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We have a long way to go

William Mullen

William Mullen is a resident of Ortley Beach, New Jersey. For 33 years he worked as a social worker for the Monmouth County Division of Social Services. Hurricane Sandy completely destroyed his home as well as his car and nearly all of his possessions. The storm surge was so powerful that it sheared off half of his home, floated it more than 200 yards away, and deposited it on Route 35. In this narrative, he discusses the relief effort, as well as the challenges he has faced in rebuilding his home.

 

Did you do anything to prepare your house for the storm?

Yeah. I pulled in all of my flowerpots. Guys, we did not think it was going to be like this. I have lived through storms and northeast storms, hurricanes. Hurricanes that have come close to us have just came close to us. This one was just a direct hit into Atlantic City. I have been listening and watching the reports and the conditions for this storm were just right, the atmospheric conditions were just right to just kill us anything north of Atlantic City. If you look on a map and you see the destruction it went from Atlantic City north into New York.

And you guys got hit the year before with Irene. And that was kind of like our mindset down here. Like you guys got hit worse than us the year before, so the threat of disaster around here; we were thinking in terms of, okay, we’ve heard this before, it’s going to be a scare, and they’ll get it inland versus us, and that was our mindset. But once it came on shore, it was all over. But I was just cleaning up my area and making sure all of the flowerpots were secure. I put my car, I had an electric car that I had in my driveway, and I figured that I would secure that basically in between the two houses, my house and my neighbor’s house, but the car wound up down the street.

It was the Volt, the Chevy Volt. I feel as bad for the car as I did for the house, because all I had to do was take the car over across the bay into Toms River somewhere, you know inland, over by the town center, and it would have been secure over in one of those public garages, and I would have still had my car. But it wasn’t meant to be.

How did your house do with the storm?

It didn’t make it. Half of it was sheared off and wound up on Route 35 North, about 200 yards from where it is supposed to be. Thankfully I wasn’t there at the time.

I went with a friend in Lavallette, which is about a mile and a half north of where my home was. She has a house that’s elevated a bit. I’d say about ten, eleven, or twelve feet or something like that. Her home was damaged due to flooding. She had about three or three and a half feet of water in her house, but there was no structural damage. Once the water receded, she had to deal with the mold issue, gut the premise, and gut the cellar. It cost her a lot of money but her home is still standing.

Did it take convincing for you to leave, or did you leave because you knew it was going to be bad?

My friend and I have a good rapport. And she said, “Will, you’re coming with me, okay?” Well, okay, but it was a case where we did it the last time, so we’ll do it this time, okay. Never thinking that in 24 hours, in other words, my thought process on Sunday was, okay, I’ll be back on Monday. You know, it’ll be nasty, but how bad could it be? Well, it was the worst ever. It was the worst ever, that’s how bad it could be.

While you were in her house, were you watching the storm?

Well, here’s the story. She is younger than I by ten years, so she doesn’t remember the ‘62 storm. That was a bad storm. I was a kid. I was twelve at the time, and I had seen the ocean come over the dune they backed up. I’ve seen that, that was very vivid in my thought process. I’ve seen that because she has a higher house of course and she had a parapet, like a loft, on top of her house and she can actually see the ocean. So she saw the ocean coming over, so she said, “come on you got to see this,” and I said, “no, I don’t!” I’ve seen it once, and plus, she is in her house and I’m thinking, “okay, what’s happening in my house?” So I’m just chilling, trying to keep myself composed, but I’m also thinking about what is happening a mile south of here, south of where I am.

The house had just been completed by my folks, who had built the house in ’59, so it was only a three-year old house. It shook, I mean it shook. I can still see various brick or brack that my mother had in the living room shaking, because you know the wind was whipping, but you know it came down the street, and the cops were coming through urging people to leave, and my father took us over to Seaside, but still in the zone. I guess by that time you couldn’t even get across the bridge, so they were kind of like huddling people in Seaside because at that time, in ’62, there weren’t that many people living on the island. So either if you live in Lavallette, you stayed in the Lavallette area, if you lived in Ortley or Seaside, you went to Seaside because those were the two prominent towns on this section of island. So that’s where we stayed.

When did you first go back to look at your house?

That Tuesday. So we’re going to say the storm was approaching us for about a week, and then it started getting the really bad effects Saturday night into Sunday. Sunday was bad; that’s when I left around midday Sunday. Monday was the storm, so I started out to visit my house on that Tuesday, so I guess that was October 30th.

I expected flooding. In other words, since I was only a mile and a half away from where I weathered the storm, I figured if I saw her area flooded, I figured the whole area had similar flooding. As I got further south, the destruction was more evident. You know, the structural damage was more evident. By the time I got to my house, still call it my house, still my property, just the footing remained.

Are you planning to rebuild your house or are you going to sell the property?

I’m going to try. If you are aware, the governor has allocated money for people to rebuild, up to $150,000, and then you have to supply the rest as far as whatever they can build for you so to speak. And the money doesn’t go to us. It goes from the state to the contractor. So we don’t really handle any of the money. But that is a long process.

Are you going to try and rebuild the house the same way?

I can’t. I can’t, because I can’t afford to rebuild what I had there. I’m thankful for the money that they are going to give me, but that in no way, shape or form is close to what I had. But, I have to be thankful that I can get back there, if I can get back there, because politics are tricky. You just have to hope that the money will become available. Right now, it’s okay, we’re going to promise you this, but promises are one thing, delivery is another.

Is there anything you would have done differently, if you were given another shot, say, a week before Sandy? If you could re-do what happened during Sandy, what would you change?

It’s hard to say now because we weren’t prepared. Now we know it could happen. Here’s what I’m going to say about that. I did not think that we would ever flood to the extent we did. Now we know it’s possible, so we’ve got to take that into consideration in our re-building process. We have to learn from that. We have to learn that it happened once, and if all conditions are right, it could happen again. But, we just have to be prepared for just your everyday weather. This was a monster. Granted, this isn’t going to happen every year, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen again. But, the everyday weather happens everyday. We had a storm a couple of weeks ago. Now, typically, a northeast storm lasts three days. This storm lasted five to six days, and it ate away at the beach. Those are the storms you have to prepare for, those are the storms that you have to buffer.

We shouldn’t be worried that, oh God, it’s happening again, because that will wear on you. Worry is a debilitating thought. It just wears you down.

What do you think of the relief effort?

Fantastic. All the first responders in my experience were good. They sacrificed themselves. They actually went out at two o’clock in the morning, when it was the worst in my area; they were out searching for people who stayed. A couple people did stay because they were concerned about their property, and initially, no one knew how bad it was going to be, so I’m going to stay. By the evening the electricity is off, it’s dark, the floodwaters are coming through, and then you say, “what was I thinking?” “How am I going to survive?” “Am I going to survive?” And then these first responders come in their amphibious vehicles and risk their lives because there is all kinds of stuff floating around in the water: telephone poles, splintered power lines.

How did you feel about FEMA’s response to the storm?

FEMA did well for me. FEMA gave me a full grant and I’m pleased with what FEMA did. FEMA gave me money to pay for my household expenses, you know, my expenses. Not money to rebuild. The money FEMA gives is not enough to rebuild, but it’d be enough to keep you going for a time.

How did you feel about the governor’s response to the storm?

It was good, I mean, I didn’t see anyone else come to the fore. So I give him kudos for that. I wouldn’t have even had a chance to rebuild if he hadn’t proposed this grant money.

How do you feel about the president’s response to the storm?

It was good. Early on, he was here. I mean, he’s got his troubles. So, I’m not going to get into the political thing about it about where he was. He is the president of the whole country, so he’s got issues that we don’t even know about, and he’s only human. It’s a case where I’m trusting the local politicians. Chris Christie has promised the money. I’m hoping that he delivers. He says he is, so I got to take him on his word. I can wait ten, twenty, thirty years. I can’t wait thirty years, but see, you guys are young, but in our case, the people that are here, we’re all in our fifties and sixties. We’re on the other side, so we can see the end. The end is closer for us than for you guys. Ten years to you is nothing, ten years to us is a lot.

How do you think Hurricane Sandy shaped your community? Do you think it brought you together?

Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve developed a garden on my property, and people come by and look at it. Neighbors, giving me moral support, and also the neighbors have given me water, the essentials of water. You go to your house and you automatically turn on a faucet. I don’t have that luxury. It’s a case where I have to depend on my neighbors. Now if they were nasty people, then I would be out of water. I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking them or they wouldn’t offer, and plus, we’re basically… it’s a small area and with each succeeding year since I was a little kid there has been a lot of development in my area. When I was a kid, there were a few basic houses on my street, and we were a close knit group because there were not that many people. Now, prior to Sandy, every lot was occupied, so here, I’ll give you an example of my street. There’s one side of the street, here is my house, then you got houses here. Now most of these houses are gone now.

Now, when I was a kid, I lived here, and my best friend lived here, on the highway, Route 35. In the succeeding years, I developed a friendship with a couple of guys here. So there weren’t many kids around here to play around with. You had to go, you had to walk down this street, and you had to go through neighbors’ yards. But, what I’m saying is all these houses are populated. Now I didn’t even know the people living here because there were houses in the way. Now, since the houses have gone, these people have come over and met me at various points over the past year, and we’ve become friends. So it has brought us together by the destruction.

If this storm had gone out to sea, I wouldn’t have known about these people, but I’d still rather have my house.

You want to think that you can develop friendships along the way, but, here’s how I look at it. I would have met them in another situation. Eventually I would have met them because there aren’t many people living here year round, so you’re probably bound to run into them.

Do you think the community, or you as a person, have learned anything from the storm, or should learn anything?

Yes. We have to build stronger and smarter. We have to maintain our dunes to the point that they have to be. Now, you have to be sensible, when Mother Nature wants to do something, she’s going to do it. Because that ocean is stronger than you or any kind of barrier. But we’ve got to guard ourselves against just the everyday weather. We weren’t prepared for this. Our dunes were too small and our beach was too narrow. Now, weather is changing, since I was a kid, I’ve noticed it. This is just anecdotal stuff, but the winters are warmer, the fall is no longer the fall. It becomes late summer then winter. It’s November now, and it’s 70 degrees outside. That’s weird for me because it should be ten degrees cooler. And when I was a kid, it was typical to have snow around Christmas. It’s rare now that you get a snowstorm before January. So it’s the weather is changing, and we have to adapt, we have to be smarter, but let’s hope, they say this is the perfect storm, it’s not going to happen again, the chances of it happing again, I understand. I understand that everything came together to kill us, but that’s not to say that it won’t happen again.

They are saying that the frequency of these storms is going to be less, but the intensity of the storms that we do get is going to be greater. In the coming years, we have to be prepared for it. We have to landscape the beach, the beach areas need to be more conducive to fending off the surge. You know, we just have to be smarter. We cannot defy Mother Nature. We have to be prepared.

How do you stay so positive throughout all of this?

I’ve got to trust in God. God will steer me through this. He has already. Something told me to leave, and I didn’t get a vision or anything like that, but something, it wasn’t my time. In the gospel there is, you know, you’ll never know when your time is. But evidently, it wasn’t my time. And I have a spiritual-ness. I try to go to church everyday, I try to have time to reflect, because the worst case scenario would have been staying in that home and being hit by a beam and being comatose and languishing in some hospital somewhere not knowing what day it is. I’ve got family and friends that are always there for me, so I’m alright.

It goes to show you, I go to groups nearly every week, and the sense that everything is fine has to be debunked, because it’s been a year now, and it’s just the magnitude of the issues, the magnitude of the destruction was so great that it’s taken this long to get from here to here, we have to get over here. So we have a long way to go. So, anything that you can do to help us along, a public awareness that people are hurting, families are fragmented. I’m a single feller, I’m easy to deal with. But, if I had a wife, two or three kids who are in one school, one kids in one school, one kids in another, moms over here, pops over here, that’s where it gets crazy.

Interviewed by Alex Borg and Chris Gugliemo
Edited by Shannon Yeager
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013