Elizabeth Phillips was born in Newark, New Jersey but moved to Lavallette in 1974, where she was living at the time of Hurricane Sandy. She evacuated right before the storm, but she wasn’t able to return to her flooded home until three weeks later. In her narrative, she discusses challenges that are common to many on the shore struggling to recover, such as negotiating with insurance companies, applying for grants, and making sense of new building regulations.
Did you prepare for the storm?
We were asked to evacuate… I had a feeling I was going to get some water but nothing like what I got. We put couches on blocks so if we got an inch or two it would be ok. We tried to move furniture up to a little higher floor.
We left on Sunday…went to a friend’s house. I was not able to go back to my house for three weeks.
What did you experience during the storm?
The night of the storm all we heard was wind and you know the trees blowing and the next morning when we went out the street seemed perfect; there was one tree down, no water. When we actually went for a walk and we walked two blocks south it was flooded; trees were down, we were in this little bubble in there house it was really something. We lost power there for a couple of days but not too long.
I have friends that stayed in Lavallette and they told me I had three and half feet in my whole first floor and five feet in the garage so of course you wanted to get back there.
Finally, I got back for the first time. I was able to get on a boat with a friends son-in-law I had two hours so I took a few things with me and then the police had asked us to leave because you were not supposed to come by boat.
The next time I went over Kelly, the friend we were staying with, went with me. We were able to go on a bus, you were able to take one suitcase and you were there for two hours. I think we were there from 12:30 to 2:30 then the bus came back and you had to leave.
You had to wear boots because the floor was all muddy and just disgusting; it was smelly and it was cold and I had hired someone to turn the water off and drain the pipes which was done.
I think they started letting us drive over in December; you were restricted to one car. The earliest you could get there was eight and then you had to be out of there by three but to get there the only open road was the Seaside bridge so you had to go from Point Pleasant Borrow because we were staying with Kelly in Point. You had to get to Route 37 in Toms River. Twice we waited in the line for three hours just to get over the bridge to get to the house. You’re wasting all this time in the car and you have as many people you can fit in the car to help you. So we did that a couple of times.
Some midshipmen from the Naval Academy in Annapolis were in our area, I think thanksgiving weekend. Seven of them came to my house and they emptied the entire garage. We had about six people there helping us and at that point. We were just “throw away”, “save”, and “we’ll look at later.” There was a bin of pictures we didn’t want to throw away but we didn’t know if we could save them. The midshipmen were a huge help. They worked and emptied the entire garage, which was packed. Kelly and Mike had moved a lot of their stuff in their house to my house, because they were redoing their house, and they lost a lot wedding albums and clothes and all sorts.
What kind of damage did you sustain?
We lost all the furniture on the first floor. They had to rip down the walls, four feet high. All the rugs and the flooring, the kitchen cabinets, anything that was in the kitchen cabinets, and the dining room. We had a couple of hutches, and everything in there was destroyed. Just about everything in the garage was wet and moldy.
My bulkhead was not damaged. It was more of a water surge. The water just came up. The foundation was fine and stuff… I don’t have a very exciting story do I?
How did your community fare?
Lavallette fared fairly well compared to Ortley Beach, the next town from us. They’re not back yet. It’s still being worked on. Right now the streets are all torn up because they’re changing all the sewer systems, the water systems, and all that. It’s like detour city down there. On the ocean beach they’re piling up sand for dunes.
Some of the business opened up before I came back, like The Ben Franklin 5-10 Store in May.
With people around it’s getting better.
Are you still rebuilding?
I’m back in. The builder started in March and we moved back in on June 29. I’m in the process of going through the New Jersey Marine Program to see if I can get a grant to raise my home.
I talked to the builder. My options were to raise it and fix it, just fix it and move back home, which is what we did, or to sell. In order to sell we would have to knock the house down and just sell the property. At the time my father, who has passed away since, was in a hospital and he had his leg amputated. He had to rent for the eight months I stayed with Kelly and Mike. We went with the option to fix it up and go back home so we could get him back to his surroundings. That’s the main reason we went that route, besides money. It was much more expensive to knock it down and rebuild new or raise and rebuild. So we went with what the insurance covered to fix it up. If I don’t get grant money, there’s the possibility. I can’t afford to raise the house and in a year or two or three, I’m going to have to sell.
How much would you have to raise your property?
They’re saying that new regulations will be out there in 2015, if we can afford the flood insurance or if we don’t comply. We would be at that level, eight feet. Originally they put us in a V-Zone but they changed us back to an A-Zone and A-Zone, which is eight feet high. That’s what I have to be.
Did you have any problems dealing with your homeowners insurance, flood insurance?
No. Actually the insurance company I thought was pretty good. They were quick. It was a hassle to get them there at first because at that point only residents were allowed in. You had a sticker on your car and to get an insurance man in they either had to come with you or they had to follow you and you had to tell the police at every checkpoint. I think he came in December and he had given me an upfront payment right away, like 2,500 dollars, to get started because you had to pull all that moldy stuff out right away. Then I got more insurance money when I started with the builders in March. Everything I did it the house was basically covered.
Did you qualify for any federal aid through FEMA?
The only aid I got from FEMA was really assisted living for two months. Then we moved in with Kelly and Mike and stayed there for the rest of the 8 months.
What are your views of the federal government response to the hurricane?
FEMA was fine with me. I called them two or three days after the storm and they meet with me within a week. It was kind of strange though because they told you where to go. They didn’t have an office or anything like that. They met you in a car in a parking lot by the Toms River Bridge. We just sat in our cars and waited our turn, then we went in her car and she had all the paperwork and she asked you about your flood insurance and homeowners insurance. Since I had flood, homeowners, and health insurance, I just got the rental assistance. They were pretty quick with me. As far as the grants, now those are taking forever.
I applied for the resettlement grant, which gives you $10,000 just to resettle in your area. You don’t have to be in your exact home, you just have to be in the county and that came pretty quick. Then I applied for a $10,500 grant to use how you need it; I need money to raise the house. I met in July with them and then they called me back in August. They changed the whole program around so I had to go back and redo all the paperwork. So I went back and each time you have a different housing advisor so you have to go through the whole thing again and they want different receipts and that’s kind of a hassle. I had four appointments and finally the paper work was processed, I just had an inspection on my house and they said another month they will go through that paper work and see if I’m able to get any money. It’s a lot of paper work, a lot of red tape, and a lot of people.
How do you feel about the future?
Nervous. I live right on the bay. The bay used to be calming and a happy thing and now as soon as the waters get rough…it’s not as relaxing as it used to be. I mean, it’s still a pretty view but I’m a little nervous. I just heard the other day that there might be a coastal storm coming in December that’s going to flood and I don’t want to lose everything we just fixed again, you know?
What do you think the biggest lesson is for the future?
I think people should listen to warnings and evacuate. I know people that didn’t, you hear their stories… it’s too dangerous. It’s hard to imagine even in my house having three and a half feet of water sloshing around in your living room, if I was sitting on my couch the water would be up to here put hand over chest.
Interviewed by Hasan Khan and Lukas Morales
Edited by Allison Jones
Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey
Recorded November 9, 2013