Hofstra Pulse Magazine

Fire Chief Keeps Town and Their Spirits Above Water

Island Park Fire Department Chief Steve Ruscio refuses to let his city suffer, even when his own life is in shambles.

by Camilla Arellano

A monument stands next to a sign for the Island Park Fire Department. Photo Credit: Camilla Arellano

A monument stands next to a sign for the Island Park Fire Department.
Photo Credit: Camilla Arellano

On the first warm day of spring, Steve Ruscio, 52, sat comfortably in his newly furnished Island Park home, proudly wearing his FDNY hoodie. Rays of sunshine illuminate the recently reconstructed wooden floor that surging waters had ruined. In a house once deemed “unlivable” by construction experts, he beams while describing the future festivities their town is planning. There will be a parade on streets that used to be flooded as a thank you to those that helped the community move forward. Afterwards, a celebratory block party. There is barely any sign of Sandy’s destruction here inside his house.

It is a very different sight from the one in the last days of October. Island Park got the same grave warning as every other Long Island town close to the shore: Hurricane Sandy was going to be a destructive storm, maybe the worst one that these coastal communities have ever experienced in their lifetimes.

Ruscio had seen a lot in his years as chief of the fire department but he was not going to take any chances. He sent his wife and three daughters up north to safety while he rushed to the firehouse to set up an emergency center. The thought of evacuating never crossed his mind for a moment.

With only several hours left until Sandy’s arrival, the fire department opened their doors as refuge for those who still remained. Panicked residents came to find shelter and bunker-down during the duration of the brutal storm. The bleak light of the following cloudy morning revealed a horrific sight: so much of their beloved town had been ravaged by Sandy’s winds and waters.

Chief Ruscio had no time to waste. The refugees had to leave the firehouse as it quickly transformed into the hub of rescue operations.

Six feet of water had rushed into the first floor of the firehouse, destroying much of their communication system. Yet a visit from Councilman Edward A. Ambrosino just months before Sandy hit had set up a generator on the roof of the fire department. It was this flashlight in the darkness that allowed firefighters to do their job.

It was unlike any call they had been on. Besides fighting various fires they had to deal with disasters like fallen trees, pumping out water, but worst of all, death.

Ultimately, the firehouse lost one to two million dollars in equipment. The infrastructure itself suffered about half a million dollars in damages.

Chief of Island Park Fire Department, Steve Ruscio, 52, sits in his newly furnished living room. Photo Credit: Camilla Arellano

Chief of Island Park Fire Department, Steve Ruscio, 52, sits in his newly furnished living room.
Photo Credit: Camilla Arellano

Back at home, the Ruscio house suffered damage to the sheet rock, wiring and boarding of their home all adding up to about $100,000 in repairs that would not even be completed until approximately four months afterwards.

While circumstances have certainly improved in Island Park since those chaotic days after Sandy, the recovery process turned frustratingly slow for its inhabitants.

Even today, insurance money is not getting to families and businesses fast enough. Some people have just abandoned their homes. Only 5% of businesses returned while others show either empty rooms or wrecked buildings full of clutter left behind.

“You have to realize that the majority of us are middle-class people living paycheck to paycheck,” said Chief Ruscio.

For those that remain, or were able to return, they are relieved that the worst is over. Yet many are still burdened with bureaucracy, local governments and banks’ strict regulations about repairs and costs of rebuilding.

Still, the community members can find hope in the support that continues to pour in from all over the country. One of the first and immediate responders was a group of volunteers known as The Samaritan’s Purse. They gutted out houses at no cost. After renovating the House of Gospel Church, they set up base and continued to help people rebuild.

Even the emergency responders had backup. Firefighter crews flew in from all over, including California, adding up to 120 men and women living at the firehouse to assist.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck again in late December. The Island Park Fire Department learned that four men of the Rochester Fire Department, whom had aided them, were gunned down. Chief Ruscio recalls the visit to their fallen brothers’ funeral with a grim demeanor. Yet, in a way, it shows the bond that these men have built. Both sides were there for each other in their time of need.

Since the storm first hit, Chief Ruscio has rarely left Island Park. He only parted with his town and family to be honored at various ceremonies for his unfaltering dedication to helping the community. Yet he remains humble. When asked about why he did not leave with his family and stayed behind, the chief keeps his reasoning short and sweet: “It was my responsibility.”

Looking back on this journey, Chief Ruscio is grateful for his family’s health and the stronger connection they gained through all the struggles. Looking forward, he sees change. In the fire department, the communication systems and the phone lines will be moved upstairs. There will be an emergency center set up upstairs in case of future catastrophes. “I hope to God something like this never happens again, but if it does we need to be prepared.”

The front of the Island Park Fire Department, which acted as an emergency center during Sandy. Photo Credit: Camilla Arellano

The front of the Island Park Fire Department, which acted as an emergency center during Sandy.
Photo Credit: Camilla Arellano

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