The American nightmare: Our post-Sandy reality

Andrea and family
Andrea and her family piled on the couch in their trailer.

Chris Christie's administration has not released any numbers relating to New Jersey residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy. In September, The Ocean County Planning Board estimated that 26,000 Ocean County residents remain displaced. Andrea Kassimatis lives in the neighboring county of Monmouth.

Part I: Before Sandy

We bought our house in September 2009, we closed on the house the same day I started Nursing School. Mike and I both worked two jobs to save up for the down payment and had 12 cents leftover in the bank after closing on the house.

The house was left unloved so there was plenty of work we needed to do. Mike spent the first few nights ripping up old carpets to get rid of the smell and we spent our first paycheck on flooring for the living room. Mike was so excited about the floors that he spent the entire night laying down the flooring and he still made it to work the next day! So we worked paycheck to paycheck and room by room till the house was functional.

The next few years we worked on the house to make it our home. We enjoyed celebrating holidays and having the kids' birthday parties at our house. We had our son Collin's 5th birthday party on October 28th, the day before Sandy, with 28 kids running around the house and yard wearing costumes, picking pumpkins and laughing.

Part II: Sandy

We spent October 29th securing objects outside, fishing our turtles and koi fish out of the ponds and inside we charged electronics. We had plenty of food, ice, water etc. and we planned for being stuck in the house for a few days.  Since we were already up 11 feet in elevation to the first floor, we weren't concerned about flooding inside the house.  We watched the news and weather reports, kept an eye on the weather outside and monitored the morning's high tide.  Around 3:30 pm, long before the second high tide, the water was slowly creeping up the block. As the next hour passed, the water was slowly creeping still, a few neighbors were staying, and we said good bye to the ones leaving.  Around 5:30 the water was getting higher and at that point we decided to try and leave; we rounded up the kids, my mother and the dog, and Mike went outside to get his truck.

At this point the water at the street level was neck deep and a current was ripping through it.  We were stuck!  We moved the kids, my mom (who was 3 weeks post-op from having half of her right kidney removed from cancer), and the dog upstairs to the second floor.   Mike and I scurried around the first floor, grabbing important documents and placing them in Ziploc bags. The water had not yet reached all the way up the front steps, so we knew it was time to shut down the electric breaker and gas.

All of a sudden the water started rushing in from all corners of the house and it was coming in fast.  We ran up stairs and stared in awe as the water rose, and waves went through our kitchen.  We looked out the windows and watched waves clear our 6 foot stockade fence in the backyard and wash away our above ground pool we had just put up 3 months prior.

At this point we prayed the water would stop rising. We began smell an odd odor and we thought maybe it was a combination of the different candles we were using. Then the odor became overwhelming.

The water inside the house turned red. We were so frightened and had no clue what was going on. We retreated to Ethan's bedroom upstairs at the front of the house, we closed the door, blocked off the vents, and opened the windows to breathe. We hovered around the window to get fresh air because the fumes were beyond nauseating.  From the window you could hear the screams and cries of people for help, but it was so dark you couldn't see anything. It was impossible to see where the water ended.  We flashed flashlights from window to window of our neighbors to make sure they were ok and waited for their flashlights to flashback.

The night was very long and scary, waking the kids up every half hour to make sure they were still breathing and coherent. The time seemed to stand still.  Finally at around 4:00 am we were able to escape. We carefully treaded downstairs and across the floors, slipping and sliding from what we later learned was home heating fuel oil, which had come from tanks that washed off of other residents houses and on to our property.  We retreated to a neighbors house and were so grateful to have all made it through. We made out of the house with literally the clothes on our backs and an overnight bag for the kids.  Our neighbors brought to our attention that we smelled of diesel. After inhaling the fumes all night, we didn't realize we reeked of it.  Our house was a toxic wasteland, the tanks had discharged approximately 225 gallons of #2 heating fuel throughout our home and our yard.

Part III: Post-Sandy

At 9:00 am I began the daunting task of calling insurance companies; home, flood, car and FEMA. The next few days and weeks were very surreal. I felt completely helpless.  Our home was uninhabitable, we had no clothes, we smelled of diesel, we had very little money and no access to it, we lost both of our vehicles, I was scared and overwhelmed. My first concern was the two boys, and getting them clean clothes. Desperately, I sent out a text to my co-workers who had kids around my boys ages, for clothes and shoes for them. I wanted to make sure the boys had what they needed. They came first!

We struggled to get by over the next few months, staying with various friends and family members, finding out that the kindness of strangers, friends and family was in abundance and that government aid was not.  The Red Cross stayed for a brief amount of time and provided little relief, It took FEMA over 2 weeks to come to the aid of our community, and seemed just as confused as the residents. FEMA would not provide residents with trailers to live in stating that we lived in a flood zone!  It was impossible to find housing to rent, for months the hotels for miles and miles were completely packed.

We stayed different places in the months following with various friends and family, until we found a trailer to rent in March.  It was local nonprofit organizations and The Salvation Army that helped us through the holidays and tough winter.

And here we are more than a year later. We've only received $76,000 from flood insurance on our $195,000 policy (that the federal government requires us to carry, for which they mandate, underwrite and subsidize). We have been denied for a home repair grant from FEMA because we have flood insurance (sort of), denied for an SBA loan, ineligible for a loan modification on an FHA insured mortgage because our house is uninhabitable. We are unable to find a servicing lender for a HUD 203H and 203K rehabilitation loan that is supposed to be available to FHA loan recipients in the event of a natural disaster (that is what we pay PMI for), and have been immobilized by waiting on our fate with the Renew Jersey Stronger RREM grants, which we were "preliminarily approved" for back in July.

We have still not recovered any additional funds from our flood insurance, and have only just recently received some compensation from FEMA for the trailer we have been privately renting since March.  We have paid for our insurance policies and we were tricked into believing that these policies cover us in times like these.

So here we are days after the new year. It has been getting colder, which means $20 a day on propane for heat, frozen water hoses and pipes. At least the trailer is a "roof" over our heads.   

We have started to move forward with a builder to try to begin our rebuild, which is proving to be quite a process. We have enough money from insurance to do a foundation only, but we figure its good to start somewhere, anywhere, especially now, considering that I am now 4 1/2 months pregnant! My due date is May 2, and we are fighting against the clock to get the foundation set ASAP before winter kicks into high gear.  I am very anxious and scared because without any progress with the RREM grant, no additional help from FEMA, no movement forward with the insurance claim, we are not sure how everything will come together. I don't know where in the trailer we can put a bassinet for the new baby so it worries me about our immediate future.