Up until 10 days ago, Eliberta Cortez’s four daughters slept on the floor of their Fairmount Avenue rowhouse bedroom. Now, the girls share a single bed.
The girls’ beds all were destroyed by mold and the penetrating stench of the putrid contents of the refrigerator, which toppled over and spilled as Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters rose nearly two feet on the first floor.
Nearly six months after Sandy, Cortez, 40, like many of the poorest victims of the storm, is still struggling to bring simple normalcy to her family: a place to sleep, clothes appropriate for the season, cooking utensils, basic living room furniture. Even a working refrigerator, which Cortez did not have until a couple of weeks ago. She stored milk at a relative’s house.
“The lady that lives next door gave us a small bed,” which the girls all now share, Cortez said through a translator. “Before, (my daughters) slept on the carpet.”
Atlantic City is unique among the communities most damaged by Sandy. The highly urbanized, year-round population has a median income of $28,526, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And more than half of the 6,225 Atlantic City renters who registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the storm reported annual incomes of less than $15,000, according to a report by Enterprise Community Partners.
For many non-English-speaking residents who work in or support the city’s tourism industry, seeking help after the Oct. 29 storm is against cultural traditions, said Cinthya Llerena, a teacher at the Sovereign Avenue School who has worked with other school employees to help students and their families throughout the city.
“Where they are from, they don’t have help after storms, or they think the help is only for landlords,” she said.
Llerena is struggling to help students and their families, particularly because the families don’t always speak up and ask for what they need. For example, Llerena, who translated the interview for The Press of Atlantic City, did not know Cortez’s daughters, who range in age from 1 to 7 years old, were sleeping on the floor for so long. Her next mission, she said, will be to find bunk beds so each girl has her own place to sleep.
Latoria Brandon has beds for her six children and clothes, but that’s pretty much it. When Sandy struck, Brandon was storing furniture and clothes in a first-floor apartment while trying to come up with enough of a deposit to move in. The stored belongings all had to be thrown away, she said.
While she was able to move into an apartment above the damaged one shortly after the storm, Brandon’s landlord has yet to muck out the first-floor unit. The stench of mold when walking into parts of the apartment, even on a warm day with the windows open, is almost overwhelming. Red Cross blankets serve as curtains in one room, and mattresses are on the floors of the bedrooms.
Three of Brandon’s children have asthma, she said. In the past few months, she has had to take at least one to the hospital for treatment every week because the mold is making them sick. Brandon, 31, who used to work two jobs, lost her car in the storm. She was laid off from one job, and the other job ended after the patient she was caring for died.
Brandon’s biggest concern, other than trying to find a job, is finding a clean, safe place for her family. The apartment has electrical problems stemming from the flood. The heating system was damaged, causing her to receive gas bills of more than $6,000 a month, she said. During the winter, two bedrooms were so cold that she moved the children into the warmer living room to sleep.
Now, Brandon said she wants to leave. She’s afraid for her safety and for the health of her sons. The problem is there is nowhere to go. Landlords who rent to people with federal Section 8 assistance vouchers are hard to find, Brandon said, and she doesn’t have money for a deposit.
Brandon still has not registered with FEMA because, she said, she thought the agency could not help her.
While Brandon said she has called code enforcement multiple times about the downstairs apartment as well as the major problems in her own place, the city told her that a supervisor has been on vacation and could not perform an inspection, she said.
Anthony Cox, director of Atlantic City’s Licensing and Inspections Department, said if inspectors find that an occupied apartment has flood damage and the unit is unsafe, they can force the residents to move. However, he said, “we can’t actually force a homeowner or landlord to do any work as long as the property isn’t being occupied.”
Atlantic City has a long-term recovery group, which is charged with helping renters and homeowners put their houses and lives back together after FEMA’s initial assistance runs out. However, both Brandon and Cortez said they did not know about the group.
Craig Snow, director of the recovery group, said the challenge recovery workers face is trying to reach people who need help because many of those most in need don’t ask for help or are suspicious that those offering assistance are not who they say they are.
“Some of it is the fear factor,” he said. “But there are several organizations that are here to help with content replacement and getting them assistance to safe and dry apartments.”
Cortez, who rents her two-story home, said she is frustrated she can’t afford to replace belongings. Her husband works at Steel’s Fudge Factory in Venice Park and brings home about $1,600 a month. The family of six also receives $400 in food stamps.
But Cortez’s grown son and his wife moved out after the storm because there was no place for them to live in the flood-damaged house, leaving her to pay the $1,150-per-month rent. Then there’s a $300-per-month utility bill.
Her landlord did not fix up the house until the end of February because he did not have the money. The house smelled for months, and there was no heat for much of the winter, Cortez said.
Now the fear is that the family may have to move, she said. Cortez needs to register the girls for school for the next year, but she needs a new lease for that.
“For the owner to renew the lease, he will ask for another deposit,” Cortez said. “After going through all this, I may have to move.”
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