NEW MILFORD, Connecticut — Transplanted from New York City after Superstorm Sandy nearly killed him and his family, Guillermo Hernandez is counting his blessings in rural Connecticut. He misses the activity of the city he left behind but is grateful for the new start in his new home.
Hernandez, who held his daughter above floodwater for 13 hours after the storm swamped his Staten Island home, is among 14 New York families displaced by the storm who were provided temporary housing in New Milford. The charity was organized by former New Yorkers at Faith Church in New Milford.
Hernandez is preparing to start a job at a local hospital doing maintenance and translation work, and his two children are attending school at the church that provided the land for his home.
"I cannot describe how wonderful it is here," Hernandez said as his dog darted around the small home amid his children's toys. "We love this home. We want to buy it. We want to have it for the kids. It's a new life."
Many of the families were renters who have formed a tight bond and are hoping to buy the homes and stay in the area, so organizers are looking into financial assistance and the possibility of moving some of the homes to nearby mobile home parks. Local officials allowed the mobile homes to remain on the church property until the end of the year.
"They have themselves become a family," said New Fairfield First Selectman John Hodge, a church member who organized the project. "They understand what each other is going through. I think this project has had a profound impact on their lives and allowed them to get their lives back."
When the storm hit, Hernandez, who grew up in Colombia, had lost his power and didn't realize how bad it was until he and his family tried to make it through the flood.
"It was so cold," Hernandez said. "I started praying. My son was crying."
A neighbor rescued him and his family and brought them to the second floor of his house, where Hernandez held his daughter above the floodwater and watched as his cars floated by. Authorities later evacuated the family by boat.
Hernandez said he and his family wound up at a shelter along with drug dealers, prostitutes and sex offenders.
"It's a nightmare," Hernandez said, recalling months of sleeping every other night while he and his wife alternated watching the children.
Hodge, a native of Staten Island, showed up one day and told them about free housing in Connecticut. Hernandez was skeptical but desperate after living in three shelters and losing his job as a parking garage supervisor.
Hernandez and his family moved into their new home two days before Christmas.
After the storm, Hernandez said, his 5-year-old daughter was afraid of water. But she's adjusted well and now he takes her to lakes and rivers in Connecticut, trying to show her a new life.
Hernandez said his son misses his friends and he misses the action of the city, but he doesn't miss the air pollution and the crowding. New Milford has a population of about 28,000 spread across Connecticut's largest town in size and prides itself on not bothering the sprinkling of celebrities who include Joan Rivers and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.
"I love the trees," he said. "You wake up next to the trees."
Victoria Ledeneva, who emigrated from Russia eight years ago with her husband after winning political asylum, thought their years of struggling in a new country were coming to an end after obtaining her law degree and landing a job as a lawyer.
"Boom, this hurricane came, destroyed everything, destroyed our life," Ledeneva said.
The job offer fell apart. Sandy destroyed virtually all their possessions, including musical instruments her children play, when their apartment on Staten Island was flooded. The family bounced from shelter to shelter in New York as they struggled to find an affordable hotel or apartment. And one of her two sons was having nightmares about the water.
Then Ledeneva heard from Hodge about the housing in Connecticut. The family moved in and gradually put the pieces of their lives back together. Ledeneva recently opened her own law practice in Brooklyn. Her children began attending school at the church and her husband even managed to fix the water logged piano.
Her old neighborhood in Staten Island is still in rough shape, she said.
"Almost every time when I go there I want to cry," she said.
By contrast, the family is getting a taste of small-town life in America and thinking about staying in the area.
"We're very happy here," she said, expressing gratitude to Hodge, the church and the town. "I think it's much better for the kids to stay here. Now I like the small town more than New York."
Maryann Daino, a 62-year-old former bartender and seamstress on disability, said when she opened her door the day Sandy hit the floodwaters dragged her down the road and she wound up in a tree. A neighbor pulled her to safety with an orange electrical cord.
Daino said shelters were like prisons, with no privacy, but nobody would take her into their home because of her five cats. Then she found her new home in Connecticut.
"When you lose everything except the clothes on your back, you have a choice of continuing to feel helpless or forcing yourself to find the peace that is necessary to make you go on," Daino said.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which has raised money for storm relief and provided other assistance to storm victims, bought the homes. Hodge is director of operations for the New York-based foundation honors the memory of Staten Island firefighter Stephen Siller, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Stephen Siller is still our hero," said Fran Gully, another resident of the New Milford community. "He does more from heaven than the government does from here."