FAIRFIELD, Conn. — After Superstorm Sandy left Christian McMahan's house uninhabitable, his 6-year-old daughter asked if Santa Claus will know where to bring their gifts.
McMahan is hoping his family will be back in their Fairfield house by the beach before Christmas, but it won't be easy. The finished basement of his flood-damaged house had to be gutted and treated to prevent mold and to sterilize any contamination, they're discovering more damage on the first floor and water still seems to be seeping into the house.
"She wants to be in her bed and we want her certainly to be in her bed waking up Christmas morning and running downstairs," McMahan said of his daughter.
Weeks after Superstorm Sandy battered the Connecticut shoreline, the recovery is just beginning for some families who will be unable to occupy their homes for weeks if not months. Thousands of homes along the water were damaged or destroyed by flooding. For those hit the hardest, days are filled with trying to get busy contractors to work on their homes and insurance adjusters to document the damage while keeping children comfortable in temporary housing.
McMahan, a 43-year-old partner in an advertising agency, reached his house by kayak the day of the storm. His basement was filled with so much water it reminded him of "The Titanic" movie. He called his wife, Ariane, and asked her to find a rental house.
"We're not going to be living here for a while," McMahan said he told her.
So she found a house to rent nearby. Friends began dropping off meals and hung their wet photos to dry. Many baby photos and the couple's wedding album were lost.
The couple's three children saw their toys, dollhouse and video games destroyed.
"When they went to the house and saw their whole world on the street in the pile of trash, you definitely saw the look in their eyes," he said.
When people started going through his discarded household items in front of him, McMahan had enough and told them to leave.
"I just wasn't ready to watch people do that," he said. "That's when I let out some anger."
Sitting in her car seat as the family headed to their rental house, McMahan's daughter asked about Santa. Her father assured her Santa knows where they were going and no matter where they went, he would find them.
Ariane McMahan said her children ask constantly when they can come home again.
"We want to come home as much as they do," she said.
But the McMahans are filled with gratitude for the help they received and know others have it much worse, noting that two dozen homes were destroyed or condemned on their street alone.
Benjamin Barton is among those whose homes in Fairfield were destroyed. Barton, a 67-year-old entrepreneur, said the home he has owned since 1980 had a great view of the water and he enjoyed fishing, clamming and entertaining, while his dogs loved it too.
"It brought tears to my eyes yesterday," he said Thursday, but added it's a material loss and nobody was hurt.
Barton, who has other places to stay, isn't sure if he'll rebuild. If powerful storms are going to occur regularly, he said, "I don't know."
Down the road, the embers in the fireplace offer some warmth for Dina Cummings as she arranges for contractors to remove debris, disinfect and gut her house and fix her floors buckled like an accordion.
"I just think the hardest part is the overwhelming feeling that you're at the mercy of someone else's control," Cummings said.
Cummings, an office manager, was driven from her house along with her two teenage sons. She figures she'll be out of her house for three months after Sandy dumped four feet of water into her living area. Her friend helped her find a room to rent in a nearby house.
She didn't cry when she saw the devastation. But then she learned someone stole her jewelry from her home during the storm.
"That was the first time I cried," she said. "For some reason that hit me harder that someone would do that on top of what we already had lost."
Cummings, who lost her children's art projects, Christmas stockings and photos, said she's waiting for insurance adjustors and has to pay up front for work, borrowing from friends and relatives even as she lives pay check to paycheck. Her diabetes is out of control.
"Emotionally it's been devastating," Cummings said. "We're kind of numb. We're not eating right. We're not sleeping. I'm eating Tums like Skittles."