Megan Miller is a special education teacher who works in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. She and her husband (at the time fiancé) own a home in the Township of Brick. During Hurricane Sandy they acted as First Responders, assisting people and aiding in evacuations throughout Point Pleasant. The following day, they discovered that the storm had caused severe damage to their home. In her narrative, Meghan speaks of their actions during the storm, and the challenges they have faced in rebuilding their home. She also mentions her visit to the Ellen DeGeneres Show, in which she discovered that Ellen had generously agreed to help rebuild their home.
How has Hurricane Sandy impacted your life?
So my husband, my now husband, was the captain of the First Aid, so he went there Sunday night and I went on Monday to tie up the stuff in his house, but never really thought it would be that big of a deal.
He was going to the Office of Emergency Management for Point Pleasant Beach meetings on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights before the storm and they did an awesome job. They were basically saying that all the European maps and US maps had said it was going to be ground zero, it was going to come right over, so we had stand by at the First Aid program.
Point Beach was really well prepared because they evacuated everybody out at four o’clock on Sunday. In Point Borough and Brick, when the water breached the Barrier Island, all of that started to flood so they didn’t evacuate people until, I think, eleven o’clock on Monday.
I was transporting people from buildings to the Borough High School, which is right across the bridge, so that was where the Red Cross was. The driving was a little scary and at one point we had to stop and help and so we were standing in the middle of the street and the traffic lights were like parallel, it was weird, and so then overnight was weird and hectic because there was no communication. We only had Facebook. We didn’t have cell phones. I could receive texts but I couldn’t send them. So it was scary because people would be like “Are you ok?” and I’m like yes but I couldn’t tell them that. That was weird.
We went down to another guy’s house I was on call with, and we waded through two blocks of water and walking in; I guess I had never seen a house that was affected by a flood so it was weird. The refrigerator was crooked and leaning against the wall. Everything was moved around and he was so calm about it.
I tried to take the ambulance down to see my husband’s house but we couldn’t get down because it was still flooded. We had our dog too so I think we left our dog in the crate so at the first scene, we got our wet suits on. We ran for a good three quarters of a mile through the water. It was a disaster. It was so weird because actually it was still just stuff you would hear about but you never think would happen. We were driving the ambulance through Point Borough and I stepped on the road and the whole road kind of depressed. I don’t even know the right word, but it was so weird because the road was unstable. I have never seen that, like obviously you step on road and its solid but it was like I can’t even equate it to something, it wasn’t like sand but it was the whole road just in that section would just depress and I was like, “What the hell!” Then there were bubbles coming out from the seams in the road so when I was running I was trying to stay in the middle road because that was the highest part.
Were you worried at all?
Yes but I was worried about getting to my husband because I know going into my friend’s house what he was going to go to. I knew that he would be upset so I was trying to get there fast. We got across the bridge and there was two perfectly placed boats on each side of the road and it looked like someone put them there on purpose as a road block. Obviously they didn’t. It was a mess.
Was there a lot of damage around the house?
Our story is unique because my sister wrote a letter to Ellen DeGeneres so we got our house redone, which was really cool! They asked us to put some pictures together and they ended up flying us out there.
Every time someone would ask where we were from, it was another reminder that we were destroyed in the storm. So it was almost like we were doing okay until someone would say something.
Tuesday they told us that we were going to the Ellen show and we had to wear solid colors and bring a few changes of clothes because Ellen might want to talk to us in the middle of a commercial. So we got there and the car drove us in and the guy was like, why are you here, and we were like I don’t know why…our house got destroyed in the storm so they wanted to let us go to show for free. So we got there and they put us into a dressing room and left us there and they said they will bring us down for the show in a little while. Then they came in 45 minutes later and said, we don’t want you to be in the audience, we want you to be on the show, Ellen wants to talk to you as a segment. Basically they told us that there was really nobody helping from Sandy so they wanted to be those people. So we went and were interviewed and we were on with Ellen for two segments. In the first one, she was interviewing us about what happened and the second segment they brought the Kitchen Cousins and they said that they are going to redo our house and have it done by Thanksgiving! We had no idea!
We didn’t know we were going on. His best friend was texting him and saying like just saw your teaser for the Ellen show and we were like, what are you talking about, that’s not true. All these clues, I guess we should have figured something out, but we had no idea. So anyway, they told us they were going to redo of our house. They actually showed a video footage while we were sitting on the show of them destroying our house. The first show it could’ve been anyone’s house but the second shot was of Jonathan’s super ugly fireplace and it was awful. We weren’t allowed to go near the house because it was a surprise. The Monday before Thanksgiving, it was one of those reveal, like, move that bus kind of a thing, so it was really crazy. We were so lucky, like one in a million. It was perfect.
You think it brought some recognition to your area?
Right. What we were hoping for was maybe young people seeing my husband and I as first responders and be like oh I could do that too. This area was already being recognized because of the roller coaster and because in the days before, NBC and the Weather Channel, everybody was down in Point Beach.
We were lucky because they helped us out a lot. Since then we have raised it so we have been out of it since April. So getting money was a disaster.
The insurance company wasn’t that bad. It did take a long time. They sent us an advance I think in January. But then they were going to release all to us in May but what they did was they made the check out to your mortgage company and you. So the mortgage company, that was where the problem was. They would have to sign it and send it back to us so we could cash it. So we’re here, paying his mortgage and he’s not a delinquent or anything like that but they would say we need this, this, and this and so he would get them that. Then he wouldn’t get the check and he would call back and they would say we need this, this, and this. It happened like four or five times. We were on our honeymoon actually, and at four o’clock in the morning we got a call from our mortgage company saying we need more things. I mean we were really lucky because we got a lot of help so I feel bad complaining about it. I can’t even imagine the people who didn’t know what they were doing. We talk to [people] who had trouble. It was really sad, really sad stories. People who bought these really beautiful houses and spent their whole life savings and now they can’t even afford to fix them. Stuff like that really sucks.
People who aren’t from the area like the mortgage companies. If you don’t have a local mortgage company, they don’t understand. People were in non-permanent housing, they are out of their house, so when the insurance companies hold their money, you’re keeping them out of their house longer. And it’s already an awful situation, why are you making it more difficult? If you’re going to give the money anyway, why is it a problem? First they were going to give us 80% of it and the other 20% when we were finished. We were paying our mortgage and you’re penalizing us for being good people. I think a lot of people who didn’t have flood insurance had an easier time than the people who had flood insurance. I don’t know if that’s true, but from what I have heard it seems like the people who got FEMA assistance, got help right away. Whereas the mortgage and the insurance companies took a lot longer. We had a FEMA person within two weeks and she spent an hour with us going over the house and anything. We had flood insurance but then we didn’t get our flood insurance money. We got penalized for doing the right thing. With climate change there is going to be a lot more storms that are bad. People are going to have to start building differently or start moving inland. There are a lot more natural disasters that are worst now. I don’t think we are in for a good time.
Was the hurricane tough emotionally for you?
Not so much immediately, it was more the whole Ellen show that kind of got me. Until the beginning of the New Year, I just felt really guilty that we got so much help. Like my friend’s basement had the oil tank explode and they didn’t get any help, so just stuff like that kind of sucks. I’m not complaining that we got it, it was just hard seeing everyone else going through stuff and we were okay. Everyone else said that they were happy but at the same time, you feel bad because you should be in the same situation as they are and you’re not. But I guess [its like] posttraumatic stress, when it is getting dark, you get depressed. It wasn’t the immediate week or two after, because you were in work mode, it was that waiting…waiting for people to help or waiting for money. We didn’t have work done on our house from July to two weeks ago. There is so much help and money and it’s very hard to allocate where it needs to go. So much money was donated and so much of it didn’t go to the people. Nobody has seen that money. If you’re going to donate to places, I guess just know where you are donating your money to and what they are going to do with it.
A lot of people from The College of New Jersey came out and helped and just from all around we wanted to help other people. It’s almost like survivor’s guilt. We got a lot of help so we felt guilty for a while. Now we are better. But you just want to help as many people as you can because you’re getting help. I don’t like getting help so it’s hard to accept people helping you.
What did you do the days after the storm?
I think a little bit of everything. The fire departments were a lot busier than the First Aid because there weren’t many hurt people. So it was just helping your friends and we were trying to get stuff out of my husband’s house. First you take out everything that got destroyed like the tables and the couches and then you take out the house, like the sheet rock and everything else that got destroyed.
At Point Beach First Aid, we delivered food a lot. Even still today it’s weird because it’s still all you talk about when you see people and for a while every time a storm surge was on the news, I would get ten thousand texts [asking] “are you ok?” It would cause a lot anxiety which is why we raised our house because every time they say storm surge, you know, what’s going to happen now?
Everything was wrong, the tides were higher and off because now you had some ocean running into the bay where it shouldn’t be. I think the week before Christmas last year, there was another storm forming and just that same feeling that every time it would rain you would be “I can’t leave”. So that lasted for a while. But I think the two weeks after were just survival at that point. Just trying to help people and trying to make sure that everybody had a place to go and people that needed help got help. But also trying to take care of yourselves and my husband’s house and all that. Also trying to go to sleep and take a nice shower and something like that.
How did you think the town’s response was?
In Point Beach, I think the immediate response was perfect. I don’t think we could have done it any differently. With the evacuations at four o’clock, most residents were out and those who stayed knew what they were getting into.
You said you are a teacher, so what was the situation with the schools?
I teach in the Borough, my kids were displaced and I found that the kids are a lot more resilient than the adults. I don’t know if it is because they don’t have the attachment to the materialistic things as the adults do. Obviously they are upset. I feel like it affects us more than it did them. At least the ones I’ve seen have been really positive and wanting to help other people.
Point Borough High School was used as a shelter until less than a week after the storm. Schools were closed until two Mondays after. It was the middle of November. I know that the first day we came back, they did a survey of all the students asking are you in your home and what do you need. Point Borough schools ran adoptive family programs so if you wanted to help out a family, you can either donate things or money or you can call a family and say what you need. They match people who wanted to help to people [who] needed help. It was awesome because there were more people who wanted to help than who needed help. That was really good. It got to the point [where] I’m not sure what you can do. There were so many claims and people kept donating things which was awesome but they would donate cleaning supplies three weeks after people were done cleaning.
Otherwise in school, I mean it’s always a topic of conversation. All of the kids went through it so they know about it. They did a project where every kid got a board that was the size of a shopping bag. The kids had to decorate it and they could put whatever they wanted to. Some of the kids did a really good job and they put them all around the school. They were rebuilding the boardwalks so it was cute. They put their ride tickets from the arcades and stuff like that. They had pictures of them when they were at the beach. I guess [it was] cathartic in a way.
We had counseling and stuff like that. Again most of the kids have been pretty good. I think that at this point, if they’re still out of their houses, they’ve probably gone into a routine. It’s probably still affecting those kids more than the kids that were only out for a few days. The whole thing stinks. It’s just an awful situation. But everybody else goes through awful situations too. I guess it’s just something that brings us together, as a community, in a weird way. As awful as it was, it also kind of restored my faith in humanity. Because there were so many organizations that popped up that are trying to help people.
Any last advice you would give for future disasters?
Early evacuations. If there is another storm, tell the people on the inside, off the bay, they should be aware and make voluntary evacuations. So they know what’s coming. Because I know the people who lived across the street from my husband who still were not back in their home. They had no idea and so they were in their house and the waves were coming in. They were older and they couldn’t get anywhere and the phones weren’t working very well and nobody could get them anyway. Plan for the worst possible situation and evacuate those people. Again Point Beach did an awesome job with that. But I don’t know about other places.
Update all your electrical stuff, it’s really important. There was a fire down on Route 35, by the Mantoloking bridge in Brick, and they couldn’t get the fire trucks over the bridge. There was nothing they could do about it. And make sure you know where you’re donating your money to. Money should be going to the people. Also that the whole advertising campaign that took so much money from the New Jersey government, I think it was bologna. I really don’t think that it made anybody come down here. I think they probably would’ve been better with radio commercial that said like if you come to the Jersey Shore you’ll help people from Sandy. Just say that instead of this whole marketing campaign. I think that would’ve brought more people down.
Interviewed by Tirth Patel
Assisted by Brian Litt
Edited by Gina Palmisano
Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey
Recorded November 9, 2013