TOMS RIVER, NEW JERSEY—At 11:00 pm on October 29, 2012, Mike Orlando, 28, overheard his wife Mallory talking to her mother Vera Arthurs on the phone. “There is water coming into our living room!” said Vera, loud enough for him to hear. A half-hour later Mike was a mile away, swimming in a six-foot high street-stream dressed in jeans and a garbage bag. Guided by the beams of his neighbors’ flashlights he made his way towards his in-laws’ house from Reflection Road to Lagoon Drive. Cars’ sirens blared and headlights flickered as they short-circuited. Mailboxes, firewood, white plastic fences, and children’s toys floated on by. A transformer blew and sent a shower of sparks through the sky. Filled with adrenaline, Mike says he didn’t feel the cold.
At Lagoon Drive Mike stood on firm ground and, as he pushed forward, the water dropped to chest, then knee, height. He walked up the split-level’s stairs and opened the door to find Vera and her husband Jimmy sprinting down the stairs to save Mallory’s childhood pictures floating on the first floor. The wind made the house moan. Brown water, over three feet high in the backyard, gushed through the back door. While trying to jam the door shut with strands of rubber, carpet, plastic bags, and cardboard, the garage door burst open. The water rushed in as high as the light switches before Jimmy and Mike could get both doors to shut. “Thank God for Mike,” said Vera. “We couldn’t have saved as much as we did without him.”
It has been six months since Superstorm Sandy hit. The small-time heroes of that night are now focused on living the lives they had before the storm—the short test of courage has been replaced with a long-term struggle for peace of mind. Mike is my cousin Mallory’s husband, Vera is my aunt, and Jimmy is my uncle. Jimmy and Vera still live in their home surrounded by Silver Bay on three sides, 100 feet from the water at its closest point. Their story is one of bravery in the face of disaster, and frustration in the months afterwards.
Tens of thousands of people remain homeless. Faced with flood insurance premiums that will increase by 25% for each year for the next four, some New Jerseyans have moved to higher ground. The storm may have permanently changed the demographic of small towns like Sea Bright, which reportedly has lost 900 of its 1,400 residents. Mantoloking, nearly 30 miles south, recently had its post office reopen, but only around 40 of its residents have returned to a town which holds more than 520 homes. The choices to those afflicted seem to be: move out, pay thousands of dollars more per year in flood insurance, or elevate your home for tens of thousands of dollars.
Which is not to say aid, and money, is not coming in. Superstorm Sandy has cost the country $65 billion in lost business and killed 159 Americans. In response Congress appropriated in January over $50 billion for the recovery effort. The American Red Cross spent over $100 million providing shelter and food in the months after the storm. FEMA has approved $384 million in grants for housing assistance and other needs. The President created a Sandy rebuilding task force under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, which spent over $350 million pumping out 720 Olympic sized pools-worth of muddy water, and delivering over 500 truckloads of clean water to storm afflicted areas. There has been some criticism of the Corps—in New York they charged about $100 per cubic yard of debris removal, while AshBritt beat out other private contractors in New Jersey with a bid charging half that price. Removing standard residential trash in New York is $30 per cubic yard, according to the New York Times.
Some of the federal money is just starting to come in: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday the approval of $1.7 billion in Housing of Urban Development aid. Today HUD and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced a $1.8 billion community development block grant proposal, which could assist approximately 26,000 homeowners, more than 5,000 renters, and more than 10,000 businesses that are most in need of reconstruction, rehabilitation, elevation, and resettlement, according to the Toms River Patch.
Christie, whose embrace of Obama’s Sandy support angered some conservatives during the 2012 election, has said only a “stark minority” of shore communities won’t be ready by Memorial Day. Christie has proposed devoting $25 million from federal disaster relief funding to promote tourism among storm-impacted businesses and shore communities. Obama toured storm-damaged New York November 15, and Joe Biden visited Hoboken and Seaside Heights, New Jersey, where Vera’s father lives, November 18. Five months later, Seaside Heights’ Jet Star roller coaster is still in the Atlantic Ocean, but the boardwalk is opening this week. “I want everyone affected by the storm to know this,” said Obama in a video posted by whitehouse.gov in December, “You are not alone. We will recover, we will rebuild, we will come back stronger together. That is my promise to you as your president.”
Christie today told MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “The president has kept every promise that he made.”
But six months later, the promise remains unfilled for the 39,000 in New Jersey that are still displaced (down from a high of 161,000), and even for those that could stay in their homes.
The day after the storm hit Jimmy and Vera woke up, went down they stairs, and stood in two feet of water. It would be 17 days before electricity would return, and three months for hot water. Mike, Jimmy, and Vera all would need to replace their cars. Vera’s sister and parents (my aunt Barbara’s family and my grandparents) are still displaced. Jimmy and Vera had to wait until January to receive $15,000 in emergency flood insurance, and another month for it to clear the bank. In April they were to receive $30,000 more, but so far have only been able to touch $5,000, which last weekend my aunt and uncle used to put down sheet rock and install doors on the first floor. According to FEMA’s new flood maps, their house needs to be raised another 5-6 feet to comply for new flood insurance. Jimmy and Vera say elevating their house will cost between $80,000 and $100,000 on a house that is worth $234,000. The choices Jimmy and Vera face are grim. They can’t walk away from their $250,000 mortgage, but can’t afford to raise their home without help. As they hope for a parcel of the community block grant, their flood insurance premiums rise.
“We came through all of this not knowing the nightmare of what was ahead,” says Vera, who adds, “I don’t have any plans on leaving.”