Sunk by Sandy 

How a mid-Atlantic hurricane hit Cleveland hard, frustrating many and devastating a forgotten few

As dawn broke across Lake Erie on Oct. 26 last fall, Alexandria Elias was sleeping on her boat at Edgewater Marina and dreaming.

From the depths of REM, her subconscious watched as water flooded the rig and jarred her awake. The lake's own discharge carpeted the boat - a foot or more of water, at least - as a damning mist drenched the walls.

And then she woke up from her nightmare.


It was a blustery morning and observant boaters were taking the bellwether in stride, actively preparing for this little thing called Hurricane Sandy that was set to rock New England in the coming days. Cleveland, not a typical hurricane target by any means (nor was New England, for that matter), was likewise bracing for heavy winds, pounding rains and more than a few power outages. Nothing completely outrageous or devastating.

With a strange and esoteric irony, however, Elias' dream became reality just a few days later.

On Oct. 29, as reports of hurricane-wracked damage began sweeping up the east coast, the boaters of the Great Lakes grew nervous. Elias raced to the marina, hoping to move her boat further down the shore or, at the very least, gather her most important belongings. She was met at the gates with irreversible mandates to clear the area, though she begged employees to let her grab her possessions from the boat. She had cash on board and was prepared to pay them on the spot.

The rain, meanwhile, was coming down in sheets. Twenty-foot waves. "You cannot go down there!" Marina employees were trying to ward her off. "Safety first, you know!" Brutal winds were literally smashing into trees along nearby State Route 2. "You're not going out to your dock! You're just not!"

The next morning: carnage along the shore. "The Boathouse," where Elias spent her days and nights fleshing out the model of her budding new business, was submerged. Gone. Her kitchen curtains floated naught but 20 feet from the bobbing tip of the boat. A shoe, bereft of its partner, rode the incoming waves with an air of defeat. Dozens of other shattered boats lined the marina's jagged walkways.

What followed was a week of cold, cold hassle for many. It's clear enough that Cleveland got off relatively easy compared to, say, Atlantic City, but that misses the point. The storm upended livelihoods here in town and left a trail of questions in its wake.

It was a 1980 33-foot Chriscraft Catalina, Elias says. Emphasis on the past tense. And certainly a stark contrast to the yachting world that lines the lakeshore. It was a tidy little rig where she cooked dinners and slept. Where she dreamed.

Elias is living in Lakewood these days, renting half a home far from her former maritime digs. She found support in the local YMCA where she had worked out for years. Her gratitude to the people around her remains immeasurable, she notes, but the wreckage of a life torn asunder by a perfect storm is equally palpable.

"There was so much damage," she says, her voice trailing down a path lit by vivid memories. She had fled to the marina the morning after the hurricane struck - the morning after being shut out by management - to investigate. Other boat owners joined her on the decks, casting forlorn glances toward the tide and running nervous hands through their hair.

As the recovery process began, Elias brought a hired diver along on Nov. 4 to check out the scene, but they were both blocked from the marina before they could get any work done. "I wasn't even entitled to go through or look at or salvage parts to sell," she says, adding that most of her rig ended up in pieces tossed in a dumpster with a melange of other boat-like debris.

Boat owners whose property fell into the sights of the storm are in the difficult position of wanting to put pressure on the state-owned marina and sue for damages from the storm's effects, via the loss of property. But being a state facility, any class action lawsuit against the marina's management would need approval from the state itself. (There is a proposal in the state legislature now to turn over ownership of Edgewater - and the rest of Cleveland Lakefront State Park - to the city of Cleveland.)

It's one of several hurdles in Elias' path since the hurricane struck - a timeline that included being slapped with a $4,200 bill from the marina and a $9,000 bill from the independent salvage company for pulling her wrecked boat out of the water.

Edgewater Marina, for its part, picked up a handy $1.6 million in emergency management funding Jan. 14. Reports show that more than 20,000 cubic yards of debris and wreckage continued to ebb and flow in the tide following Sandy. Dozens of boats had sunk the night of the storm - more than 30 by some estimates. Dozens more were damaged immeasurably. Officials cite Edgewater Marina as likely bearing the worst of the storm damage, compared to the rest of the Northeast Ohio shoreline.

The plan going forward is to restore the marina completely and reopen it by boating season. Detroit-based SmithGroup JJR is currently drafting a plan to rebuild the facility, which is littered with decimated dock structures.


But for private citizens, taxpaying voters, boat owners and others, the responsibility of moving ahead lies in their own hands and in their own wallets. Elias finds herself in a precarious position, flanked by an overly apathetic public on one side and a committed contingent of activists and environmental advocates on the other. The obstacles ahead, she says, are numerous.

"I think very soon after, it became: Well, what is anyone supposed to do?"

The answer to that question began unfolding in bits and pieces after the storm.


Just off an ice-ridden little roadway near the shoreline, two lake-faring vessels are poised alongside each other. Dubbed Flotsam and Jetsam, these custom-designed boats are two critical pieces of the region's post-Sandy puzzle. Built to collect vast amounts of floating debris, their work began in Cleveland just prior to Elias' preternatural dream.

The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority received a $425,160 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant last summer, via the work of Jim White, director of sustainable infrastructure programs -- the father of the boats, many say. That grant money funded the two vessels and gave the port a unique leg up in the sometimes-overlapping realms of emergency and ecology.

Flotsam gathers debris floating in the water - sticks, plastic, styrofoam and much more - with a long mechanical arm before handing it off to Jetsam, which transports it back to shore for pickup. The two boats are expected to collect upwards of 800 cubic yards of materials annually. Imagine, as the port illustrates it, 53 dump trucks filled to capacity with litter and detritus.

Commissioned on Oct. 17, months ahead of schedule, the two debris-collecting vessels began working right before the storm's impact on our lake shore. The timing proved impeccable, though the boats hadn't necessarily been crafted with hurricanes in mind. Within a few weeks of their nascent launch, before the weather turned frigid and the boats went into storage, the port gathered 42 tons of debris from the lake and the Cuyahoga River. Estimates put the hurricane-related collections alone at more than 20 tons. And that was all inside a month, prior to the boats being docked in mid-November.

The unintentional timing of the boats' commissioning accomplished many things for the port: a more effective emergency response, a positive public relations development and an opportunity to expand on its work. When a mid-Atlantic hurricane crashed into Northern Ohio, the bizarre situation offered the new rigs and the new staff - comprising members of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance - a chance to test this new approach. From the storm itself to this particular brand of cleanup, the whole enterprise was unprecedented.

"That was a strong event," Brian Lynch, vice president of planning and development of the port, says. "I've never seen the river flowing as it was. It was flowing in different directions." The environmental hazards of massive amounts of debris floating in our region's main water source are numerous, Lynch says. The hurricane's winds managed to thrust the bowels of the lake - like remnants of broken boats, plastic bottles and, famously, pieces of Cleveland Municipal Stadium - directly into the mouth of the river and onto beaches across the shoreline. He added that this sort of work is one cog in the effort to revitalize the river and maintain good standing with the EPA. The post-Sandy cleanup was swift and thorough, but he cautions that there's still much work to do this spring and beyond.

A week after the fringes of the storm struck Cleveland, the port received news of the rejection of a levy request seeking an estimated 400 percent increase in taxpayer millage. The funding pitch, which was seen as incomplete by many, would have helped broaden the scope of cleanup efforts along the shoreline, per the port's plans.

"Had they been able to really parlay what they did in the face of a tragedy, maybe that levy would have passed because people would have understood how important it was," Elias says.

And so that panorama of fractured hulls and sunken livelihoods that Elias saw when she arrived at the marina the morning after the storm - when she really woke up to find the marina half-destroyed - laid an ongoing claim to the sandy shores of northern Ohio. Weeks passed and, little by little, volunteers and stakeholders took the time to repair the patchwork wounds of Lake Erie's beaches. But these are wounds the likes of which Cleveland hadn't experienced before.

Distraught, Elias ponders the magnitude of the whole thing.

"Now we've got this problem."


The days that followed were chaotic for many. Well, how do we get this gawddamned tree off our house? Where the fuck is First Energy? And what about the lake?

The questions throughout Cuyahoga County varied. But a circle of forward-thinking volunteers soon congregated along the beach at Edgewater Park and similar public locales to pair a human element with Flotsam and Jetsam's work.

More than 200 volunteers joined forces within the week to clean up the area's hardest hit beaches - Edgewater, Euclid, Bradstreet's Landing and others. Hyle Lowry, who heads up the Ohio office of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says the response was tremendous. Hundreds of pounds of debris and litter were collected during one massive push on Nov. 10 alone. Long guardrails ripped from concrete shells were strewn about parks. Breakwalls had been disturbed and massive shards of wood had made their way inland. The work was rigorous, but it was truthfully only the beginning of a long campaign that will pick up with fervor this spring.

"People do this because they are impacted emotionally," Lowry says. Some showed up after their property was destroyed. Others arrived because the wind-whipped reality of the storm was unavoidable. Still others responded to the call because, in the end, what else are people supposed to do in the wake of a disaster?

"I was just amazed at having this huge event hit us and all these people calling me, (asking) 'What can I do?'" Lowry says. "People just got out there and cared." It was a sharp contrast to the inward thrust of Cleveland life outside committed environmental circles. Elias, who tried to jump-start conversations and fundraising in town, was met with a largely nonexistent response. Once the lights came back on - and that gawddamned tree was cut down and lifted off the house - the Sandy recovery shriveled into tiny pockets of environmentalists and those who were profoundly affected by storm damage.

As February trudges onward, Lake Erie's beaches bear hard, frozen Earth. The occasional jogger ambles down the pathway. An empty soda can, the modern tumbleweed, drifts along rigid sawgrass. And memories of the raging waves that crashed onto the sand in late October are cast into the rip current. Lowry takes a moment to consider the long-term.

It's difficult to say what surprises lay beneath the ice - what sort of concerns will show themselves after the thaw, she says. Post-hurricane data is slim and mostly anecdotal, given the narrow timeframe following the storm. But Lowry does concede that history has a role to play: Something like this will happen again, she adds. And, once more, it will be wise to expect the unexpected.

"This huge thing affected us. We cannot lose the momentum," she says. "We have to keep talking about this."


A small government office at the mouth of Sandusky Bay - within earshot of the thrilled screams from Cedar Point - houses the state's Office of Coastal Management. Employees there teamed up with Lowry and the Alliance for the Great Lakes to provide resources and support for the Nov. 10 cleanup campaign. They say there are more events and heightened cooperation to come this year and beyond. A call-out for assistance and volunteers is seemingly ongoing.

Scudder Mackey, the office's chief, explains that initial assessments of the storm damage were actually less severe than anticipated, thanks in part to low water levels. And that was good news - though he quickly adds that Cleveland was actually the lone exception. Cleveland, he says, bit the hurricane bullet in a bad way.

"There was a tremendous amount of trash - damaged boats, docks and piers," he says, pointing to E. 55th Street Marina and Edgewater as two sites that got rocked by the storm. "We spent an entire day working in these parks, picking up storm debris."

For local and state government's part, Mackey explains, Sandy offers a concise and specific window into how storm preparations and management can be improved in the future. He echoes Lowry's sentiment that a storm like Sandy will happen again.

"Many of these climate models suggest that the frequency and magnitude (of severe storms) are going to increase over time. Perhaps storms like Superstorm Sandy will become more frequent. That's something that people really need to keep in mind," he says. It's an oft-repeated sentiment regarding climate change: massive natural disasters are seen as a symptom of the planet's shifting atmosphere.

"This is something, of course, that you don't budget for, don't anticipate," Mackey says, describing how his office had to divert funds toward NOAA's Marine Debris Cleanup Program to assist in the abrupt response. "But now that we have one or two of these under our belt, we can do it better."

But a look at Elias and her story would suggest that there's still a great demand for relief, community-based help and outreach.


Way back in the summer of 2012 (seemingly a lifetime ago, from a post-Sandy perspective), Elias could have been seen working out in the shallow waters of Lake Erie. Her budding new business, Aqua Boot Camp, was beginning to take off. When simply swimming around her boat became mundane, she began devising a robust workout regimen that would propel her entrepreneurial spirit and put a new spin on aerobics. It's like P90X in water, she says. And so her trusty boat started pulling overtime as office space. That is, until...

"I lost my creative studio," Elias says. "This was a detriment when it comes to business. Here, a Cleveland entrepreneur is displaced."

Last year, actually, Elias' business made quite an impression during Bad Girl Ventures' investment competition right around the time of the storm. She had been gaining traction in the local business community until the storm took everything away.

Sidelined now, Elias' brimming work hit a dead end. She had been seeking outside investment and the program remains ready to go, she says. But while she picks up the pieces of a major part of her life that now rests at the bottom of the lake, her resources are stretched thin and a budding small business is gathering dust.

And that's all while working jobs to keep the money coming in and trying to find a post-storm landing pad for her career. Elias was not alone: Following the storm, tens of thousands of families across Northeast Ohio began to sort out their lives. For many, that meant waiting for utility crews to restore their neighborhood's power and watching their smartphone batteries dwindle to nothing. For others, that meant staying warm at a local emergency shelter during the long days and nights.

She quickly began arranging a nonprofit donation service. The Sandy Great Lakes Fund was established with the intention of serving the local displaced populations.

But few people responded to the the outreach campaign.

"There was such apathy," Elias says, with an already worn-down sense of surprise at the whole thing. "I think people would have gotten more involved had they known what the extent of the damage was. Unbelievably, (the fund) didn't get any press at all."

Jersey Shore, Breezy Point, Battery Park: Dots on the map of the Northeast rightfully earned the headlines and the national attention. But from Chicago across to Lake Erie and on toward Buffalo and Rochester, the effects of Hurricane Sandy, the accompanying winter storm and the brutal arctic front were felt profoundly in the Great Lakes. Photo galleries, social updates and pressers with local mayors riddled the region's headlines for a week or so following the storm.

Though the storm earned the moniker of one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory - by the way, you'd have to go back to 1954's Hurricane Hazel to find an Atlantic-born hurricane that did comparable damage to the Great Lakes - its due attention has dwindled as time goes on.

Still, there's a set of people from various corners of the region whose lives rest in the shadow of the storm. Months out, the response to Sandy is a daily concern for some. And if these storms continue to affect us at an alarming rate, as Lowry and Mackey muse, the question of how to reconcile the support for the common good with a response to a disastrous event that mostly courses through society's self-interest.


"I wouldn't wish Superstorm Sandy on anybody," Mackey says as he eyes the coming spring from his Sandusky Bay office. "But we view this as an opportunity. These are things we have to prepare for."

Locally, where the brunt of the storm's Northeast Ohio arm crushed beaches and shoreline, preparations and reactions are ongoing.

Cuyahoga County municipalities, state agencies and nonprofits became eligible for nearly $7 million in emergency reimbursement money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Safety personnel from around the county gathered in the Warrensville Heights Community Center Jan. 10 for a briefing on the paperwork behind the funding.

No other county in the state was eligible for the support.

Money is to be doled out for needs such as debris removal and emergency services deployed following the storm, as well as roads and bridges, water control, buildings and equipment, utilities and parks and recreation. It's sure to take the typically sluggish path of government reimbursement, but it's one of the few sources of overt financial aid flowing into the greater Cleveland area.

Elias' nonprofit, the Sandy Great Lakes Fund, hasn't gotten very far. The plan, concocted in the days after the initial swell, was to reach out and assist others left with a sunken boat or otherwise extensive damage to their property. The idea up front was to galvanize a major cleanup effort across the region. She reached out to possible donors and area philanthropists with the plea to help provide to those in need - "whether it be a roof, a flood-damaged basement, a car crushed by a tree or even groceries lost due to power outages."

Her contribution to the solution ended up as a case of preaching to the choir. Organizations like the Alliance for the Great Lakes and volunteers picked up by the ODNR's Office of Coastal Management were echoing Elias' insistence on restoring the lakeshore, but few others beyond that scope joined the call. As for the fund itself? "I wish there had been care or concern from the community," she says of the attempts at cultivating an effective nonprofit.

More than three months out from the storm, the whole thing rarely makes it way back into the region's general conversation.

But a thaw is coming. Spring is on its way and Flotsam and Jetsam will be seen almost daily along the lakeshore and near the mouth of the river. Lowry is hopeful that the seasonal shift will infuse the Sandy response with new life and vigor. "We're all getting ready for spring."

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