rain began to fall, many residents went inside their homes, turned on computers and television sets, fired up video games and opened books, and waited for the storm to come and go.

After the storm surge, only a few small boats plied the flooded neighborhood.

The most substantial was an inflatable rescue boat with three firefighters from the Fire Department. Other firefighters were in a rowboat commandeered in the neighborhood. Anthony Guida, one of the firefighters, said there were also civilians in boats, including two men in a canoe. Another man, he recalled, was piloting a bright yellow-and-blue craft that resembled "an inflatable pool toy." He was using a plastic shovel as an oar.

"That’s all that was out there," Guida said.

He described a landscape of floating debris and families huddled on rooftops, the arcing beams of their flashlights slicing the dark. "There was nothing between us and Portugal, which was kind of daunting," he said.

Guida’s unit worked in Midland Beach for five hours, making about 20 trips and rescuing scores of people. At 3 a.m., the unit had to relocate to the south for another emergency. Across the borough, the Fire Department rescued about 200 people over the course of the night, officials said.

Though the waters in Midland Beach began to recede in the early morning, they remained several feet high in parts of the neighborhood for much of Tuesday, the day after the storm.

Most residents were able to return to their homes by Wednesday, but even as late as Thursday, some roads remained impassable for cars.

As water retreated, a pattern of deaths emerged.

The bodies of several residents were pulled from their bungalows on Tuesday. Since the storm passed, residents have re-entered their homes and sorted through their mud-caked belongings. They have hauled sodden possessions — furniture, appliances, clothes, heirlooms, photo albums — to the curb for the sanitation trucks to cart away.

Many are vowing to rebuild. Others, even those whose families have lived in Midland Beach for generations, are considering moving.

"This is the first time water has ever come into the house, " said Bill Owens, a retired police officer, whose family has lived in Midland Beach since 1928.

He was standing in front of the two homes his great-grandfather, an immigrant from France, built on Olympia Boulevard. He and family members were tearing down the walls and gutting the first floor of the two structures.

"Eighty-four years we’ve been here," he said. He shook his head: "Now, I’ve got to stop and think about it."

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