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Sandy's cold calculus: 5 gallons of gas = 6 hours of oxygen

November 04, 2012|By Brian Bennett
  • Special-needs adult Catherine Perez, age 25, is tended to by her mother, Evelyn Perez, in Elmont, N.Y. Catherine needs an oxygen machine to keep her alive. A generator is now powering the machine because the Perezes have lost their power.
Special-needs adult Catherine Perez, age 25, is tended to by her mother,… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — When Harry Perez looks at the red plastic canister on his back porch, he sees more than five gallons of unleaded; he sees six more hours his bedridden daughter, Catherine, can keep breathing.

This is the cold calculus Hurricane Sandy has wrought for the Perez family.

Every 24 hours the family's network of relatives breaks out across Long Island in search for gas.

Five days since Sandy's winds toppled thousands of power lines and tidal surges flooded electrical stations, 50% of homes on the island are still without power.

VIDEOS: East Coast hit by deadly storm

Gas stations that have electricity to run the pumps sell out in a few hours. Long lines of people bundled up in jackets against the crisp November wind twist down sidewalks. Some need gas to get to work. Many are desperate to fuel generators that keep their homes warm and their refrigerators cold.

But for 25-year-old Catherine Perez, who was born with half a lung and has the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, the gas generator keeps her oxygen machine running and keeps her alive.

Thursday night looked dire. The Perezes' 30-year-old son, Brian, had stood in line at a station for five hours only to get to the pump just as the tank ran dry.

A cousin told him there was gas at a station in Greenwich, Conn., 40 miles way. He jumped in the car at midnight and hit the accelerator. He was home by 2 a.m. with three full red canisters: 15 gallons; 18 hours of oxygen.

INTERACTIVE: Before and after Hurricane Sandy

On Friday, the family had a stroke of luck. The gas station across the street opened and, after a two-hour wait, Harry and Evelyn were able to buy 10 more gallons.

But for a couple who have spent more than two decades caring for their daughter around the clock, the power outage and the gas shortage have added a new level of stress. Nerves are beginning to wear thin.

"There is a lot of fighting. We are like cats and dogs here," said Harry, sitting in his living room as his wife, Evelyn, played with Catherine in her bed, squeezing a stuffed animal.

"This is the princess," Evelyn said. Catherine's bed is decorated with pink fairies. A paper cutout of Minnie Mouse smiles down from the bookcase across the room.

Then Catherine started choking.

"Suction!" Evelyn said, her voice cracking. "Harry, I need suction!"

Evelyn pounded on her daughter's chest and then drew out the mucous with an electric suction tube.

"This is crazy," Evelyn said later, sitting down and stroking Catherine's cockatoo, Peaches. The Perez family asked the Long Island Power Authority to connect their house to the grid that is powering the houses across the street. But they haven't gotten a response.

Their doctor advised them to avoid taking Catherine to a hospital because, with a weak immune system, she is susceptible to pneumonia, which can be contracted from other patients. They feel Catherine is safer at home.

"We do what we need to do for her," Harry said. Each day, that means finding more gas.

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