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Faulty Staten Island evacuation plans leave 7 dead

Sanitation workers cleared garbage from a street on Friday in the Midland Park section of Staten Island.

Andrew Burton / Reuters

Sanitation workers cleared garbage from a street on Friday in the Midland Park section of Staten Island.

NEW YORK — Eugene Contrubis heard the many warnings about Hurricane Sandy but decided to ride it out in his drafty, one-story bungalow at 162 Kiswick St., eight blocks from the beach in Staten Island. Soft-spoken and frail, he was a retired Police Department clerk who wrote poetry, enjoyed chess, and adored his nieces. When they were children, he hung a swing from a tree in his yard for them to play on.

Contrubis had lived alone since his mother’s death a few years ago. He had outlasted storms before. This one would be no different, he thought.

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As night fell on Monday, Oct. 29, Contrubis, 67, talked by phone with his brother-in-law. The wind had felled some branches, he reported, nothing more.

But around 6:45 p.m., water from Lower New York Bay breached the beachfront road and poured into Contrubis’s neighborhood, knocking out power and eventually swallowing entire blocks.

At some point, Contrubis left a message on his sister Christina’s voice mail: ‘‘The water’s coming in,’’ he said softly.

His body was found in his house the next day.

Contrubis was one of seven people who drowned during Hurricane Sandy in Midland Beach, a small, low-slung neighborhood of one-story bungalows and newer two- and three-story houses. The seven lived within about eight short blocks of one another — apparently the highest concentration of deaths in the United States attributable to the storm, which killed more than 100 people in this country.

The deaths have raised unsettling questions about why the victims were in their homes when the storm hit and whether the city bore some responsibility for their failure to evacuate. Relatives, friends, and officials have replayed the events of that night, pondering whether they should have done something different — and how the city can improve its evacuation procedures for future storms.

Midland Beach is part of Zone A, a collection of neighborhoods around the city deemed most at risk of flooding. The city declared a mandatory evacuation of the zone before Hurricane Sandy.

Last year, in the days before Tropical Storm Irene, city workers visited the neighborhood, broadcasting evacuation warnings by loudspeaker, residents recalled.

This time, officials said, city workers were sent once again to Staten Island’s evacuation zones to issue warnings, some using loudspeakers. But many residents of Midland Beach said they did not hear them.

Still, it is not at all certain that such a measure, or even the police’s going door to door, would have made a difference. Like most of the neighborhood’s residents, the victims ignored numerous orders to evacuate, a decision that underscores an independent streak that runs deep on Staten Island.

‘‘I tried very hard,’’ Christina Contrubis said through sobs at her brother’s funeral Monday. ‘‘Before the storm I called him up and said, ‘Gene, the storm, it looks bad!’ And he said, ‘Everybody’s staying; nobody’s leaving.’ He just told me, ‘I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to leave.’ ’’

The seven victims were mostly elderly — the youngest was 59. Most lived alone, and one was legally blind, paraplegic, and had cerebral palsy. On that night, the neighborhood turned into a lake that was more than 8 feet deep in some places — nearly enough to fill the victims’ homes.

Councilor James Oddo, a Republican who represents the area, said he was distressed that a cluster of such deaths could occur. ‘‘It weighs heavily on me,” Oddo said. ‘‘It means to a certain degree that we in government failed.’’

For all its attractions, Midland Beach suffers a chronic problem: flooding.

Keri Mullen, whose family has lived for six generations in a house on Moreland Street, said she remembered when water reached her porch during a storm in the 1970s.

Her parents and grandparents told her about flooding in the ’50s and ’60s. But few residents had any memory of water rising high enough to threaten homes, let alone lives. Many said warnings issued in past storms proved unnecessary.

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