Angel of Ocean Breeze

"Now I can move forward," one man said as a demolition crew removed what was left of his home. A year after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Staten Island waterfront neighborhood known as Ocean Breeze, residents are starting to piece their lives back together — with the help of an angel. CNN's Evelio Contreras first met Carol Mittelsdorf shortly after the storm and chronicles her story.

In their own words

CNN's Evelio Contreras met many Ocean Breeze residents while reporting this story, including a man who lost a neighbor to the storm and a longtime resident whose great-grandfather gave the area its name. See where they lived, and read their stories in their own words.







Ocean Breeze neighborhood


Dianne Effler

Has lived most of her life in Ocean Breeze

Dianne Effler

"My great grandfather built the first wooden house here. He named it Ocean Breeze because there is always a beautiful ocean breeze. Our family stayed here. We took the bungalows and made them into homes.

"I don't have any relatives left here anymore. I'm going to take the buyout. I'm 70 years old. I have two houses still standing and the one house, which is totally gone. I'm starting over again. It's like the storm wiped out my entire previous history and it's like being reborn."


Frank Moszczynski

Worried his neighborhood will turn into high rise condominiums

Frank Moszczynski

"In New York City for years Staten Island has been called a 'forgotten borough' and I guess it's true because here still again 11 months later nothing's going on. So are we forgotten about? It certainly feels like it.

"It's hard to wake up and realize that everything you owned -- albeit it's only material items -- but your vehicle, your clothes and all your possessions are gone. Very hard to deal with that. Deal with your family with that. Wonder where you're going to live. Wonder who is going to help. Is there any help? So the emotions run wild. Then, the mad part comes in. Why? Why us? Why did it happen? Why did people have to die here?"


Jean Laurie

Planning to be the first person to rebuild a house in Staten Island

Jean Laurie

"We need attention. We need to get everybody around here to see what's really going on. This is true life. This is real stuff that's going on. They have to walk a mile in our shoes. They're not.

"I'd like the mayor to come down here and live for a little while in some of these homes that people have to live in. I'd like to see that. But doesn't seem like that's happening. President Obama, yeah he showed his face and then he took off. Broken promises. What else is new?"


Mike Taurozzi

Lost his neighbor, James Rossi, to the storm

Mike Taurozzi

"I don't really know where else I'm going to go. Where else would I go? If I leave I would leave the state entirely and start a whole new life. It's one of those two options and I'm not much of a gambler. So, I kind of stick to the rebuilding aspect more.

"But I'm still nervous because I went through this twice with two storms. I've lost everything in my basement the first time. And then I rebuilt everything. I built everything higher. And I moved everything upstairs when this storm came and now it took everything. So, do I want to even take the chance? I could move somewhere else and not deal with it. So it's still up in the air."


Joe Herrnkind

Slept in his car for three months after the storm and stays with friends when he's in Staten Island

Joe Herrnkind

"In a few days they are going to be ripping down the home where I spent time with my mom, which is very emotional for me. It's not only the loss of the home. It's more like losing her again due to the fact that the memories that were spent there ­ even though people say they live on in your heart or in your mind ­ you can't just go there and reminisce.

"It's like anything in life. You need that human connection. And all my efforts to save it fell to the wayside. I'm not a rich man and between the city and tearing it down it's tearing out a piece of me."


Ray Weiler

Has Stage 4 throat cancer and wants to move his family back to Ocean Breeze by December

Ray Weiler

"Having my family back in the beach where I grew up, it means the world to me. It was such a great place for me to grow up, you know, I wanted that for my children as well. I wanted them to know what Ocean Breeze was and what it can be. It can still be that tight community. It's just we're a long road off from that right now.

"What I'd like to have in the cards for me is to be able to leave this world and know that my children have a home and that my wife has a home. Before anything happens to me, I'd like to see them back in their house completed so that my wife doesn't have to carry a burden."

Carol Mittelsdorf

A 9/11 survivor who doesn't live in Ocean Breeze, she's become an advocate for her neighbors down the street

Carol Mittelsdorf

"To give up on a community like Ocean Breeze as a culture says that we don't care. That we no longer have an interest in history of families.

"My concern is they are going to give up. They are going to get fed up and give up. It matters to stand next to somebody that wants to give up and try to just give them a feeling that there's hope."

A reporter's notebook

The night Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I kept thinking about how the storm would change people's lives.

I also thought about my mom.

Her birthday was October 30. Every year around this time, I'm reminded of her. Dates and milestones have a way of bringing back memories you can't forget.

As the rain from Sandy started falling, I went outside and took pictures. I often tell myself it's my way of remembering my mom when bad things happen.

She would have wanted me to see.

Meeting the 'angels'

About a week after the storm – which hit on October 29, 2012 -- I took the ferry to Staten Island and walked toward the water. It was my first visit to what's sometimes called New York's "forgotten borough."

The first person I met was Jean Laurie, 44, who was serving coffee outside her home in Ocean Breeze. Two people in her neighborhood died the night of the storm. Most were displaced. The area was virtually destroyed.

Laurie introduced me to Carol Mittelsdorf, 52, who lived about a mile away and was helping Laurie deliver food and donations to those who needed it.

They called their effort Ocean Breeze Angel Relief.

Mittelsdorf was not affected by the storm like Laurie and her neighbors. But she had experienced trauma, and that motivated her to help.

She was on her way to work on September 11, 2001, when she saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

"I thought I was dead," she said. "I was at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the smoke came like a flat wall, straight at you."

Then she remembered something her father said.

A former Marine, he told her if she were ever in a fire, seven breaths of bad air would suffocate her.

Mittelsdorf said she poured a bottle of water into her cashmere sweater and put it over her face. She counted, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi. ... " When she got to 10 she realized she was still alive.

She wanted to remember that day, so when she eventually got back to work she collected the ash that had fallen on the windowsill outside her office near ground zero.

"I didn't have a camera on me that day," she said. "Ever since then, I carry a camera in my bag."

Deciding to help

After Sandy, Mittelsdorf felt compelled to take pictures of the damage in Staten Island.

The day she met Laurie, she found three men guiding another man in a kayak in the middle of a street in Ocean Breeze.

The men were looking for their uncle, James Rossi, an 85-year-old World War II veteran. Mittlesdorf felt conflicted about what to do.

She hung her camera on a fence and began helping out.

"There was a human response inside of me that said, 'You know, I'm not here to observe,'" Mittelsdorf said. "These are people in dire need."

The men found Rossi's body the next day. He died the night of the storm.

I was intrigued by Mittelsdorf's desire to help and document the neighborhood's struggle to recover. So, over the past year, I followed her and the handful of residents who returned to visit their damaged homes in Ocean Breeze.

Many of them came back on weekends to salvage and rebuild what they could. Or to recognize milestones and events, like when the first ruined houses were demolished in January.

The neighborhood became a gathering place, where people reminisced, told each other stories and contemplated their future -- which always came back to the same question: Where do we go from here?

"Surviving the loss of a love," Mittelsdorf said. "Surviving the loss of your home. Surviving the loss of your friends. These can destroy even the strongest people. It's hard to watch that."

She reminded me of my mom, who was born in 1945 and died of lung cancer six years ago -- the same year I covered the Virginia Tech shootings.

The first time I ever used a camera as a journalist was the day of the shootings, April 16, 2007. The first time I ever shot video of my family was when my mom was in the hospital in October that year.

Like Ocean Breeze, I kept going back to Virginia Tech throughout that year to see how people in the community were doing. The stories the families told me helped me cope with my mom's illness and death.

I learned from them that every moment mattered. That plans, no matter how good they are or how much you look forward to them, are always just plans.

The last time I spoke with my mom was on the phone, on Thanksgiving Day, while I was working on an overnight video assignment in Southwest Virginia. She was in a hospital in Texas.

She thanked me for calling and told me to get back to work, so I could show her the video when I returned home.

The morning I flew back to see her, she died.

After I visited Mittelsdorf in her home on Staten Island, she told me about her son, who was 29 when he died four years ago. He, too, liked to shoot and edit videos.

When I asked what he died of, she didn't want to say much other than his "heart stopped."

She keeps the coroner's report sealed in a suitcase with the clothes her son was wearing the day he died. She stores it in her house in a place she can't easily get to.

She hasn't had a funeral for him. However, the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy has got her thinking that maybe she's ready to have one.

"Whatever comes of this," she said to me about this video, "please dedicate it to the memory of my son."

I told her that's what she's already doing with her work in Ocean Breeze.

Recording memories

The first person Mittelsdorf really got to know in Ocean Breeze was Joe Herrnkind. She remembered walking by his house before the storm, on her way to the beach, and admiring the pristine exterior. "Everything wasn't just in order, it was fastidious."

Later, the 51-year-old resident told me he had trouble remembering things. After Sandy ruined his home, Herrnkind said he began forgetting conversations he had just had.

He attributes it to stress from the storm. So he started writing his thoughts in a notebook, which he kept in a laptop bag.

"It's almost like your brain shuts down on you because your mouth isn't corresponding with what your brain is thinking," he said. "I'm trying to get words out that aren't there. People's names or events."

He wrote every day for six months, he said, filling hundreds of pages.

In the spring, he left the bag outside the front door of his damaged house. He went inside to pick something up; when he came back out, the bag was missing.

Just like that, his memories were gone.

"The thing I don't understand is why they didn't put it back when they found it wasn't a laptop," he said. "It was just papers that didn't mean anything to anyone."

The future

It's unclear if Ocean Breeze will ever return to normal. Many residents want the state to expand its post-Sandy home buyout program to their former neighborhood.

More than a hundred houses, many of them tiny bungalows, lined up on three blocks in the neighborhood. They sat beside the ocean where families turned summer homes into places where they raised families for three generations.

Not many people live here now. Jean Laurie rented a place next door to her destroyed home. One man is living in a trailer. And a few families remain in a couple of taller, recently built homes. The rest of the buildings have either been demolished or remain empty.

A strong, vocal group is pushing for buyouts. But not everyone is ready to make a decision.

Mittelsdorf sees it as her duty to show up in the neighborhood and let people know she's not leaving, so they don't feel like they have to leave the neighborhood if they don't want to.

"I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes all you need is one person to believe in you," she said. "I don't know who believes in me. I believe in them."

Video and reporting: Evelio Contreras, Brandon Ancil, Toby Lyles
Design and development: Kyle Ellis, Curt Merrill