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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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"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.

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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.

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"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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