Kathy O’Brien walked into her barrier-island home Friday morning and instantly burst into tears. Hurricane Sandy had inundated it with floodwater that wrecked almost everything she owned.
“That was my home. That was where I live. Or where I lived,” she said. “It’s gone now. It’s very emotional.”
O’Brien, a resident of the Ocean Beach section of Toms River, was one of hundreds of residents of some of the Jersey Shore communities hit hardest by Sandy who were allowed back to their storm-wrecked houses for the first time since last week.
Authorities were conducting so-called “controlled returns” in which residents of Toms River, Seaside Heights, Berkeley Township, and the Holgate and North Beach sections of Long Beach Township were briefly escorted back to their homes by police.
They had but a single hour to grab what they could, do whatever they needed to stabilize those houses that were still salvageable and get back on the yellow school buses that had taken them there.
“We made a list,” said Justine Fricchione. “As soon as we get in the door, we’re all splitting up and grabbing as many things as we can from the list. It’s daunting, but it forces you to really focus.”
Topping their list and those of many other evacuees: warm winter clothing. Temperatures were at or near the 60s before the storm hit. On Friday morning, it was in the 30s, and many evacuees waiting for buses to escort them to their homes were wearing thin jackets or layers of light clothing.
Steve Dabern was among those who grabbed all the warm clothing they could as soon as he got back into his Toms River house, which had 2½ feet of water in it at the height of the storm.
His reaction when he walked in the front door?
“Complete, utter shock,” he said. “Sickness. I felt sick. The floor was all torn up. The refrigerator was on its side. All the tables and chairs from the kitchen were pushed into the living room.
“We waited eight days to get here, and the anticipation, the not knowing what would be there, was incredible,” he said. “Now it’s just a shock. It’s a total mess.”
Al Nugent, a senior citizen who had retired to the shore with his wife, Jane, in 1993, was in a remarkably good mood for someone who had 2 feet of water in his house during the storm. The aftereffects were almost as bad.
“The odor was enough to kill you,” he said. “Everything is still wet. The doors don’t close right now.”
“But I still have my life, and I still have my wife,” he said. “We’re alive and we’re OK, and we’re grateful for that.”
His neighbor, Patricia Smith, was grossed out by the conditions in her house.
“Water is still dripping from everywhere,” she said. “You can hear it: drip, drip, drip. You open the refrigerator and there’s water in the vegetable drawers. Ugh. It felt like I was in a greenhouse; that’s how humid it was.”
Janet Sanfilipo’s house had 3 to 4 inches of water still in it.
“It was smelly and dirty, but better than I expected it to be,” she said. “I actually feel very lucky.”
She was jarred riding the bus over the Route 37 bridge into her neighborhood and seeing the devastation on both sides of the road.
“It was a shock to see the rubble piles where they used to have the circus in the summer,” she said. “That rubble was peoples’ homes, their lives.”
Harry Wight and Beth Loughran rode out the storm in their Toms River neighborhood, confident things would be fine until water started gushing into it from both ends. They fled and spent the night in Wight’s pickup truck.
The next day, they trudged through waist-deep floodwater to a firehouse whose generator broke. They made it back to their home when floods receded the next day, so they had a good idea of what to expect when they returned Friday.
“The smell was rancid,” Wight said. “It’s that moldy, mucky smell.”
Before leaving, he propped open the windows, ripped out the rugs and dumped about $300 worth of groceries that had been bought two days earlier.
Gary Peterson, of Toms River, expects his house to be all right; it’s on higher ground. His main priorities were grabbing warm clothes and cleaning out the refrigerator. He also praised township officials for their response to the storm, including Friday’s effort to take residents back to their damaged homes.