That’s an apt word to describe the feeling after hearing story after story of families who have lost everything in Hurricane Sandy.
Thousands of residents in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties have stories that are much the same.
“We lost everything” and “We had to throw out almost everything” are the personal assessments we’ve heard countless times.
But we’ve also heard words of courage and resilience from the same people who have been wiped out.
“We don’t give up here,” said Jennifer Moros, of Downe Township, who saw her home shattered by the storm.
Yes, it could have happened to anyone.
In the Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor Township, a community of just less than 8,500 where homes sit on piling stretching into the water, about 500 homes likely are unlivable, authorities estimated last week.
Besides having the destruction in common, the victims have something else in common: They’ve received an outpouring from the community. Churches, charities, schools, neighbors and others have stepped up to help those in need.
Here are five stories that could be repeated thousands of times over this month. Their lives are in tatters. And they are not alone.
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Sole surviving wedding photo strikes chord
By MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST
Brenda Bass Janice is a professional trumpet player who was recovering from a broken wrist when she first heard about Hurricane Sandy and the need to evacuate her Atlantic City home. Husband Rich Janice, a professional pianist, was recovering from surgery.
So they grabbed a few things for what they thought would be two days away from their house on Laclede Place in the Chelsea section and went to Absecon to stay with friends.
Almost a week later, they returned to the island and found several feet of water had inundated their home and a rental property they own on Providence Avenue.
“Water takes everything and moves it wherever it wants. It’s like a tornado,” Brenda Janice said. Rich pumped 153,000 gallons out of the basement of one property, she said.
They had to get everything out so quickly, when help was available, she couldn’t go through it first. When she tried to at the curb, “the scavengers were beating me to my own stuff,” Janice said.
She estimates she and her husband lost $30,000 in personal items, and they have no flood insurance, she said. Neighbors had told them the area hadn’t flooded in more than 60 years, so they avoided the expense, she said.
At first she was angry with herself for not moving more things upstairs, but it all happened when she and her husband were injured.
“It looks like it’s junk after the water rises, but it’s not junk. I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was such a sudden loss," Brenda Janice said. “I hate to sound wimpy. I’m usually very tough.”
Help came from surprising places, which has touched her deeply. Fellow musician Mitch Sutton, of Brigantine, saw her plea on Facebook. Though she knew him only slightly, he brought two friends to help clean up. Her own church has provided labor and food, as have groups from Shore Fellowship Church in Egg Harbor Township and Linwood Community Church.
They have lost work because of the need to focus on the properties. A priority is fixing the flooded heating system for tenants in the rental unit, she said.
One bright spot is that her trumpets, stored on a top floor, survived.
“I had taken my favorite with me,” she said. “The first thing I think of is my trumpet.”
And she found one wedding picture undamaged.
“It’s a photo of my husband kissing me on our wedding day. I don’t know where the other pictures are. I’m really happy I found that picture.”
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Toughing it out, no means to move
By HOA NGUYEN
With an income of less than $500 every two weeks, Miguel and Jackie Vasquez have few choices when it comes to living arrangements.
The first floor of their Atlantic City home was fully flooded by Hurricane Sandy, with the water rising from the crawl space and seeping through the floorboards. More than two weeks after the storm struck, the crawl space is still waterlogged, and several places remain wet.
The hot water heater isn’t working, which means the Vasquezes have had to boil water and mix it with cold water to have warm water for bathing. The couple, who have lived in Atlantic City since the 1990s, said their landlord hasn’t told them when a replacement can be expected.
The couple and their five children, ages 6 to 16, have spent days cleaning out the mud and muck from the Fairmont Avenue home where they remain living — sleeping on the second floor to avoid remnants of the flooding, including mold and other contaminants. Ideally, they would move, but they have nowhere to go.
“It’s not a good condition,” said Miguel Vasquez, 41, a maintenance worker whose employer only gives him part-time hours. “It’s hard, because we need money for another apartment.”
On Oct. 28, when Gov. Chris Christie issued an evacuation order for the barrier islands in advance of Hurricane Sandy, the Vasquezes left their home to travel to a friend’s house in Pleasantville. There they rode out the storm and its aftermath, including several days without electricity.
When residents finally were allowed back into Atlantic City on Friday, the family’s pastor came to pick up the family, and together they spent three hours on the Atlantic City Expressway along with the many other residents trying to get home. When they arrived, they found piles of belongings knocked over and soaked from the flooding. It has taken days for the family to clear out the muck.
“It’s very nasty,” Vasquez said. “There’s a lot of mess.”
Teachers and volunteers at the nearby Texas Avenue School have tried to help the family as part of the school’s large-scale relief effort, providing them with clothes and other donated items.
But it’s a return to normalcy the family craves. Jackie Vasquez, 33, said she remembered the words of her 13-year-old daughter.
“One night, she cried to me and said, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to live like that,’ ” she said.
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Sacred remains rescued
By THOMAS BARLAS
DOWNE TOWNSHIP — Emergency personnel told the Moros family to leave their home in Fortescue as quickly as possible the evening before Hurricane Sandy struck.
Jennifer Moros said the warning was dire: Wait too long and no one would be able to provide a possible rescue from their home along the Delaware Bay.
“We left with the clothes on our back,” she said.
That’s about all that Jennifer Moros, 40, her husband, James, 42, and the 8-year-old son, also named James, have left.
“We lost everything,” Jennifer Moros said.
Like many of Cumberland County’s small Delaware Bay communities, Fortescue suffered much damage from the storm. For the Moros, that involved waves and high winds tearing apart the bayfront deck that the family loved.
“We used to fish right off the deck, catch stripers and cook them,” Jennifer Moros said.
Floodwaters carried away a small addition to the Delaware Avenue house and flooded the rest of the building. Furniture, appliances, clothing, photographs and just about everything else the family owned was damaged or destroyed.
The family still managed to save something important.
“Our 3-year-old son died three years ago,” Jennifer Moros said. “We have the urn with his ashes.”
Jennifer Moros, who works with her husband’s construction business, is now helping to tear up the damaged interior of the house that has sat on piling in the small Delaware Bay community since the family rebuilt it after the 1962 storm. She is pulling out walls and floors that were soaked in saltwater.
“We just put these down five years ago,” Jennifer Moros said. “We’re using the wood stove to help dry things out.”
If there is any consolation, it is that the house can be salvaged.
Mayor Robert Campbell was in the house recently to help determine whether it is structurally sound, Jennifer Moros said.
“He jumped up and down on the floor and then gave us the signal,” she said, showing how Campbell gave two thumbs up.
Jennifer Moros said friends already have helped them install support beams. New piling will be driven into the sand soon, she said.
One thing that Jennifer Moros said was not washed away by the storm is the township’s sense of community: Local officials, residents and even the principal of the school that young Jimmy Moros attends have stopped by. They are offering whatever help they can.
“They’re asking if we need a hot meal, if we need a shower,” she said.
The Moros family is now renting another home in Fortescue until their house is repaired, something that Jennifer Moros said will surely happen.
“We don’t give up here,” she said.
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Each day, new plan
By HOA NGUYEN
The smell of Hurricane Sandy still lingers in Juan and Carolyn Fontanes’ home even though they began ripping out flooded sections of drywall and clearing the muck from their home more than a week ago.
Sections of the Little Egg Harbor home’s wood framing are still wet, and there is yet another room from which they must rip out the water-damaged hardwood floors they had installed new only a few years ago.
The Fontanes and their 10-year-old son had prepared for the storm, placing valuables into a bonus room and master bedroom that sits about 2 feet higher than the rest of their house. But that space — part of an addition the couple put onto their house in 2007 — was breached by flood waters. Items the couple placed on top of beds also were swept away.
“We had to throw out almost everything,” Carolyn Fontanes said.
Juan Fontanes remembered when he was first allowed back onto his street, walking toward his house and seeing the chaos of his belongings soaked and strewn about. But he was thankful to still have his family and to find that some treasured family items, such as a portrait of his mother, hung high enough on a wall to escape damage.
Carolyn Fontanes said every day brought more uncertainty and realization she would need to accept help from strangers, including fellow members of the Calvary Baptist Church, hit her hardest. Their worries range from where they will live while their house is being repaired to mundane ones about laundry soiled by flooding. They sent 10 bags of laundry to the homes of strangers to be washed.
“It seems like, everyday, I’m trying to think what the game plan is,” Carolyn Fontanes said. “Every day, it seems like a whole new game plan.”
To avoid breathing in mold and other contaminants, the couple and son moved into a cramped trailer, which they borrowed from a friend and parked on their driveway. Finding another temporary home was difficult with so many displaced residents seeking similar accommodations, according to the couple. But then they received a phone call Thursday about an available rental. That same day, insurance adjusters arrived to assess the damage, giving the couple some assurance they soon can begin rebuilding.
Celebrating Christmas in the home seems unlikely, though Juan Fontanes holds out hope.
“It’ll be nice to get a Christmas tree in this house,” he said to his wife.
“We’ll be in the apartment,” she replied.
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Children relieved home not 'lost'
By MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST
Sarah and Jared Lenko, of Bay Avenue in Ocean City, have known for a long time they were at risk for a flood in their older two-story home, built at ground level.
“My mom owned it since the late ’80s, and she had water damage from the December 1992 storm,” said Sarah, a library aide at the Fernwood Middle School in Egg Harbor Township. “We were always just waiting for something more to come.”
They evacuated to her parents’ home in Egg Harbor Township, but her husband, owner of Jared Lenko Landscaping, didn’t bring his large new mower or other equipment. He had brought them when they evacuated for Irene last year, and they sat for days in the rain, she said.
Instead, he stored them in a neighbor’s garage, and they were immersed in floodwater, Sarah said. He has had the mower serviced but has been warned it may not work for long, she said.
Their house had 2.5 feet of water in its bottom floor, which they could measure by the water line on all the first floor walls.
Luckily, they had spent the Sunday before the storm moving as much as they could from the first to the second floor. Their house is an upside-down design, she said, with bedrooms below and living space above.
“Anything that had real sentimental value we removed. We were blessed. We didn’t lose nearly as much as other people did,” she said, adding they have flood insurance. “The most devastating thing to us is, we didn’t have a place to live.”
Then the Ocean City Tabernacle found them a local rental, and it and a newly formed coalition of businesses and residents called the OCNJ C.A.R.E. Project are helping them find financial assistance until they get their home repaired, she said.
“It has been amazing to us the amount of people who, out of the kindness of their heart, are sending money, gift cards and supplies. Innumerable people have showed up to help tear down the walls,” she said. “Many are complete strangers ... or friends of a friend.”
The Lenkos are members of Shore Fellowship Church in Egg Harbor Township, which has helped a lot as well, she said. All of the carpets, and the bottom 4 feet of Sheetrock, down to the studs, have been removed from the first floor, she said.
Their three children, ages 7, 5 and 3, have found it all difficult to grasp. When they were evacuated, the 7-year-old overheard her say, “We may lose the house,” she said. On her first day back to the island, he asked her, “Mommy, did you find the house?”
When he returned, he was relieved, she said, even though the first floor doesn’t look familiar anymore.
Husband Jared, meanwhile, is doing as much work as he can with his business -- mostly yard cleanups. “But because he’s out working, making a living, he has a limited amount of time in our actual home,” Sarah said.
They won’t know for a while how much the flood insurance will pay, but Sarah says FEMA has been extremely helpful.
“In one of the darkest and most difficult experiences of our marriage, in many ways we’ve been blessed. We’re being taken care of,” she said. “We could never do it on our own.”
For more on OCNJ C.A.R.E., visit www.facebook.com/ocnjcare.
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