New Yorker credits Alaska childhood for storm preparations

Optimal Upbringing

Amber Ceffalio credits her Superstorm Sandy preparations to her Alaska upbringing.


She sheltered through the storm well stocked with food and water. She prepared pasta sauce and baked bread, and she bought onions, potatoes and other items in case the nearby stores suffered a shortage.

“Our shelves were full. It’s just how I grew up,” she said.

Ceffalio and her family emerged from last week’s devastating storm unscathed. They were lucky, she said. Ceffalio’s Brooklyn, New York home and neighborhood avoided serious damage, but she was prepared for a worst-case scenario — a natural reaction having grown up on the Kenai Peninsula.

Sandy began buffeting the East Coast on the evening of Oct. 29. The barrage of extreme weather continued for more than two days, and the storm’s effects will linger for months.

Sandy spanned 1,000 miles and killed more than 100 people in 10 states. It inflicted about $50 million to $60 million in damages across the Northeast, according to Moody’s Analytics early estimates. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused $105.8 billion in damages.

A glimpse of Ceffalio’s family history on the Peninsula garners a deeper understanding of her calm reaction to the super storm. The former Alaskan’s grandparents homesteaded in Ridgeway in 1947. Her mother grew up on the Peninsula; her father grew up in Big Delta. Both graduated from Kenai High School, Ceffalio said.

Ceffalio’s parents — Abby and Harry Ala, who own and operate Ridgeway Farms — raised their seven children on the homestead. It was an upbringing of self-reliance and preparedness, she said.

Growing up, Ceffalio helped her mom and siblings prepare for the coming winters by canning foods, butchering animals and freezing the meat and collecting gallons of honey. By the first snowfall in October, the family needed to have their winter goods, Ceffalio said.

“When I was growing up on the Peninsula, there was a Safeway, but it was always a priority to have enough food to last through winter,” she said. “So, that translated to: I need to make sure we have enough food to get through the week.”

Abby Ala’s homesteading parents passed on the tradition of food preparation. When Ala was a kid, the closest store was located in Seward. Her parents had to travel 100-plus miles to stock up.

Ala is also Mormon, and the church carries the tradition of preparing at least a year’s worth of food. It’s practiced not to shield your family against natural disaster but to carry on through financial strife like unemployment, Ala said.

For these reasons and more, Ala was not worried about her daughter during Sandy’s torrent.

“The thing is … I knew she was going to be as prepared as a person could be in that situation,” Ala said. “Anything that could be done, she would’ve done.”

“There was no excuse for me to be unprepared,” Ceffalio said.

She readied emergency supplies, like flashlights and power back-ups, but her Brooklyn home suffered no damage. The home happens to sit on an incline — something Ceffalio was unaware of until the storm hit, as the island she lives on is consistently flat.

The home lost power for only three hours. Others remain without power throughout the East Coast.

Location and the storm’s effects on such a large and densely populated area worried Ala, however. During her childhood, there were a handful of families close enough to the homestead to call neighbors. They all weathered the storms, earthquakes and volcano eruptions as adventures more than life-threatening events.

“How will the storm affect such a huge amount of people?” she said. “I was worried about a collapse of infrastructure.”

Ceffalio, a sign language interpreter at a public school in lower Manhattan, missed a week of work. The subways remained inoperable at the end of last week. The city offered shuttle services for people who absolutely needed to be at work, and people waited for upward of two hours to catch a ride. Bridge access was intermittent, with five-hour commutes serving as the new normal.

Lower Manhattan transformed from a first world to third world village between 8 p.m. and midnight on Oct. 29, she said. The subways flooded with water, people’s homes were destroyed by floodwaters and fire and supplies couldn’t get in or out of the city’s various islands.

Despite the turmoil, New Yorkers have rallied together and helped people in need, Ceffalio said.

“They’re good people,” she said.

When Ceffalio visits Alaska, people are surprised she lives in New York. She has an innocent presence, and New Yorkers often know instinctively she’s not from the city, she said. They can be aggressive, but their true colors show in times of crisis.

Churches organizing donations are turning people away. More donations are needed for an extended period of time, but there’s been a saturation of donations as the city’s residents take extra steps to help, Ceffalio said.

Her sons, 12-year-old Paul and 11-year-old Henry, are members of Boy Scout Troop 237, which is working with a neighborhood church, collecting donations and cleaning flooded homes.

They are collecting everything from candles to gently used outerwear.

Ceffalio’s life will slowly return to its normal busy pace as subways reopen and her school is repaired. Additional storms are predicted to hit the East Coast, but the Alaska grown New Yorker likely isn’t worried.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at