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Staten Islanders Taking Refuge at Shelters Share Harrowing Tales of Escape

By Nicholas Rizzi | November 1, 2012 6:51pm | Updated on November 1, 2012 6:52pm

STATEN ISLAND — Hurricane Sandy took Robert McGee's home and his job. But in a borough where bodies continued to be pulled from ruined homes Thursday, he was grateful he escaped with his life.

McGee, 56, of Grant City, slept in his home on Jefferson Avenue, which he inherited from his parents when they passed away in 2007, for three days after the storm until strangers drove him to the Michael J. Petrides elementary school in Sunnyside, one of five evacuation centers in Staten Island.

McGee said that FDNY rescue workers got him out of his home on Tuesday in a raft, but left him with no way of making it to the shelter. His car was completely underwater, so he went back into his house to spend the night.

"I had nowhere else to go," he said. "If they picked you up, they left you in the intersection."

The carpets in his house were all wet, and McGee had to cover himself up with a pile of coats to keep him warm throughout the night.

"I had nothing else to do," he said.

He left his house again Wednesday and hitched a ride with strangers to the nearest shelter, he said.

As reports of deaths from the hurricane in the borough continue to come in, residents at shelters Thursday recounted their harrowing tales of escape from their homes.

Names of missing relatives were written on large sheets of paper taped to the walls of the entrance, and people whose homes were destroyed waited nearly two hours to speak to FEMA representatives.

But McGee, who had no other place to go, said he'll stay in the shelter until he can get back into his home. Parts of Jefferson Avenue, near Hylan Boulevard, were still flooded on Thursday. Cops still had sections of Hylan closed off on Thursday.

"I don't have my house, I don't have my job," said McGee, who worked at South Beach Psychiatric, which was also destroyed.

William "Smithy" Smith, 63, was staying with friends and family after the hurricane flooded his entire house on Pearsall Street in South Beach.

Smith, a Vietnam veteran, stayed in the home during the storm on Monday, but tried to escape when the water started to come in through his backdoor at 7:30 p.m.

"The water started coming in," he said. "I put towels under the door. It came up to about my ankles."

When the waters rose up to his torso, he decided it was time to go.

He tried to open his front door, but was pushed back by the stream of water and could not shut his door again. He decided to jump out of his window, but his legs got stuck.

"I opened the window and went through it," he said. "My feet got stuck, I was underwater."

He eventually got out of the window and swam to a nearby street sign.

"I held on to the pole and screamed, 'Help, I'm here,'" Smith said. "I couldn't stand up, it was over my head."

His nephews heard him and jumped through their second floor window to get Smith. They swam to his brother's house, who lives nearby, where he stayed the night.

Smith said he would wait until he got in touch with FEMA about his home, then head to Tampa, Fla., to stay with a friend for a couple of weeks.

McGee said most of his clothing, property, and other belongings were destroyed by the flood, but said he still hoped to get back to his house on Thursday.

"I never experienced anything like this in my life," McGee said. "In 55 years, I've never seen anything like that."