Inside a one-bedroom apartment in the senior community of Leisure Towne in Southampton, Burlington County, Roy and Jo Anne Bray constantly search for space and patience.
The small apartment is all the couple can afford with the rent at $830 each month on top of the mortgage for their Little Egg Harbor Township home that was flooded and damaged during Hurricane Sandy.
The Brays have kept themselves busy the past six months, shopping, completing paperwork and planning for their life after the storm, anxious to return home.
“We take it one day at a time. We try to go out a lot. We work part-time jobs. I just don’t like to spend a lot of time here where I am staying. I’m just not comfortable here. I want my own house back,” said Jo Anne Bray, 62.
Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage in Little Egg Harbor, damaging more than 4,000 homes, the majority in the Mystic Islands section. Mystic Islands is a collection of lagoon-front streets lined with small homes. The area has 4,922 homes, 2,865 of which are on the waterfront.
There is no exact number for how many Little Egg Harbor residents were displaced by the storm, but officials estimate hundreds still are unable to return. If you drive through Mystic Islands at night, there are no lights in many of the homes, no cars parked in front.
Those stuck living in temporary housing are unable to move past the storm that forced them to flee in the first place.
The Brays do a lot of traveling back to the southern tip of Ocean County from their temporary home in Burlington County.
“We worked at the house today to salvage some of the plants that are there, so they are not lost when the house is torn down. All our neighbors in the area are also displaced and waiting for money and to tear down their homes. No one is at home,” she said.
Roy, 71, said they sustained about $100,000 worth of damage to their home on Lake Superior Drive. The home will be torn down because it was built on a cement slab and cannot be lifted, he said.
Like many others, the Brays are waiting for money from their insurance company to start rebuilding.
“It’s been a convoluted process of moving paperwork around, driving and going to different offices. You’ve seen it in the paper that insurance companies are bragging that 90 percent of claims are settled, but they are not giving people anything,” Jo Anne said.
The Brays received only half of what their flood insurance policy is worth and did not qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Jo Anne said the insurance companies are giving out the least amount and hoping people will just go away.
FEMA paid the couple’s rent for four months, but that has been cut off. The Brays were unable to pay their new rent in addition to their mortgage and requested that their bank hold the mortgage, Jo Anne said.
For Diane Bruhnsen and her family, FEMA will pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Medford, Burlington County, until June 30. Bruhnsen said she hopes, by that time, they will return to a home at their property on South Ensign Drive in Mystic Islands.
The journey after the storm and their trek west to Burlington County has proved to be a disaster — an expensive, exhausting disaster, Bruhnsen said.
“My 17-year-old son sleeps on the Goodwill sofa in the living room of the apartment, me and my husband live in a bedroom and my 84-year-old father lives in the other bedroom. There were six of us living in the house in Mystic, and now there are four of us in a two-bedroom apartment,” Bruhnsen said.
The Bruhnsens used all of the money they had in the bank to order a modular home to replace their flood-gutted house. She smiled, though, as she talked about the piling that are going in soon for the new home.
They had to borrow thousands from their daughter to build a new home, she said. Not one phase of the process has gone smoothly, with the exception of rental assistance from FEMA, she said.
Bruhnsen said she and her husband have done nothing to prepare for the new home, where they must start over after losing everything inside their other home. They’ve bought three mattress sets and haven’t spent a dime on anything else except their mortgage and insurance.
In January, during a FEMA meeting at Pinelands Regional High School, 70-year-old Santos Garcia and his 61-year-old wife, Maria, said they were scared of losing everything they had worked for and their home on West Dory Drive.
Maria Garcia clutched folders with FEMA forms and land records, smiling nervously and reciting the questions she said she desperately wanted answered. Santos stood next to her and spoke of their hotel room in Galloway Township.
“It isn’t home. It isn’t our home. We just want to go home, and we don’t know when that will be. We don’t really know anything,” he said at the time.
When FEMA rental assistance ran out in March, the couple packed what belongings they brought with them when they were evacuated to the Comfort Inn on the White Horse Pike and returned to Little Egg Harbor, where they stayed with their niece.
“It was terrible moving around like that. It was humiliating, frightening. You get used to a situation and all the fret starts dying down, and then you have to leave again, and it’s not your choice,” Maria Garcia said.
Their stay with their niece was short-lived after Maria underwent eye surgery last month. The couple then traveled north to Newark, where they have been staying with their son while she recuperates.
Maria’s voice became lower when she spoke about the misfortunes of her neighbors and friends in Mystic Islands. These are not simply the misfortunes of a flooded home or car, a damaged boat or dock, but rather the toll that Sandy took on their bodies after the dust and debris settled and the emergency crews pulled out.
“I just found out that one of my good friends who lived down there near us and was flooded out and was very stressed out just had a sudden heart attack and passed away. This is what is happening after all of this. This is what is happening to the seniors now who lived in that area. This has been hard to handle,” Maria said.
The Garcias will not return to their home on West Dory Drive, but they will return to Little Egg Harbor by July, she said. During the past several months, the couple learned they would not be able to afford to raise their home to meet new FEMA requirements. Instead, they bought a home a few miles away in the Sunrise Bay senior community on Radio Road.
No calm after storm
Stanley Mosczynski, 62, like many of those from Mystic Islands, has not slept in his lagoon-front home on West Navisink Drive since the night of Oct. 28, 2012.
He remembers sitting on his deck looking at the sky and wondering just how bad the storm was going to be, if the forecast was correct and the evacuation orders were necessary.
He’d seen storms since relocating to the area in 1986, but he said he had a feeling this one was going to be different and it looked as if his neighbors did, too, when the neighborhood began to empty out that Sunday.
Mosczyski did evacuate after he double-tied his 25-foot boat to the dock behind his home and hoped it would be there when he returned.
Mosczynski, however, said he was not prepared for what he saw when he returned home after the storm. Like many of his neighbors, his house was flooded with about 4 feet of water, and at that moment when he saw the pieces of his life strewn about inside, he said he knew he wouldn’t be home for a long time.
“My house is stripped down now. No floors, no walls. It’s a shell. They’re going to knock it down next week. I settled on putting a modular up in its place. It’s a ranch. It’s nice. But it’s going to be lifted in the air on piling about 10 feet,” he said.
When he was first displaced, he stayed in Medford with his 70-year-old brother, Ron Moll. Now he is staying with his girlfriend.
“I’ve got my stuff everywhere now. I’ve got clothes out in Burlington County, and then I have some stuff up at my girlfriend’s in Toms River. I’m just spread across two counties with everything from moving around,” Mosczynski said.
On a recent sunny Sunday, Mosczynski prepared his boat to go back in the water for the summer. His home will be knocked down. He said he is confident he will once again tie his boat to the dock before the end of the summer.
“You can sit in the corner and cry, feeling sorry for yourself, or you can pick yourself up and move forward,” he said.
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