Michaela Burbic was living in Seaside Heights, New Jersey at the time of Hurricane Sandy. The 21-year-old mother of a newborn boy and a 3-year-old girl was without a permanent living situation for nearly a year and a half after the storm. More than two years after Hurricane Sandy, Burbic shines light on the horrors of being a resident in an area that was virtually destroyed by the hurricane.
I’ve overcome the challenges by just keeping positive and praying.
What made you move to Seaside Heights, New Jersey? What about the community makes it feel like ‘home’ to you?
I liked how there was a lot of fun things for families. The boardwalk, the beach, umm… we like to go crabbing so that was a part of it as well and the school system was very good. It was just a nice community.
What I like the most is that the beach is close by. What makes it home? hm… Umm, the boardwalk, the beach and just Seaside. I was [living] a block and a half away [from the shoreline].
In the days leading up the hurricane how did you prepare? Were you worried?
I left before it was mandatory, just as a precaution. Um, approximately 2 days before the storm happened. I went elsewhere. I went to my grandmothers. I was extremely worried. Umm…we prepared by putting things up high like just in case there was a flood, which there was. So we put all the important stuff up high, we got flashlights, candles and then when we realized how serious the storm was actually going to be that’s when we made the decision to evacuate.
Were you aware of any shelters in your area?
Um, not at the time I [wasn’t] because there was there was no TV…there was no electricity, so there was no news, no. There was just nothing. Um, so I had no clue that there was a shelter that was open…which they made the Toms River High School into a shelter. So what we did was we stayed with my grandmother for about, I’d say two weeks and then we also stayed with my mother-in-law in Belmar, and after that, that’s when we were placed by FEMA in a few different motels. The motels that we stayed at had to be FEMA approved, so it was very difficult to find a motel that would accept the FEMA program.
Can you tell me about your experiences as Hurricane Sandy was taking place?
As the hurricane was taking place… Uh, we were at my grandmother’s house and we honestly, we didn’t have any clue what Seaside was like because we were in Lakehurst, [New Jersey]. Lakehurst just had you know, trees fall down, and the electricity went out for over a week so that was something. But then when we found out what actually took place in Seaside, it was so devastating. Like the first picture I’d seen was the huge rollercoaster in the ocean and that was just terrifying. It was insane.
[We were displaced] for a very long time. Um, let me see. Close to what? a year and a half.
It affected my family a lot. We were placed in 13 different motels. It was very hard because we had a, a newborn at the time and also a three year old and [at] each motel there was only a certain amount of time that you could stay there. FEMA would only pay so much and then we had to look into churches that would help and do applications and get approved and it just took so long and there was just so many different motels that we stayed at. We lost a lot of our belongings while we were moving so many different times. It was very stressful, very stressful.
Since the hurricane hit, we’ve faced some challenges with our daughter Bella. She’s had nightmares because of it. Um, what else? I don’t know, it was just very traumatizing. It was a very traumatic experience to go through all that and to not have a home for your children and your family to live in, it really… I got depressed during that time, and it took me a very long time to get out of it. I had to be put on medication, and to this day I still struggle.
Going back to the Barrier Island after the hurricane hit, what was your initial impression? What was most shocking to you?
Um, it looked like a warzone. It was. There was army, the army was there. It was just so, so devastating. It was quiet, there was sand everywhere, covering everything. You could see watermarks everywhere. Um, everything was just displaced… It was, it was a mess.
Um, most shocking was how many people that… there was so many people that, that lost everything. So many people’s homes were completely destroyed… some were even just flattened and totally, completely gone. Um nothing, a lot of places weren’t able to save anything, actually most homes had to throw everything away. It was really terrible.
What do you remember when you saw your place for the first time after the hurricane?
[We weren’t allowed back for a long time because] it wasn’t safe. They had to make sure all the gas lines were okay and that there wasn’t going to be an explosion any time soon. Uh, there was just so much damage done that they had to make sure that everything was safe.
I remember walking in and realizing there was really nothing that could be saved. Everything was tipped over [and] not in its place. The only things that we can save was paperwork that we put up high, some picture frames, my children’s baby books, um a few clothing items, but that was it.
I remember when we were allowed back into Seaside, we had to go in on a school bus and we were only allowed to bring one suitcase [per family]. So when we went there, we were allowed to bring the suitcase and fill it up as much as possible… um what didn’t fit in the suitcase you were not allowed to bring. So the stuff that we didn’t bring and were going to save, well we went back for the second time when they let us go back on the school bus and our whole entire place was ran through and destroyed. Like someone went in there and just went through everything like our fish tank [was] smashed into um the bathroom sink. Destroyed everything… Took the pipes out, so that was…that was nuts. We lost the couch, all the appliances, the flooring…there was a water main that burst so that had to be replaced as well. [We lost] a lot of thing, mostly everything.
For a while after the hurricane happened, I remember the um, what was it? The Red Cross! They had, they rented out a store and they just put like a bunch of food in there, cleaning supplies, mops, towels. Anyone who was in need could go there once a week and get all like food, juice, stuff like that and cleaning supplies to clean up from the storm. So that helped out a lot as well.
I’ve heard Hurricane Sandy being referred to as a ‘blessing in disguise’; do you agree with this statement? How do you think the hurricane has shaped the Seaside area as a whole?
I do, I do. Our community is so much different now in a better way. We became so close and we’re strong and we’re just prepared for anything that happens you know, next. I believe that we’ll always be a very close neighborhood now.
It really brought the community together; everyone who lived there really came together to fix Seaside up. They did a lot of cleaning, and a lot of things with the boardwalk. It really made us a close, very close neighborhood.
They’ve made a lot of changes. Um, since everything was destroyed, everything is brand new. It’s better than what it was and they’re doing a very good job with rebuilding the entire community.
The boardwalk was completely destroyed… like there was no boardwalk left. The boardwalk was floating down the streets and now it’s completely put back together. And one thing on the boardwalk that they have, they have a vendor and they sell pieces of the boardwalk from Hurricane Sandy and it’s engraved and it says ‘Hurricane Sandy’ [along with] the year and the date. Whatever profits they make from selling that, they donate to Sandy victims and to rebuilding the boardwalk and the community and stuff like that. So that was pretty neat. They also made ornaments out of it, stuff like that.
Do you think there are any lessons for the future that could be learned from Hurricane Sandy?
Always be prepared and always realize that if you don’t think something bad like that could happen, it can. I remember when Sandy first, when I first heard that there was a hurricane coming I was thinking ‘oh, it’s not gonna be that big.’ And it, it was. It destroyed the entire Seaside Heights; the entire Seaside was completely under water. People had, I remember people had to be rescued. For the people that did stay and thought the hurricane wasn’t going to be as bad as they said it was going to be, they had to be rescued in boats. Literally, boats were in the street and they had to help them come out of their apartment and put them on the boat and it was just… it was a mess.
The lesson… yes. Just always, just always be prepared for anything that can happen.
Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently? If you had the choice would you move down to the shore again?
Um, I would’ve been more prepared I think. Because, when I went to my grandmother’s, alls I brought was two outfits because I thought I’d be away for two days at the most and here I was away for a year and a half so, definitely be more prepared more next time.
Um.. I think there could possibly be another storm but there could be a storm in a lot of places. So no, I don’t think people should not move to Seaside because of that reason and if a storm would happen, I don’t think it would happen for many, many years.
Interviewed by Caileen Fitzpatrick
Assisted by Stephanie Kroeger
Seaside Heights, March 20, 2015