My family and I were doing well late the night before Sandy from our home in Dover, N.J., until the lights went out.
Around 8 p.m. a tree up the street came loose at its base and fell into the street, knocking out the power. We saw the bright blue flashes and heard the buzz of transformers exploding. A live power line blew in the strong wind—each time setting off another light show as it hit the wet pavement—until power was cut off to it a short time later, as more lines fell or transformers blew.
We got out the candles and flashlights and hunkered down, getting periodic updates via our smartphones while assuaging the worries of our two little girls.
Sandy was nothing more than a big nuisance in Dover, Morris County, N.J. A few trees fell across roads. Power was out for more than a week, forcing us to stay with relatives. I worked from my brother’s dining room table for two weeks. Our office in Hoboken (at the time) was without power. Half the small city was a swamp.
The supermarkets and other stores were open for supplies. Gas was in very short supply, but as strange as it may seem, I really didn’t mind the long lines. It was needed alone-time away from other Sandy-related headaches.
The story was much different to the south. My family home in Brick, N.J. got a foot of water inside. But, again, we were lucky. A short drive away was amazing damage. Along the shore, homes were shattered, sunken in sand. Some floated from foundations. Sand covered the streets. Boats were stacked on each other in marinas, or worse, in living rooms. At this point, I imagine you’ve all seen what happened to the Seaside Boardwalk. The roller coaster in the ocean became the unofficial logo of Sandy.
My grandmother lived at the house in Brick, on the bay side. She evacuated. Neighbors say they may never have gotten water but the ocean broke through at the Mantoloking Bridge, swept away a few homes and filled up the bay like a bathtub.
The only reason any of us have been back to that house since the storm has been to do work—back-breaking work that started almost immediately. About a week after Sandy left we were ripping up drenched, marsh-smelling carpet and dragging sopped mattresses and furniture to a large pile outside.
These piles lined the streets. Each time you made a trip to your pile, you could look down the street and see a neighbor carrying a warped coffee table to his. It was downright depressing to see so many of the little things in our homes being discarded—all little pieces in the background of the countless pictures we’ve taken during nearly every Summer weekend.
The refrigerator found its way to the curb, as did every appliance, eventually. Pieces of lumber were everywhere; floating docks were next door. Someone’s paddle boat was on our deck. (We still have it. One day I imagine taking it out on the water only to be yelled at from some random bulkhead: “Hey! That’s our paddle boat!”)
Our clothes were soaked with the bay’s water and we might have been more embarrassed walking into a restaurant later that day if it didn’t appear as if everyone in the place had just done the same thing.
We returned to Brick to cut away the sheet rock and remove insulation—about 4 feet up—until we realized that was pointless. The moisture affected everything. The floorboards were already beginning to curl and you could smell the mold. Plus, cracks in the foundation were found upon disassembling the deck.
So we gutted the entire house, filling multiple Dumpsters. We took a sledgehammer to the cabinets, fireplace and chimney. We came back to remove the floorboards and decking and light fixtures.
We left each day bloodied and battered. I wound up nursing a bruised, nerve-damaged rear end after falling in a hole in the floor where the fireplace used to be. I sit at a desk and write for living. That wasn’t fun.
It just so happened the home insurance was up shortly after Sandy. Our insurer, in its best legal-ese said, “No thanks,” to a renewal. Our words in return were not as nearly proper. For good reason, not many insurers are willing to take on a new risk when that risk is an older, un-raised home on Barnegat Bay that’s just taken water and is in the middle of a major renovation. I’ll tell you what, though, the state Department of Banking and Insurance helped us out with guidance and we got a builders’ risk policy.
During the demo, an independent insurance adjuster was talking us through the process. Not a penny of our damage was caused by wind. We knew that. As a matter of practice, we filed with our primary insurer but we knew it was all going on the flood insurance. At least we had it. I could not fathom how some neighbors did not—mortgage or not. We had $250,000 in flood insurance for the house and another $60,000 for contents, and wound up with about $150,000 plus $30,000 more to raise the house since more than 50 percent of the home was deemed damaged and new flood plains require a higher living space.
In the meantime, an architect was working on the plans. We’re going to make the place a little bigger.
Then came a day of crawling under the house, detaching it from the ground and cleaning the space to allow the house movers to operate more efficiently. We cut pipes and electric wires. Lots of pipes and electric wires. The house not only needs to be raised, but it needs to be moved in the meantime to a space in the side yard in order for contractors to drive 35 pilings in the sand where the house is now.
Insurance isn’t covering that.
We don’t have a timetable for when work will begin. Approvals must be had from surveyors and engineers. How busy do you think they are? What about construction workers? Yes, these are rhetorical questions.
As the process is delayed, the bank has told us it plans to use our insurance payout and apply it toward the principal on the home. I’m supposing, for whatever accounting reason, it costs them too much to hold it. When we need it, we’ll have to ask the bank for a loan of our insurance money. Not sure if this affects us one way or another monetarily but I expect some additional paperwork and red tape. And, you know, I don’t trust banks.
Homes along the street are being rebuilt—some from the ground up. Most fulltime residents are fixed up and back to normal, but—just by my own assessment—many are newer homes with living spaces built higher than the older ones in our marina community.
I can’t help but make one troubling observation: I was astounded by the lack of flood insurance (Mortgage or not—you’re 50 feet away from water!) and I’m eager to see how my neighbors are affected by new flood maps and higher scheduled flood insurance rates. One used his insurance payout to pay off his mortgage in order to rid himself of any flood insurance obligation. Creative? Yes. Smart? I’ve been writing about insurance and covering storms too long to call it anything close to smart.
I long to get back to our house at the Jersey shore every weekend—baking in the sun rather than picking splinters, coated in soot. This summer the family drove to the Outer Banks, N.C. Nothing against the Outer Banks, but I found myself thinking, “You know what. I’m not doing a damned thing I couldn’t do in Jersey and I’d rather be doing it there.”