Numb, hopeful, families endure post-Sandy recovery
It’s been more than a month since Sandy, the superstorm combining a hurricane, a nor’easter and surging full-moon tides, tore through the Northeast, leaving billions of dollars in damage in the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut corridor.
Now as survivors dig out and try to regroup from the Oct. 29 storm even as wintry weather moves in, some are coping better than others.
There are those who can look ahead hopefully, even defiantly, vowing to “start fresh.” Having lost everything, others see a grim future and brace for a long struggle back. “It’s hard,” many say, shorthand that understates their turmoil.
Some are questioning — “How could this happen?” `’Do we sell ..., rebuild?” Some are prayerful. Some are simply numb.
Day by day
Finding a warm place to lay their heads at night has become a full-time occupation for the Alhadad family, who swam to their SUV in waist-deep water as the ocean roared down their block on New York’s Staten Island during the storm.
They slept in the car at first, running the engine to keep warm. But soon the family of six resumed sleeping in their tiny two-room rental home, which was reduced to a soggy, mildewed mess after the water rose nearly to the ceiling on the first floor.
The wreckage of their belongings was thrown out, replaced by donated furniture covered in Red Cross blankets and towels.
Piled under layers of blankets and sleeping bags on the floor, the family ran a generator for a few hours at night to drift off into a warm sleep. But when morning came, they were chilled to the bone.
“All of us have really bad colds,” said Rachael Alhadad, who has a hacking cough. “We just take it day by day, that’s all. That’s all you can do now.”
Last week, FEMA finally put the Alhadads up in two rooms at a nearby Holiday Inn, where they’ll stay until the federal money runs out on Dec. 15. After that, if their home is still uninhabitable, the family might be eligible for a two-month rental assistance grant from FEMA. But they haven’t made plans and aren’t sure what’s next.
Rachael and her husband, Amin, spend their days shuttling back and forth between the hotel and the house, cleaning the house and cooking meals on the gas stove, which is one of the only things in the house that still works.
Now they must wait as their landlord negotiates with his insurance company. As the days grow shorter, the place has become a damp breeding ground for mold.
Amin, who emigrated to the U.S. years ago from Dubai, lost his job as a truck driver because he missed so much work after the storm.
The stress of the past few weeks has taken its toll on 14-year-old Ameer and 15-year-old Ayman, who lost all of their school books and supplies in the flood.
“They just got their report cards, and they’re not doing very good at all,” Rachael said.
Rebuild or move on?
There was a moment of horrible disbelief when Linda Marten and her sister, Lauren Mullaney, realized that both of their homes on the Rockaway peninsula had burned to the ground the night Sandy came ashore.
“We were both on the phone, crying, saying, `How could this happen?”’ Marten recalled, her voice cracking with emotion. “How can we both lose our house? Both of us?”
Mullaney’s home was among the charred wreckage of more than 100 houses in Breezy Point that were destroyed by a massive fire. A few miles farther east in New York City’s borough of Queens, a fire in the town of Belle Harbor swept down Marten’s block, consuming the home she and her husband purchased as newlyweds in 1995.
Now the two sisters live just a few blocks from each other in Marine Park, Brooklyn, where they have relocated with their families since the storm, having lost everything they owned.
“My daughter, she’s 4, she’s had dreams where she said she misses the Breezy house,” said Mullaney, who is sharing a rental home with her parents, whose house was damaged by flooding in the storm. “She just thinks we’re on one big adventure. I won’t let her see what happened.”
For Marten, it was crucial to get her children back to school as quickly as possible. Her two youngest boys, 8-year-old Matt and 10-year-old Terence, are among the storm’s many young refugees, relocated temporarily to a new school while their Roman Catholic elementary school, St. Francis de Sales, is repaired from flood damage.
Her eldest son, 15-year-old Ray, has taken refuge at the home of the assistant headmaster at his private high school. There’s simply not enough room for him at the home of Marten’s mother-in-law, where the family of six has been living in cramped quarters for weeks with one dresser drawer of donated clothing each. Ray returns home to see the family every weekend.
The Martens will soon move — before Christmas, they hope — to a rental home in their old neighborhood that has room for all of them. And then they’ll set about the task of rebuilding the place they called their dream home.
But Mullaney isn’t as certain that she’ll return to devastated Breezy Point, the summery shorefront place she has loved all her life.
While her husband navigates the insurance paperwork, she cares for her daughter and 10-month-old twins and tries to make sense of their new reality.
“Do we sell what we can and go somewhere else? Or do we stay in Breezy and rent until we can rebuild?” she wondered. “We’re just not sure.”
Yearning for normal
Ever since Tommy Cramer’s home was destroyed more than a month ago, it has been hard to move forward.
Cramer and his wife, Irene, live in Lavallette, N.J. The island where the town sits only recently allowed residents full access.
While staying with his sister in Toms River, N.J., the Cramers looked and looked for a rental apartment. It has been incredibly difficult amid immense competition, but they knew it would bring a return to some type of normalcy. “If anything it’s going to be a mental thing to help us move on,” Tommy said as the search dragged on.
Adding to the sense of dislocation, the Cramers have been separated from their dog, Opus, who has been staying with friends.
“We used to do certain things like our walks in the morning, and he hasn’t walked since it happened,” Tommy said. “That’s the big thing. Get him back to not waking up in a stranger’s house.”
Last week the Cramers finally got the news they were waiting for: They found a furnished rental apartment in Bradley Beach, N.J.
“It’s a relief. A lot of the pressure is taken off,” said Cramer, noting that after six weeks of uncertainty, he and his wife feel they’re finally moving forward. “We can breathe a bit now.”
And soon Opus will be back home.