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Sunk by Sandy 

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

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"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.

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