By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - On Hamden Ave, a storm-wrecked street on New York City's Staten Island, everyone was talking about the surge - a wall of water that came tearing down the street on Monday night.
As families picked through mud-caked photo albums and couch cushions, and stared at ruined cars scattered across the neighborhood, they talked on Thursday about how a little bit of rain suddenly turned into pools of water. Then swelled and kept swelling until the water flooded the first floor of homes.
"We heard this noise and it sounded like a train," said Dawn Rautenstrauch, speaking three days after Sandy, a vicious storm, tore across the East Coast, washing away houses, trees and bridges. "There was a 10-foot wave carrying cars."
The 37-year-old mother of three had been outside smoking a cigarette when the floods came. She had just enough time to grab her children out of a room in the building's basement, where they were watching television, and bring them up to safety on the building's second floor.
"We were listening to people on their roofs screaming for help," said Rautenstrauch, her voice breaking. "And to think we're actually the lucky ones. I don't have nothing, but we're alive."
Staten Island, which lies across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan, is home to about 500,000 residents, many blue-collar workers whose families have lived there for generations.
Few areas were as devastated by the storm in terms of property damage and loss of life; 15 of the 39 New York City residents killed were from Staten Island. The dead included two boys, ages 2 and 4, who were swept from their mother's arms by the floodwaters.
HERO OF HAMDEN AVENUE
Most of the hardest hit neighborhoods, including Hamden Avenue, were under evacuation orders. And while residents said they regretted the decision to ignore the order, many said they were surprised the damage was so significant. When Hurricane Irene swept through this area last year, it hardly left a mark.
"It was like living through Titanic, but on ground," said Krystina Berrios, 25, who works for a home care agency. "You would never think in a million years having to go through something like this."
Berrios lived in an apartment in the basement - though she passed the storm with family on the building's second floor - and everything she owned was destroyed.
She said she spent Monday night glued to a window, terrified that the water would rise even higher and drown her family. At dawn, Berrios spotted the lights of a rescue crew, and her family was taken to dry land a few blocks inland.
She returned for the first time on Thursday morning, after hearing rumors that vandals were breaking into people's homes and stealing what had not been destroyed.
If there is a hero on Hamden Avenue, the neighbors said it would be Gus Veintimilla, a 30-year-old sanitation worker. He lives at the end of the street, just a few houses down from his parents.
He was awakened in the aftermath of the storm by the sound of city rescue workers knocking down doors as they helped people from their flooded homes.
But after taking the most severe cases - a mother and father trapped on their roof with their four young children, among others - the team did not return.
Veintimilla spotted a man in a six-foot wooden dingy and asked if he could use it.
Over the next three hours, he delivered his neighbors, family by family, from their flooded homes to dry land.
"I just said,'Get your stuff together. Take whatever you need,'" he said.
Some of the neighbors ended up at the home of Teresa Connor, a counselor at Staten Island University Hospital.
"Stupid me, I should have evacuated," said Connor
She said the force of the approaching water was like nothing she had ever seen before. She said it knocked down her 300-pound husband.
As residents on Thursday began the process of cleaning up their ruined homes, Patrick Donaghue, a 26-year-old from the area who works in Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market, arrived in a car packed with donated clothing and toys, and bags of groceries.
He opened the trunk and told the crowds of people to help themselves.
"It's devastating," he said. "A lot of people have lived here for generations. And now, all your memories are gone. It makes you want to cry. You're at a loss for words."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jackie Frank)