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It really was like a movie, I swear

Aurora Silletti

Aurora Silletti is a lifelong resident of the Jersey shore and owner of Ultimate Dance Studio in Toms River. Like many others, she and her family stayed in their home during the storm rather than evacuate. In its aftermath, they were displaced from their home for months and lived with family members while rebuilding. In this narrative, Aurora discusses her thoughts as the storm was taking place as well as the challenges they have faced in rebuilding.

 

How does Sandy compare to any storms you lived through?

You can’t even compare it because I think it’s just so devastating. It’s something that I had never experienced in my life

What led your decision to stay rather than evacuate?

We had chosen to stay because we didn’t think that it was going to be that bad. Because Irene really wasn’t that bad even though they evacuated us for Irene. We had a second story that had two bedrooms, us there and a bathroom. So we knew, “Well, worst comes to worst, if it really is as bad as they were expecting, which was even worse than that, we would always have the upstairs.” So we stayed up there. We were upstairs for probably almost a day. We brought food up there, moved pictures, and as the water kept coming in I kept moving stuff upstairs, as much as we could save. Once it hits, that’s it. You know?

What did you do to prepare for the storm?

I remember trying to go and everything was cleared out that whole week. Everything like bread was gone. It’s like, you know, anything that was non-perishable like snacks. They were selling out of everything ‘cause everybody was trying to prepare. And then I know we had flashlights like crazy. Candles like crazy. Batteries like crazy, you know? Just getting as much as we can get and then once the power went out that’s all we had, candles. We had no power then for fifteen days.

While the Hurricane was taking place, what was running through your head?

You know what? All I really cared about was taking care of the girls. Having them not be scared, making sure that everybody was safe. I really don’t even think that I was thinking ahead because it was just in the moment. Like, “Ok. Who’s warm? Who’s cold? Put on extra blankets. Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Just stay up here and be safe.” After that, after our street stopped being flooded so much, I just wanted to get them out of there, so at least they would have some kind of normalcy. You’re taking about five days of nothing. My sister, she had no power, so it’s no TV. We played board games like you wouldn’t believe. I was sick of board games after a while! But it worked out because we had a wood-burning fireplace, so at least we had that so we could stay warm. But it is just all of this stuff, you’re not thinking ahead of what’s going to happen after it’s done. Once it is all done it hits you like, “Oh my God, we have a whole house bottom floor to replace.” That’s when it’s like sigh, you know?

I’m sure you had a special case with having little children during the time. How did you talk to them, comfort them, and inform them of the situation?

You know what, they are really resilient. You don’t realize how resilient children are. I just said that everything could be replaced. We’re gonna be safe. We’re gonna see what happens. I think they were in awe of everything, but I knew that they were a little upset at first. Then, to be honest with you, when we had to move in with my sister, they were super excited because they had their cousins. But, after a while that novelty runs off so they’re a little bit upset and they just want to go home. Then, I just comfort them. Tell them, “We’ll be home soon. It’s just going to take a lot longer than we expected”, and they were O.K. They were really good.

Did you have any way to find out what was happening during the storm?

I kept looking out the windows. I wanted to see what was going on, but it was pitch black, so you couldn’t see anything, all around us. Then we had looters in our neighborhood after the storm because they knew everybody was gone by then at that point. There were police stationed right outside our development. You had to show your license to get in and out. That was awesome, the cops did a great job with that, but you couldn’t see anything, once it got dark, it was the scariest thing you could imagine. You couldn’t see what was coming and all you could hear was water coming through your house, and you’re like, “If this keeps going, where are we going to go?”

In that time with no power, how did you cook? How did you bathe?

After we could go downstairs, that’s when it was like two days after that. We actually went out of our development and then I went to my sister’s house, and she had helped us and that’s when we did everything. We ended up moving in with my sister because we were displaced. The majority of the people didn’t have power for so long that, you know you’re bundling up because it’s so cold. So you’re bringing blankets. The fire department came down and delivered blankets, water, and everything to use.

We had a Coast Guard boat, helicopters over our house to try and see- to rescue us and take us out. I was five months pregnant so I chose not to go. We drove to my sister’s and stayed with her.

Were you helped by any EMT’s, paramedics, police?

Yeah. The helicopter above had the ladder if you wanted to go to the roof, but we didn’t go to be rescued. We had the Coast Guard as well, come up and down our lagoon too, if we wanted to go by boat to the shelter. The fire department came around. Believe it or not, Red Cross didn’t do as much as I thought it would do. The fire department was giving out blankets, water, and all of that. They even had places, too, where you could go eat dinner at, other than shelters of course. Here was shelter Toms River East High School, North was a shelter.

As you returned home to assess the damage, what were you feeling when you looked through everything?

It’s just a sick feeling. You are just sick to your stomach and sitting there, crying. And just standing in shock. There’s really nothing that- I don’t know. It’s just such an awful feeling. And then, too, it’s just different things that you are like “Ugh, God” as we are cleaning up. Throwing all of this garbage away you get all of the stuff. Halloween decorations, Christmas decorations, their sneaks, their shoes, toys. All of their toys were ruined. Like jackets that were- You know, because it went thirteen inches up, so it was much stuff like tables, all my couches…you can’t even fathom it. You really can’t.

How have you and your family gone about the process of rebuilding your house and in general?

“We Are Team Jersey” helped us out. We also had a church, a Presbyterian church, out of Pennsylvania come in to help. We had People’s Pantry help supply us with different, toiletry things that we didn’t have. Diapers, jackets, sneakers, shoes. Visitation Relief Center helped us in the beginning too. It was just overwhelming to see. Not only that but of course friends and family just to help and you know, buy sneakers or boots for my girls, or a carriage for my son when he was born. Everything we had was ruined so everything went to be brand new, or at least something new for him to be sitting in.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of rebuilding?

Finding professionals to come, believe it or not. There is still so much stuff that needs to be done. Even when you call for an appointment for someone to get an estimate it’s like, “O.K we will be there in a week.” And then the person won’t show up. Or they’ll say, “Oh I have to reschedule.” Then if they come, “Well ok, we will send an invoice to you” for an estimate. Two, three, four weeks will go and I’m like “Where is this invoice?” calling them up. Then finally, it will come. Just to get people out and actually do the work. Also, you have to be so careful because you don’t know who is going to come into your house and work and do their job right. Sometimes half the stuff, it’s not done right, you’re re-doing it and you have to pay more money, you know? So you need reliable people and you need people to come do it. I’ve called some places and weeks are going by and I just say, “Forget it. We are going on to the next person.”

In terms of the federal government’s response, the governor’s response, and even FEMA’s response, how do you feel organizations like this help the relief effort?

Oh he Governor Christie was good. I think he did a good job. I don’t know if they were expecting this bad but they helped out. We had insurance, so FEMA really did nothing for us. We had to have flood insurance and homeowner’s insurance so they really didn’t do anything. It was hard though, because if you weren’t on Facebook you didn’t know anything that was going on really. That’s how I found out about “We Are Team Jersey” and the Hurricane Research Center. Social media was a big play in finding people to help out. The government should’ve helped a lot sooner. Now they are throwing out grants and everything. They had that huge concert, got $2 million or something and now I guess they are going and finding out, and giving more grants and stuff because they have money left over. I did realize they put a lot of money towards rebuilding the boardwalks and everything. Me personally, I think that they should’ve put their priorities towards putting all the people back into their houses.

At first we really thought, “Oh, he’s blowing up”, but he did do a good job because he prepared us. Honest to God, if I didn’t know it was going to be that bad I wouldn’t have gotten all of the candles and food and everything. I figured, you’d rather be prepared than not prepared. So that I will have to say. He came to visit, and I think he did a great job with getting all of us together, and getting us to pitch in as a community to help everybody out and rebuild.

Rebuild homes before the boardwalks?

Before they built the boardwalks and everything. You know, our lives are displaced, our children, and everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Seaside is rebuilt because we are there all of the time and it’s good. But they could’ve put that off until maybe March, or May. Then they would’ve finished in time probably for summer.

What lessons did you learn that could prepare you for another storm?

Believe it or not, I always keep candles now. I keep flashlights and batteries like you wouldn’t believe. Everything now is upstairs, like pictures, stuff that has the memories. Pictures that would’ve gotten ruined but they didn’t because thank God I moved them up. I always have the candles, I always have blankets upstairs, and I keep snacks upstairs too because just in case, you never know. Just to be prepared for it. It’s just so weird when you think back before when they saw the hurricane. I thought, “Yeah, it’s going to be a really bad storm. The whole street will be flooded.” But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my whole house to have been ruined. It was the storm of the century. You can’t even fathom. It really was like a movie, I swear.

With the power being out, what other ways were you able to communicate with people?

My phone- It just so happens that my phone was good, it was fully charged. We would go out to our car and charge it. Once the water came, you know, we couldn’t. I didn’t even really call or talk to anybody with my cellphone because I wanted to keep the charge. You can’t go by me because then I dropped my phone in the water; so I had no phone.

With Facebook, were you using a computer or was that also on your phone?

Oh no. Actually after I got my new phone, that’s when I started, the power was back on. It took me a while. I’ll tell you, it took me two to three weeks just to even grasp what happened, probably a good month to really regroup, figure out what was done, what was not done. The majority of the time we’d go back to the house without the children just for them not to know. They knew the severity of it but you don’t want to have all of their toys being thrown out in front of their faces, so we would go back and just assess it.

We had different organizations come to gut the house out. November was when I really started getting back online with Facebook. I think at one point you get so discouraged, depressed, and just in shock of everything that just went through your whole life. You’re never going to be the same after a disaster like this. Just be thankful that your health, your happiness, and that’s it. Everything else can be replaced. It’s just more stress because you have to rebuild. You know aggravation when you’re fighting with the insurance company or a builder or someone on the phone. So it is more stress. But then Facebook…I started looking different things up. Then one friend would say, “Oh they have We Are Team Jersey!” I’d go “oh my gosh” and boom. Like their page. Maybe they can come out and help. Only for the fact because a lot of stuff you wouldn’t find out. They have so many different organizations out there. But it’s not, News Channel 4 isn’t going to say “Go to this, this this this, and this.”

So it was comforting to know that there were people like you-

Yeah, we’re all going through the same thing. Just to hear the other people, it was just so rewarding to have friends that went through stuff and they’re there for you. Even if they didn’t go through it, they were still there for you. So it was good.

Did it inspire you to see the way the community formed from the storm?

Oh definitely. Even me and my kids, we went out to Seaside Park to rebuild the playground. We’re trying to give back too because so many people gave back to us to help us out with our house. We are all pulling together as a community to help others out, because we are all struggling. We are all trying to rebuild. We are all trying to go back to where we were originally, you know?

What lessons did you learn that could prepare you for another storm?

Believe it or not, I always keep candles now. I keep flashlights and batteries like you wouldn’t believe. Everything now is upstairs, like pictures, stuff that has the memories. Pictures that would’ve gotten ruined but they didn’t because thank God I moved them up. I always have the candles, I always have blankets upstairs, and I keep snacks upstairs too because just in case, you never know. Just to be prepared for it. It’s just so weird when you think back before when they saw the hurricane. I thought, “Yeah, it’s going to be a really bad storm. The whole street will be flooded.” But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my whole house to have been ruined. It was the storm of the century. You can’t even fathom. It really was like a movie, I swear.

It’s in the moment.

It has to be, yeah. We never evacuated and I said no. We were fine, we stayed upstairs. They had food, they had drinks, they were warm because I had tons of blankets, and we had the candles going. Believe it or not, everybody around us was just the same. Even at my sisters, even you went, even my cousin in Monroe had no power. No matter where you went, there was no power.

Once the water receded and we weren’t flooded anymore, it was just a matter of “You can’t live here” because of all the mold and everything. Other than that, we could’ve stayed if we never had any water. We were in the same boat as everybody with the power outage. We didn’t have power at any family’s house. I wouldn’t know if I would evacuate or not. It would definitely have to be in that moment.

Each storm is different too, you can’t-

No you can’t. Who knows, another storm might be nothing but you never know. But I think that was the storm of the century, I’m hoping, that’s it, it’s done [laughter].

Interviewed by Max Santiago and Bryan Criscitelli
Edited by Stephanie Pappas
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013