Hofstra Pulse Magazine

Rockaway Beach Couple Wins Wedding After Hurricane Sandy

How one Rockaway Beach couple’s worst year of their lives becomes the best.

By Carson Olivares

Mary-Anastasia Opperman, 23, and Jason Rivera, 27, look onward towards their summer wedding. Credit: Mary-Anastasia Opperman and Jason Rivera

Mary-Anastasia Opperman, 23, and Jason Rivera, 27, look onward towards their summer wedding.
Photo Credit: Mary-Anastasia Opperman and Jason Rivera

Cool, frothy salt water lapped their waistlines; Mary-Anastasia Opperman, 23, and Jason Rivera, 27, knew one thing: they had to book it. Dragging their feet like anchors through the steady, churning tide, the beach-natives fled to their Rockaway house, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, adrenaline pulling them out of their dazed amazement.

Just moments earlier they were transfixed on the horizon as the tremendous waves rolled in, pounding the shoreline. Never before had they seen waves at their beach so impressive in size and force. The state had built dunes to keep the water out of the town. The couple watched in the comfort of their distance with their neighbors in awe of the natural energy. But one enormous wave in particular came and engulfed the man-made dunes, effortlessly swallowing the shore. You can’t keep Mother Nature out. Instinct and Rivera’s EMT training kicked in and in seconds the couple was running, or wading, through the tides. They had to make it to safety at Rivera’s house. Later, in the aftermath of the storm, they will learn that the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, once a token of their love, is now just a pile of loose nails and boards. They will learn that their possessions, the artifacts of their memories, will be nothing but debris. But in this moment, together hand-in-hand, they just had to get out of the way.

Mary-Anastasia Opperman wades through flood water in Rockaway Beach. Credit: Mary-Anastasia Opperman and Jason Rivera

Mary-Anastasia Opperman wades through flood water in Rockaway Beach.
Photo Credit: Mary-Anastasia Opperman and Jason Rivera

Six years ago, two teenagers walked together along the boardwalk. Living only two-blocks apart in a small town, they had grown-up together and had known each other forever. Nonetheless, Rivera was nervous and intimidated. Of course he was, he was about to ask out the girl he liked. At the time they were unaware that their friends had actually fixed them up, and did a good job at it. That night, they agreed to go on as boyfriend and girlfriend standing at the tip of the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk over the infinite horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the start of the end-all relationship for them.

They stayed together the next years as Opperman went away for school at Mount St. Mary.

“Every weekend while she was at college I would take that two-hour drive up,” remembered Rivera, who stayed local to finish his EMT training.

“But then I came home and went to St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn,” said Opperman, a now certified general and special education teacher.

Then the two needed each other more than ever. In 2012, Rivera lost his father and Opperman lost her grandmother and cousin. The year had been terrible and went from bad to worse when the couple woke up the morning of Super Storm Sandy in late-October.

“The high tide had come in already,” recalled Opperman. “It really didn’t come up any higher than it had with Irene though — we weren’t too worried.”

So they walked over to the sand on the beach two blocks away, joining their neighborhood to watch the waves with the appreciation of a beach-worshiping community.

“I was just amazed,” said Rivera. “I love nature, I love stuff like that. I was amazed by how waves were coming up and crashing. And there was this one big wave; it just swallowed the whole dune.”

Before they could process what was happening, ocean water was curving through the streets.

“The idea that the one thing that you love is about to destroy everything is just so surreal, especially when you’re sitting there during it,” said Opperman.

“Mary and I looked at each other and were like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to get out of here,’” said Rivera. “I grabbed her and I was like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s try to get back’.”

They consider themselves lucky just getting back to Rivera’s house. The water by that time was so high it was already flooding his basement and starting to breach the windows.

“We were trying to hold the windows but maybe in the next five seconds the windows completely crashed in and the water filled the basement within seconds,” said Opperman.

By the end of the hurricane, Rivera’s basement was completely flooded up to the first floor and Opperman’s house, lower in elevation, had water in the basement and up to one-foot on the first floor. Almost everything, photographs, trophies, records, even Opperman’s Irish step dancing dresses, were gone.

“You name it, it was in the basement,” said Opperman.

The couple finds out they won the $28,000 platinum wedding package from The Wedding Rescue Team. Photo Credit:Silverfox Photography and Cinematography

The couple finds out they won the $28,000 platinum wedding package from The Wedding Rescue Team.
Photo Credit:Silverfox Photography and Cinematography

In the wake of the storm, Rivera and Opperman found themselves in the aftermath of the hardest year of their lives.

“After everything that we went through that whole year, just so serious, and then to lose everything in Sandy, we were going through the hardest times of our lives this year-Sandy was one of the worst experiences that I have ever encountered,” said Rivera.

But as the rebuilding process came, Opperman would support Rivera, Rivera would help Opperman, and while reinstalling drywall and recovering lost mementos, Rivera was making payments on a diamond ring.

“Nothing broke our spirits, we stuck right next to each other. I was like I have to pay this ring off as soon as possible,” he said. “I have to end this year off on a good note because it was just so devastating. I didn’t want anything else to come in the way of our lives together.”

On December 19th, almost two months after Hurricane Sandy, Rivera and Opperman travelled into Manhattan for The Radio City Christmas Music Spectacular. Rivera booked a room at The Waldorf, took Opperman to dinner and said he had one last stop before the show.

“He said, ‘I just want to run somewhere really quick.’ So of course I followed him. We went into the NBC building. I wasn’t too sure what was inside, I didn’t realize that is where the Top of the Rock is,” said Opperman.

There, Rivera proposed to his long-time best friend overlooking the sparkling city views eleven days before the New Year.

Opperman sifts through debris in Rockaway Beach post-Sandy. Photo Credit: Mary-Anastasia Opperman and Jason Rivera

Opperman sifts through debris in Rockaway Beach post-Sandy.
Photo Credit: Mary-Anastasia Opperman and Jason Rivera

“This is the person I want to be with. I’ve realized that all the past years that I’ve known her and this just confirmed how strong we are to stick together, not lose hope and just be there for each other no matter what,” said Rivera.

Because of their incredibly compelling story and their lifelong connection to the town of Rockaway Beach, Opperman and Rivera will marry locally on the Island on August 9th through the support of The Wedding Rescue Team, a contest for Long Island engaged couples with a compelling story of Hurricane Sandy. Opperman and Rivera won the grand prize this past Valentine’s Day from a network of local wedding businesses who want to make their dream wedding a reality. In total, the goods and services are valued at $28,000.

“ I decided to do the Wedding Rescue because, as someone who has owned a business on Long Island for twenty plus years, I felt the need to give back at a time when people needed it most,” said John Salkowsky, 47, owner of Silverfox Photography and Cinematography in Farmingdale. “It was really a very rewarding and humbling experience. And after reading and then hearing in-person the story of Mary and Jason, there was little doubt as to who would be awarded the grand prize.”

“I just graduated and with all the money we’re putting towards our houses, towards trying to rebuild and not getting money from insurance companies, The Wedding Rescue Team made all our dreams come true,” said Opperman. “We’re able to have a wedding so soon and we’re just so excited.”

Opperman and Rivera’s compelling story pulled heartstrings and won them the Platinum Wedding Package. Photo Credit: Silverfox Photography and Cinematography

Opperman and Rivera’s compelling story pulled heartstrings and won them the Platinum Wedding Package.
Photo Credit: Silverfox Photography and Cinematography

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