By Alice Kenny
Raindrops pour down a battered picket fence dotted with Mickey and Minnie Mouse paintings surrounding Marina Babkina’s two-story attached home in Midland Beach. They serve as faded reminders of a once-thriving international daycare center and home now struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy touched down in this Staten Island enclave.
Ms. Babkina’s Karousel Daycare Center and Fairytale music studio provided crucial support for her predominantly Russian-born neighbors. In addition to allowing parents to work worry free, it helped young children, many of whom spoke no English, acclimate to their new lives in the United States.
“The human brain is set up to distinguish music before it distinguishes speech,” says Ms. Babkina, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Russia nearly 20 years ago and holds masters degrees in music and economics. So Ms. Bakina, a widow whose husband died of cancer in 2002, used songs and instruments ranging from guitars to keyboards to help her tiny charges, 14 in all, learn language, math and art.
That ended when Hurricane Sandy pushed waves from the Atlantic Ocean that roars just one block away into the basement and first floor that housed her business. Meanwhile, 90- mile-an-hour winds ripped through her second-floor skylights, destroying the walls, floors and furniture that made up her home.
Ms. Babkina evacuated. But her adult son, Ilya, returned to save instruments stored in the finished basement. Instead, he nearly drowned. Forty-degree ocean water filled the lower room. He escaped by pulling himself up the cellar stairs, pushing his way out the front door and swimming nearly 15 blocks up Hyland Blvd. Finally, he reached dry land.
Yet at first, Ms. Babkina seemed like one of the lucky ones. Unlike many of her neighbors, she had flood insurance.
But she used up her flood insurance – $50,000 in all — to replace windows, walls, cabinets and appliances before engineers noticed that her house was shifting. Chocking on scents of mold mixed with sawdust, Ms. Bakina points to cracks zigzagging her windows and walls, salt water still flowing along her foundation and a jagged 12-square-foot gap in cement, a reminder of a cracked pipe that had to be dug up beneath her basement.
Her Catholic Charities Disaster Case Manager, Valerya Osipova, is helping this once-independent woman navigate a new world characterized by FEMA and forms, hope and desperation.
It has not been easy.
Ms. Babkina’s home is wedged in the middle of five attached houses. Construction engineers now recommend building pillars that would extend from deep in the ground to the houses’ roofs to shore up the now shifting homes. This, however, requires consent and financial support from all five homeowners as well as their insurance companies.
Meanwhile, Ms. Babkina is unable to move back into her home, reestablish the business that once paid her bills or provide the daycare that allowed many of her neighbors to work.
Ms. Osipova is helping Ms. Babkina negotiate with FEMA and with her insurance company. She obtained a $500 grant to replace the battered fence with a new one to allow Ms. Babkina to reopen her daycare business. She lined up donations that range from flooring to skylights and furniture between. She provided her with food from a Catholic Charities food pantry, helped her apply for food stamps and linked her with other government programs that Ms. Bakina once thought she would never need. And she serves as a comfort and sounding board when the time and energy needed to maintain the struggle seems too much for her to bear.
“It’s not easy,” Ms. Babkina says, pointing out a plot of dirt once filled by rose bushes that would bloom on her July birthday. “This year, there are no roses.”