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Sandy refugee lends helping hand at poll

Hamilton Beach resident Paul Fruehwirth worked at the poll in PS 63 in Ozone Park after his house was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

Ever since Hurricane Sandy flooded Hamilton Beach, 34-year-old Paul Fruehwirth has been homeless.

So when the coordinator at PS 63 in Ozone Park called to see if he would be able to serve as a poll worker on Election Day, he wasn’t sure he could at first.

“I’m living in a shelter. My house got destroyed,” he said, while waiting to assist voters in casting their ballots. “Then she said she would pay for the cab if I got down here. She needed the help.”

Fruehwirth said a $200 stipend for poll workers also would help down the road — in general, it takes between six and eight weeks for the check to arrive, he said.

“At least, it’s money coming. I don’t know when my job is going to reopen,” Fruehwirth said, explaining that he works at Starbucks on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach.

The coffee shop was flooded with three feet of water during Hurricane Sandy and was still without power Tuesday. Even when Starbucks does reopen, Fruehwirth worried about how he would get his hands on another uniform since all of his work clothes were destroyed.

Before the storm, he fled the home on 163rd Road with his mother, 31-year-old sister and his mother’s six dogs and left behind nearly all of their possessions. Fruehwirth escaped with only one pair of jeans.

The family has been staying at the shelter at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica Hills, sleeping in shifts and taking showers at the YMCA in Jamaica.

About four days after Sandy hit, a friend took Fruehwirth down to survey the damage in the family’s house, and he was only able to get inside by climbing in his bedroom window. The front door would not open because the entire house had shifted. Inside, he found 13 of his mother’s 14 parakeets still alive after weathering the storm.

“The cage was almost completely submerged in the water, where the water mark was. There was a little spot on the top of the cage, where they all huddled up and survived,” Fruehwirth said.

Fruehwirth has no idea how or if the house will ever been habitable again.

“I’m going to need an army to help clean up that house,” he said.

As he described his situation Tuesday, Fruehwirth struggled to hold back tears and his voice cracked.

“It’s just a nightmare,” he said.

Fruehwirth said he has reached out to friends for help and only one offered to take him in, but that would mean traveling to Florida.

“I have an out, but I would be leaving my family in this mess,” he said.

Reach photo editor Christina Santucci by e-mail at timesledgerphotos@gmail.com or by phone at 718-260-4589.

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