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Hurricane Sandy survivor determined to rebuild Staten Island home

Rock Center

Since Hurricane Sandy destroyed her Staten Island home a week and a half ago, Phyllis Puglia has returned every day to the area where she used to live.

“Everybody understands we’re homeless,” Puglia told NBC News’ Ann Curry.  “You know, you’re homeless in the place you love.  You’re homeless where your family is… You know, you build memories there.  You build a life there and that’s what ripped my heart apart, you know? Because I loved my home that much.”

Puglia is one of the estimated 40,000 newly homeless in New York because of Sandy. She and her husband have lived on Staten Island, just a 25-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, for 25 years.

NBC News

Phyllis Puglia has lived on Staten Island for 25 years. Amid this debris from Hurricane Sandy are all that's left of her home.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Rock Center's list of resources to help Phyllis and other hurricane victims

“It’s hard at 62 years old to say, ‘All right, I got to start over,’” Puglia said.  “My cousins keep calling me: “Don’t worry. You can do it, you’ll do it. We’ll help you.’”

Staten Island bore some of the worst of Sandy’s wrath. Of the 121 people Sandy killed, 22 people died on Staten Island, where a storm surge at times 16 feet high crashed 14 blocks inland from the shore. Hundreds of houses were destroyed or made unlivable. Many people remain without heat and power and efforts to restore electricity were slowed even further after Wednesday’s nor’easter dropped snow and high winds on the already beleaguered East Coast.

Damage in New York state from Superstorm Sandy could total $33 billion when all is said and done, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday as the state began cleaning up from the nor'easter.

NBC News

Phyllis Puglia grips her mother's wedding photo. She is still searching for her mom's wedding ring.

Throughout Staten Island's beach area, the storm had blanketed growing piles of debris with several inches of snow. By mid-morning, it was starting to melt, filling the streets with filthy sludge.

NBC News first spotted Puglia last week when she was searching for what was left of her home.  Nearly a mile away from where her home had stood, she found her belongings scattered. Among them were family heirlooms such as her mother’s wedding photo, an antique sewing machine and framed pictures that once decorated her two-story home.

“I didn’t think we would come up the block and my house is gone and everything I own and everything I have is not there anymore,” an emotional Puglia told NBC. “All the things I cherished and saved over the years from my kids and my mother and my grandchildren, my mother’s wedding ring, and it’s breaking my heart because it’s all gone. “

With the flood waters receded, Puglia has returned to the site where her belongings are scattered every day, but the journey hasn’t gotten any easier.

“Every time I come here for the first time, I can’t breathe, you know. And I start to cry and then I say, you know, ‘Shut off and just do the job. Do what you got to do,’” Puglia said.

Her job has turned into a treasure hunt. Wearing blue latex gloves and an FDNY sweatshirt, she sifts through the debris field that holds the life she was building. As much as she’s lost, Puglia is sometimes surprised by what she finds: intact plates she got as an engagement present from her mother, a photo of her father and Uncle Angelo. She said that finding those things makes her feel as though she’s getting something back, despite the devastation.

NBC News

Phyllis Puglia, the daughter of a seamstress and sanitation worker, found this antique sewing machine among her belongings scattered by Hurricane Sandy.

“It helps take away that helpless, empty feeling you have, you know?” Puglia said.

Holding on in the face of adversity has always defined Puglia, an Irish- Italian mother of three and the daughter of a sanitation worker and a seamstress. 

Puglia’s sister, Gladys, became emotional when asked about her worries for her sister, saying, “I thank God for her every day of my life.”

Puglia is learning to rely on her friends, family and even the kindness of strangers. A group of firefighters arrived unannounced this week to help her clean up. They were from the same station house as her firefighter son.

“She’s a beautiful woman and she’s a mother to all of us. Whatever she needs, we’ll be there for her,” one firefighter said.

As the kindness of the firefighters sunk in, Puglia started to cry.

“With all the darkness, all the tragedy, they make me cry because they’re so generous and so loving and they want to do anything they can for me, no matter what it is, they’ll do it for me,” she said.

Puglia’s family has started a website where people can make donations. The idea, at first, embarrassed her.

“I said, ‘Oh, don’t do that,’” said Puglia of what she initially told her family. “They say… this is offerings to start new.”

Puglia said she dreams that her neighborhood will one day rebuild.

“I say I want to close my eyes and I open my eyes and everything be back the way it was,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.