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Howard Beach starts to recover

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Jeinne Reskallah walks through the basement in her Howard Beach home using a flashlight. She said she would like to refinish the space, but right now has to gut it to that mold does not begin to grow. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Walter and Josephine Nowich stand in their Howard Beach basement, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Jeinne Reskallah looks through items she had collected, including stamps, which had been damaged by a storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Christina Santucci
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A 1937 Packard luxury automobile, belonging to a man named Ed, was destroyed during the storm. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Several items was salvaged from the Nowich's home in Howard Beach, including photos of Walter Nowich's parents. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Jeinne Reskallah used cleanser on dirty coins. Photo by Christina Santucci

While celebrities and elected officials display some post-Hurricane Sandy goodwill in hard-hit places like Far Rockaway and Staten Island, residents in a small Queens community are gutting their basements and wondering where to go from here.

Howard Beach was classified as Zone B before the storm unleashed its fury, so there was no mandatory evacuation order given. As such, many people living on the side streets adjacent to Cross Bay Boulevard stayed to weather the storm and were left unprepared for much of the destruction to come.

Walter and Josephine Nowich were in their home on 92nd Street when they noticed water rushing up the street. They grabbed what they could and headed to a friend’s house in Lindenwood.

“It felt like a matter of seconds before cars were floating down the street,” said Walter Nowich, whose finished basement was completely flooded.

The couple has lived in the house for 27 years and said if they had been alerted to the potential for flooding, they would have moved many of their valuables and important documents to the second floor.

“My beautiful basement is ruined,” said Josephine Nowich about the space that once featured couches, a bar and exercise equipment. “We could have saved so much, but we were never told how bad it would get here.”

The Nowiches are not sure if they will refinish the basement, but they are sure of one thing: the kindness and strength of their community.

“The block really came together to support each other,” Walter said. “Life just has to get back to basics. We’re lucky to be alive.”

Stories like that of the Nowiches’ repeat throughout Howard Beach with families pouring over personal items once stored in the basement that are now soggy and ruined at curbside.

A 78-year-old man, who would only give his name as Ed, lost his treasure, a 1937 Packard luxury automobile. He also lost a pool table from the late 1800s, as well as power tools dating back to the 1950s.

“There isn’t much worth saving,” he said. “I’ve lived here since 1957 and it’s all gone. I lost my life in a moment.”

A moment was all Jeinne Reskallah had to get out of harm’s way. The 63-year-old resident on 90th Street watched as her son Giovanni, 23, was pulled from flood waters by rescuers after he left the house. Reskallah, who believes Howard Beach should have been under a mandatory evacuation order, said the current was too strong for her son to make it back, so she sought refuge with her daughter-in-law in her bedroom.

Reskallah’s basement was also ruined, along with a treasure trove of collectibles the widow had amassed through the years. She lost paintings, Bugs Bunny stills, coins, Olympic merchandise and much more, but she knows from experience that it is family that matters most.

“I don’t suffer for material things. I miss my husband the most,” said Reskallah, whose husband Adel died from cancer seven years ago. “You can buy new stuff, but you can’t bring back someone you love so much.”

Appreciation for life and a renewed perspective are what most Howard Beach residents are clinging to these days. Joyce Raia, whose house was nearly smashed when a huge tree came crashing down during the storm, said the devastation could have been much worse.

“We still have a roof over our heads,” said Raia. “In some places, they lost everything.”

Howard Beach residents believe they will bounce back following the storm and the first sign of a rebound came when businesses along the neighborhood’s main strip began reopening.

Mark Sweeney, a manager at catering hall Russo’s on the Bay, at 162-45 Cross Bay Blvd., said he felt a responsibility to clean up and reopen as quickly as possible.

“People had weddings booked here for years — we had to reopen,” said Sweeney, who said the catering hall was fully operational after 10 days. “We also employ about 400 people who needed to get back to work and get a paycheck.”

Russo’s on the Bay was just one of the area businesses that donated food to people in the neighborhood as a way of getting the community back on its feet. Other businesses, including La Bella Vita, at 106-09 Rockaway Blvd. in Ozone Park, and Richmond Hill catering hall Villa Russo, at 118-16 101st Ave., also stepped up with donations.

“This is a very strong community,” Sweeney said. “We want to see it get back to normal.”

Anna, a worker at La Bella Vita who chose not to give her last name, said the restaurant donated prepared food and pizzas three or four times to various charitable groups for storm relief in Howard Beach, the Rockaways and Broad Channel.

“The neighborhoods and communities always support us, so we figured we would return the favor,” she said.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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