December 10th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

Home destroyed, school flooded, but student never misses a day

This is the first in a two-part series about recovery from Superstorm Sandy. The first story follows one student as his family struggles to keep kids in class while trying to rebuild. The second story shows how one school, Scholars' Academy, is faring after the storm.

By Rose Arce, CNN

New York (CNN) - The sky is still dark when 13-year-old Ryan Panetta wakes in his temporary apartment beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The one-bedroom loaner has just a queen-sized bed, a couch and a folding table; he shares it all with his parents and three siblings.

He has traveled a long way from his family's beachfront bungalow to this high-rise housing. After Superstorm Sandy, his house near the Rockaways in Queens  is just a shell. His new daily commute - from makeshift home to temporary school - can take up to two hours.

“I’m tired, really tired,” he said at 6 a.m. one day in early December, already awake for a half-hour.

“It’s pretty hard. It's just adjusting to the new school, the long commutes in the morning to get to school, waking up really early to get ready for school and rebuilding the house. It's tough,” he said, his eyes red from sleep and sadness. “The house is destroyed and every time I look in there, it's like, ‘Wow. I never thought a storm could do that much.'”

Weeks after Sandy hit, Ryan is one of many still living through the ongoing aftermath of the storm. He's one of 73,000 students initially displaced from their schools, one of about 5,400 still attending classes in borrowed spaces. His double loss - home and school - means his life is in upheaval.

“We lost so much. All our things, the stove I’ve cooked so many meals on, the home my children were born in, the kids’ toys, everything except, thank God, the most valuable thing in the world, our kids,” said Karen Panetta, Ryan’s mother. “We can rebuild everything else. And we will.”

Ryan’s parents grew up in Broad Channel, and it's where Ryan, his brothers and sister lived all their lives. The Queens community is just a few blocks long, a strip of sand connected to the city by a single bridge. It was long an oasis for New York City’s working class, and those firefighters, police officers, ambulance drivers and sanitation workers  sandwiched homes into the blocks by Jamaica Bay. Before the storm, their ambulances and fire trucks lined the streets at nights. American flags hung near their front doors. From the Panettas' home, you can smell the sea.

The day Sandy struck started like any other -  seabirds gliding above Cross Bay Boulevard, the sunset like a post card. Joe Panetta was to work overnight as an engineer, keeping the 911 emergency lines running. Karen stayed home with their kids, Tim, Ryan, Christian and Carly.

“There were other storms,” Karen said. “We got, like, an inch of water, so we sat tight and pulled a few things up off the floor, just in case.”

The rainfall wasn’t much more than a drizzle at the start, but the wind picked up and water rose in the street. The children had never seen their mother so frantic, looking out the front window and running to move furniture higher in their single-story home. The youngest kids, 5-year-old Carly and 8-year-old Christian, raced around to gather their toys.

“We took the clothes and took them into black garbage bags and we threw them on top of the couch and some on her bed, thinking that they wouldn't get wet. Because we never thought it would be anywhere close to being this bad at all,” Ryan said.

Then the ocean met the bay and suddenly the Panettas had 4 feet of water in their home. As power lines snapped, water raced through the street, carrying debris past the house. Ryan, who swam competitively, put on his bathing suit and jumped into the dark, icy water, looking for a front door not barricaded by sandbags, for neighbors who could help.

The family spent the night shivering on the second floor of a neighbor's house. They haven't spent a night in Broad Channel since.

Bringing Christmas to the Rockaways

Just across the bridge, the swelling water inundated Scholars' Academy, the school where Ryan had made the National Junior Honor Society this year. The eighth-grader liked to tell friends how Scholars' was one of the city’s top-rated schools, how he’d taken a test and interviewed to get into it, how it was filled with computers and iPads.

“No matter what you, like, learn you're always gonna remember it,” he said of the school. “They make it a fun, exciting way to learn.”

Scholars' Academy: 7 years to build school, 15 minutes to destroy it

That night, the school’s basement was filled with a mixture of sewage from a nearby treatment plant, and ocean water that poured into the first-floor classrooms, auditorium and gym. Ryan hasn't attended class at Scholars' Academy since then, either.

The family moved to a temporary apartment in Brooklyn and began making a two-hour commute to P.S. 13, another public school that sits alongside an elevated subway in East New York. Ryan went from changing classrooms through seven periods at Scholars' Academy to five periods in makeshift classrooms. There's gym class once a week, but gone are the theater performances, orchestra and Scholars' Academy Seawolves sports.

“It's crowded, there's at least 40 something kids in there,” Ryan said.

Some things haven’t changed. His teachers from Scholars' Academy are still leading classes, and there are 700 kids from his old school at P.S. 13.

Through it all, Ryan never missed a day of classes.

“He was a hardworking student. You know, he was very eager to learn, he participates in class all the time, he's got an infectious attitude,” said Carrie James, Ryan's humanities teacher. “He was probably the student that was impacted the most, and yet he has the strongest will to be here every day.”

Impact Your World: New York City schools fund

P.S. 13 lent Ryan and his classmates books and supplies and turned its auditorium stage into a classroom. They eat in shifts in the cafeteria. There are counselors to deal with trauma and a curriculum for creating stability after Sandy.

Ryan's school won’t be reopen this year. His parents have no idea when, or if, their house will be livable, either.

At the end of each day, Ryan rides a bus to their battered home in Broad Channel. The streets where he used to play ball with his buddies are lined with construction debris. His father is tearing apart what remains of the house, hoping to stem the encroaching mold, waiting on the insurance company or Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide money for a professional contractor.

All the children are helping. Even Carly, the youngest, watches a stray cat and hands tools to her brothers. It’s a race against time and a desperate attempt to rebuild their little piece of the world.

By the time  Ryan starts tearing into musty drywall, he has already been up and at it for 10 hours. He has a few more to go before homework and heading back to a temporary apartment an hour away.

“I always think, like, it's tough what me and my family went through," he said. "We were still in the house and just thinking about that storm and as it's going on, the water rising quick - it's going to leave a permanent mark."

Still, he’s optimistic that life will look something like it did before, like all the days and nights before the storm swallowed everything.

“I'm learning that no matter what happens,” he said, "not everything can slow you down and make you give up on everything.”

To help the Panetta family, visit this donation site. To donate to Scholars' Academy, visit

CNN's Poppy Harlow contributed to this report.

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Filed under: At Home • Hurricane Sandy • Middle school
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Thomas

    ALL OF YOU HATERS BETTER SHUTUP!!! Many of you obviously have no idea what on Earth is going on here. Ryan and I are best friends. I live in Broad Channel too! And I have friends all over the Rockaway peninsula. Most of you obviously think you know everything, but you don't. None of you haters saw the massive mounds of rubble. Not one of you had to smell the oil and sewage all over your neighborhood. We could barely get into neighborhood. Nobody expected the water to come as high as it did. The water was 4 feet higher than ever recorded here. My house had water before I was born, and it was just a couple of inches, and its never been in the house again. I had 6 feet in my house. We had things on tables, shelves, and the fridge. The fridge tipped and everything floated around the house. Yeah, we're all getting through it, but it's tough. Good thing most of us had insurance. Although, insurance is using every loophole they can find, and most of us didn't get nearly enough. We have a meeting hall in Broad Channel that was taking donations (food, clothing, cleaning supplies, pet food, baby care supplies, toiletries, etc.) and Channelites could take what they need, but then people came frame other places to steal more than they need! Then FEMA kicked them out so they could sit in there doing nothing. FEMA and the Red Cross haven't been helpful at all. The DSNY was wonderful. They've been here since the day after the storm, and aren't leaving until everyone is done with demo. Also, a Bhuddist temple gave money to all Channelite families. They judged how bad the damage was, and most families got $600 dollars! Thank you DSNY and that temple! Back to you jerks, the emotional trauma on the Panettas, my family, and many other families was tremendous. I am one of the few people who actually knows how Ryan feels, and he is getting through it well.

    December 19, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Thomas

      If you have a heart, take back what you said, and think for a while.

      December 19, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  2. Sammie

    I sincerely am astonished by all the unkind, unsympathetic comments by so many of you. Evidently you've led charmed lives and have never known any real kind of loss or devastation, whatever it might be. If you can find no compassion or empathy for this young man and his family, what stirs it in you.

    December 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  3. Jillian

    This kid is brilliant, I don't personally know him, but he played hockey with my sister in Rockaway. Which that rink also got destroyed. Everything that occurred as of sandy was so devastating, and this family is a good model to show for some of the daily lives of what is going on over here in Rockaway and Broad Channel. But this family is unique, as you see they're not complaining and sitting around waiting for FEMA, they're starting to rebuild on their own. This kid is a role model because I know if i had lost everything i would not be going to school. Especially if you have to travel for that long. God Bless this family and all the others in Rockaway, Broad channel, and all the other hard hit areas. From a Rockaway Resident it is a lot harder than most people not affected can even imagine. The stresses that all of us have to deal with day by day, over a month since it happened is just horrible. Please help this family, and anything else you can do to help these residents. God Bless

    December 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  4. Sam

    OMG I was moved to tears by your story Ryan. You are such a brave and strong young man. God bless you!

    December 11, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  5. Chanel

    Ryan you ROCK! Ignore the haters, replying to them only feeds their need for attention. It also sounds like 2 parents have done a great job raising their children. He's not sitting around whining about what he doesn't have and looking for a handout, he is making an effort. More adults should be like Ryan.
    I never realized FEMA was such a screw over. However, I have learned the hard way, charities do not want to help those helping themselves, they want to exploit those who don't work and sit around having a pity party.
    Ryan you are a great example of a responsible teen and I feel that you will go far in life as an adult.

    December 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  6. Mrs.D

    We know this family personally and yes it has been a struggle for them since Superstorm Sandy flooded their home-just to clarify they do not have a huge beachfront house-it is a tiny bungalow style home not on the water and NO that SUV that Pete pointed out is not anywhere's new and has tons of mileage on it. Their other 20 year old car shorted out after being under the salt water and is now in Junk Yard Heaven-FEMA has turned them down for any aid and insurance is dragging their feet. Right now they have a shell of a house -and once they do get anything from insurance it is just for structual-they had no contents insurance-unfortunately they learned that the hard way that flood insurance does not cover anything in your home. Broad Channel was and still is in total devastation. This is a small community with hard working people in it-that overnight storm left everyone's lives in big piles of garbage-it looked like a war zone. Ryan was very brave to jump into that water-thank god he didn't get hit with the propane tanks or an oil tank or a deck that was being ripped off of people's houes.He jumped in the cold dark water that night to get help for his family and should be commended for that-he is a great kid and we are honored to know him. For anyone that wants to help them I know that the WePay Site Stuart mentions above is okay to donate to and all help will go directly to the Panetta Family-to everyone in Broad Channel-you are a nice bunch of people and we wish you all the best as you begin to rebuild your homes. Happy Holidays to all!!!!

    December 11, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  7. armyret 714

    It is quite evident that your pathetic behind has never lived through a major storm. Stop being so high, mighty and sanctimonious. No matter WHERE you live in the US a storm could ruin you tomorrow.

    I am happy this boy is being a little man, helping out with his siblings and helping to repair his home

    December 11, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  8. Evelyn

    I live in Broad Channel and I know this family. Pete, your comment is extremely incentive.
    Their clothing couldn't simply be washed! There was raw sewage, salt water, and crude oil all over very thing, so simply washing your clothing wouldn't work! Also no electric for weeks in the neighborhood, so where would they have gone to wash. I too had to throw out all my family’s belongs. Guess what FEMA does nothing for people like them and my family, you know why because we work and have insurance! They want us to take out loans that they offer. We have insurance so, now we are dealing with them and its been two months and no one has see a red cent from them yet! On top of having to rebuild we are also using our savings to rebuild our homes for our children. My son also goes to Scholars Academy, our children work really hard to get in that school and had to lose that as well. Unless you have experience anything like this, please don't post your disgusting comments. Instead say a prayer for them and wish them well. Have so compassion!

    December 11, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Jennifer

      @Evelyn, I am so very sorry to hear about your loss. I can't begin to imagine how devastating this is and how exhausting the past couple months have been for you and your family (and all the families in Broad Channel). I was 25 miles away from the worst of the storm in Connecticut and it could have easily been me. Sadly you are right, hard-working middle-class people like you and the Panettas have been abandoned by our government, although your losses are just as great as anyone who went through Katrina and insurance never covers enough. I am hearing this from everyone I know in the affected area. Then you have to deal with insensitive, bitter people like Pete and a shocking number of other posters who decided to get online for the sole purpose of dismissing a very real tragedy. Please know that these clods are far from the majority, and there are so many people who just want to know how to help. We are praying that the families in your neighborhood are given the resources they need to make a quick recovery and continue to have strength and faith at this difficult time. I hope CNN takes the opportunity to provide real details on how we can best help the residents of Broad Channel, whether it is furniture, clothing, temporary lodging, toys and books for the kids, or monetary donations.

      December 11, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  9. OvernOut

    This is sarcasm–right?

    December 10, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  10. PeriSoft

    Uhh... are you feeling all right?

    December 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  11. Nicole

    Now this is a pointless story. There are kids everyday that go to school and don't have home. And their home was not lost due to a storm.

    December 10, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Yes, it is a shame that there are homeless children, but that hardly makes this story "pointless." This boy lost his home and everything his family owned; it takes him 4 hours to get to his temporary school and back; and at the end of each long school day he returns to his destroyed house and engages in back-breaking labor for up to 10 hours to help his family rebuild. I don't understand your tone or that of a couple others on this site, which seems to be based on some resentment over the apparent "wealth" of his family? Broad Channel is a working-class neighborhood and if you read the article, the father and son are tearing down the home themselves because they can't afford to hire a contractor. And even if the family did have a higher income, why would they still not be worthy of compassion?? This is an awesome, hard-working, responsible kid who's not complaining about a very difficult and sad situation, and his family isn't sitting around waiting for a hand-out. These are the people who most deserve every kind word and deed that the rest of us have to offer.

      December 11, 2012 at 3:30 am |
  12. the_dude

    I don't understand the point of this article. The kid seems to have a nice life. Money always makes hardships that much easier.

    December 10, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Pete

      I agree. Their home wasn't even destroyed. Their clothes got wet, but they can be washed. It's not like everything got destroyed in a fire. The family's got a pretty good SUV as well. This article is highly overrated.

      December 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  13. Dave

    This is a good human nature story, but far from one of the sadest stories of Sandy. This is not a poor family. They are homeowners near the waterfront which is rather pricey. The father didn't lose his job so he's making the same paycheck today as he did before. If a homeowner loses their home, they act like its the end of the world. No, they do the same as every other American that doesn't own a home – rent! They at least got a loaner to stay in until their insurance pays them to start rebuilding. It's much worse the family who lost their home as well as their place of employment. This family will be fine and they definitely don't want strangers on the internet here knowing where their family is living.

    December 10, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  14. Christian Deuett

    My family would love the help the Panetta family (please let me know how). And, will donate to the school via the URL you provided in an earlier post. Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story.....

    December 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Stuart

      You can make a donation to the Panetta family via the following donation site that they set up today:

      December 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
      • Jennifer

        @Stuart, I hope you will not be offended by this question, but can you please provide more details on who is running the website that you mention? There are no details there that prove it is truly for the benefit of the Panetta family, and unfortunately this storm has brought out a number of con artists who have used this exact scam. I have already asked the CNN reporter if he can help authenticate the website, but if you have more information in the interim that would be great. Thanks again for your understanding.

        December 11, 2012 at 9:03 am |
      • jgumbrechtcnn

        Jennifer, the fund site was set up by the Panettas yesterday after requests from viewers came in asking how they could help the family. It's also linked at the bottom of the story. The link to the Scholars' Academy fund has been vetted by our Impact Your World team, as well. Thank you for checking!

        December 11, 2012 at 9:44 am |
      • Jennifer

        Thank you very much for authenticating the site. I saw the Scholars' Academy link but the "wepay" page wasn't evident (at least from the version of the article that I saw). It's good to know that this is a legitimate way to help the Panettas directly: https:/ /www.

        December 11, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  15. Dee

    What a brave young man, makes your heart smile.

    December 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  16. ME

    What an awesome story.... Of course the obvious hardships this kid faces on a daily base weigh heavy on my heart. HOWEVER, his determination and perseverance is absolutely refreshing. The world we live in today is filled with excuses and the reason why "I CAN'T." This child in spite of his situation has continued on in spite of. When I see kids like this, I smile and label them HERO! I remember my mom saying everything happens for a reason, but when you’re actually in the situation, it serves as NO comfort! As I learned to understand and embrace adversity, it all made sense! Does he know, he’ll be okay? I think he does : ) People like this have a far greater purpose. Everyone, remember to pray for him, no matter who your God is, every prayer matters!

    December 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  17. Janis

    Ryan and Family, My thoughts and prayers are with you, I too lost all, but the one thing you all did not loose and that you all gained is Strenght and Courage to indure never give up, for wherever there is a storm in your life know that you shall overcome through the love and Faith you all carry inside your hearts... What i can say is time does heal, and remeber materialistic things can be replaced, your memories of the good times you shared will always stay in your minds and hearts in which no storm can ever take, so make memories and know together you will come out better then before and that as long as you have each other and your Health you are never without that which is your greatest riches.. WHere and what can we do, to help, and know we care and understand the tears you shed for I too have shed those same tears but trust me it will get better and the Sun will shine in your lives again bigger and brighter for you all are SURVIVORS and you have learned it is not we have, but whom we have in our lives that truely matters,,,, with all my best, please post what and how we can help... we have arms and leggs to hold hammers and pound some nails to help you all rebuild a better future one of hope and of kindness and compassion and understanding of the devestation and loss but of value to know we can rebuild a world of people helping each other and not giving in or up... I commend all for the courage to pick yourselves up dust yourselves off and build again big in heart and forever love........

    December 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  18. jgumbrechtcnn

    Thank you for commenting and for your offers to help! We can't post the Panetta family's contact info, but we will reach out to you at the email addresses you provided. Here's how to contact and donate to Ryan's school, Scholars' Academy:

    December 10, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Jennifer

      Can you vet the wepay URL that was provided earlier by "Stuart" in the comments above? I hate to ask, but there's no indication that he's actually related to the family, and it's not possible to authenticate who created the website.

      December 11, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  19. MHauser

    Saw this story and would also like to help this family–my husband and I have no children-usually help a family for Christmas--please provide contact information for this family and for the school if possible--ASAP-please!!!

    December 10, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  20. Sandhya Jain

    Could I get information about Ryan Panetta family? I am thinking of sending some donation to this family during Christmas time so that kids can enjoy their Christmas. I am working as a Nurse at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Hospital and every year we adopt a family during Christmas. So, I am thinking of collecting money for this family. If possible, then please send me the address or tele phone no for this family ASAP because Christmas is nearby. Thanks. You can contact me through e-mail.

    December 10, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • KGeissler

      I would also love to help the family of this bright young man.... If contact information could be provided I would greatly appreciate it!

      December 10, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Dave

      If you're a nurse, you should know better than asking for the contact information for the family. They can't put a family at risk like that. If you want to help a family, look in your own back yard. There are probably a thousand families worse off than this family in Detroit alone. And they don't even have the prospect of living in a comfortable home again like this family does. The father didn't lose his job. They'll be able to afford Christmas.

      December 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
      • Dr. B

        Wow, nice compassion from your comfortable chair far away from what these people are going through. Maybe if you had to come to your home that you lived in all your life and see it in a shambles with most of your belongings gone or damaged beyond repair you might feel differently. Remember that this is a 13 year old kid. CNN is sharing this story because it is representative of many families in the area. If you read the article, it says "working class." Not "5000 square foot mansion on the beach." None of them are asking for handouts, none of them deserve your scorn for people who are moved to help.

        I am a member of my local Kiwanis club, and we mentor kids, read at libraries, and do all kinds of things to help our folks right here in my area. I bet many of the people offering to help on this board also do something locally. What do you do besides spew negativity from behind a screen name? Get a life, dude.

        December 10, 2012 at 7:01 pm |