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It Was Real Good at Making You Feel Helpless

Richard Nauyoks

Richard Nauyoks has lived on the bay in Toms River for over thirty years. He and his seventy-four year old mother stayed with friends during Superstorm Sandy and they returned to a damaged home and a transformed town. A year after the storm, Richard reflects on both the immediate and continuing impacts that Sandy has had on his life. Sandy changed his perception about living at the edge of the Atlantic and has caused him to look at the future with apprehension.

I’m in a wheelchair. I’m a quadriplegic. I live with my seventy-four year old mother. It’s not just easy for us to pick up and leave and to go find [a] place. But, thankfully one of my friends had stopped by that Monday, the day of the storm and said he was going to take us out of there. And he took us to his house, which was about twelve miles west of my house so we were lucky. We were lucky.

What were you doing during the storm?

We were actually going to stay in the house. And we were making preparations, last minute preparations at that time.

We were glued to the T.V. It seemed like that was the only channel we were actually watching…I think what you kept in the back of your mind was that it’s going to miss us. It’s going to turn. It’s not going to do what the weathermen say. You were constantly hoping for the best. And all of a sudden there it is. It’s not going to be the best scenario. It took the exact turn that they said it was going to take and it was aiming right for us.

We thought about a hotel.[1]

This was actually a week before the storm and none of the hotels had backup systems. So I use an electric wheelchair. I use things that get me in and out of bed that I need—and [if] the powers out [I’m] in trouble. So we decided just to stay home. And maybe it won’t be as bad as they say. But, like I said, a friend came by and he said you have to get out, him and his son. So we grabbed…well what we could. Some changes of clothes and some minor things. [I] left my dog. I had to leave my dog with my brother who stayed in there, in the house. And we went to stay with my friend, kind of like a lifelong friend. That was kind of a godsend.

After we left the house we felt like we were leaving part of our family behind. You don’t know what you’re going to come back to. ..During the storm we did spend it at my friend’s house for four days. And during that part of the storm, you hear sounds that you don’t want to hear—banging. You hear crashing sounds, you see lights flashing. You don’t know if it’s lighting or just transformers blowing up. It’s a scary situation. You know if you are good at putting things into perspective then you can get yourself through it. You have to say, “Okay, we’re safe. Pretty much for the most part we are safe in this house. Whatever is happening is happening back at our house on the water.” You know at that point you’re just happy that you are just saving your life. Material can be replaced, hopefully. But we are finding out now, a year later, that it’s not so easy to replace these things—even if you have insurance.

Were you in a mandatory evacuation zone?

After the storm I heard we were, but there was nobody telling us to get out. And we had been through some other storms where they had done that. That was one of the main things that kind of made us think that the storm wasn’t going to be as bad as it was. And we were originally going to stay. Nobody came knocking on our door saying, “Hey, we know the storm is going to be bad. You got to get out.”

Could you talk about the destruction that happened to your home and neighborhood?

The streets look[ed] like a lake…It was a good four or five feet of water in our street. So it transformed [our] neighborhood that is so calm and subdued…into the bay. The bay seemed like it just took over. You look out your window and you see nothing but water. When you’re getting to my house you have to go on a road, Beachview Drive, and every house on that road had all its contents out on that street. So it really looked like some disaster area. Like something that you would see in the movies. Like after a war—bricks [and] trees all over the place. Wires down. Just [a] complete mess. And you get that overwhelming feeling that “Oh my God. We have to start all over again…” So it’s a feeling of helplessness—[an] overwhelming feeling of what are we going to do now? And then you have to make sure that you start putting things into perspective again. Everybody lived through it, thank God. Material things can be replaced and that’s the one constant that [I] go back to all the time through the whole thing.

My mom lost her car and we lost a number of different things in the storm…Compared to some of the other people on the island we had it a lot easier. But I don’t want “easy” [to] sound like, easy.

We lost all the contents in the garage. The water had made it…just at about the floor joists—so just before coming into the house. I have a very large deck that I use for my wheelchair so that I can go out to the lagoon. That was completely ruined…The bottom deck met the top deck like a tepee.[2]

How far along are you with the rebuilding process?

The rebuilding? Well we don’t know that yet because there are so many things still happening each day. …Just the other day I was sitting having a cup of coffee and I hear a large “crack” and I went into my other room where there is a large mirrored wall and there was a big large crack that went through the mirror. The mirror is cracked. …For some reason the mirror cracked. So there is some type of movement in the home now. So you don’t know what you are going to wake up to each day. And so you’re fighting and your list is growing each day. It just seems like a never ending battle. The never ending battle seems so cliché, but it’s true. It just seems like it’s never going to end and we are never going to get back to that point where we want to be. We just want to have the house the way it was before the storm. We don’t want anything more, or less. We just want to be back to normal, or quote on quote normal.

It’s different for the people on the island from the development that I’m in. We’re still feeling a lot of residual effects, you know, with the house. And day by day, something is going wrong with my house. Something is going wrong with the foundation. Every day I wake up to something new. And the biggest thing is that the insurance companies don’t want to believe that that’s happening. So they are basically… not a lot of help. That’s one of the biggest things you feel, I guess. You feel helpless. You feel…you’re not in control of a situation, which I like to be. Normally you like to be in control. And when you don’t have that control, it’s… a different feeling when you lose that control. And Hurricane Sandy did that. I am fifty-one years old and I’ve been through some storms and definitely Sandy was the worst, of course. It was real good at making you feel helpless.

How was it like to deal with insurance companies?

Dealing with insurance companies is just…I really don’t know why I have insurance anymore to be honest with you…We have been with one insurance company for many, many, many years. Maybe fifty years. When the one storm comes along and wipes out half of your stuff, stuff meaning whatever—the contents of your house, around your house, in your house, and your house itself, they don’t want to—One insurance company wants to blame the other insurance company. One company says, “Oh it wasn’t a hurricane it was a storm.” One says it’s…a hurricane not a storm. So the insurance companies were kind of battling as to what it was. Was it a storm? Was it a hurricane? Who’s liable? And to work with insurance companies, to say the least, was not fun at all. We were not very successful working with insurance companies and did not get exactly what we thought we should have gotten—especially since [we were] with them for so many years and never [made] a claim.

…I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people who lost their home, who are still not back in their home yet—a year after…It seems as though the people with less damage are getting some money to get back on their feet because it’s easier. The people that have to replace their whole home are not being treated like they should be. I’ve met a number of adjusters and people that were at the Katrina, after Katrina hit in New Orleans…They said that this is way worse than Katrina. So these are insurance adjusters and that coming from an insurance adjuster means to me… I think that they were telling the truth.

But, like I said, we’re living [laughs]…how people will understand? Ours is a different way of suffering, ours is an ongoing process…I don’t know if it would have been better to lose the house in one fell swoop or to go the way we are going now. It seems like you’re losing little by little, day after day.

Everyday you’re on the phone and…it seems like every day, all day you’re on the phone with insurance companies. And it’s a battle. It’s a battle that I can’t wait for it to be over to be perfectly honest with you…And I’m sorry to say, I don’t think the Governor is doing enough for those people on the barrier islands…The other day I heard from a county inspector that, they’re not shoring up the areas that were breached. So [when] the next winter storm…comes, we’re going to be dealing with this all over again. And that’s scary.

Within your community where many homes have either been destroyed or severely damaged have you noticed many people who have decided to pack their bags?

Yeah I do. Not the…amount of people that I thought I’d see leaving. A lot of people [are] rebuilding. A lot of people [are] staying. But there were the few that did move away and call it quits. I don’t know if the next [storm] that comes along will wipe us out again…I really don’t know the odds on that. There were not as many leaving the neighborhood as I thought would. But, I don’t know what’s down the line for us. Is it one more storm that makes everyone leave? Or half the people leave? Or a few more storms? That all depends on your own mindset I guess.

It’s a strong community. A lot of wonderful neighbors in our development…Where we are at a lot of them are summer homes, so maybe some of them are thinking about selling. You see a number of homes being knocked down completely and then having to be rebuilt at a different height.

It’s a quite little neighborhood. And one that never had these kinds of problems before. I mean we have been through a number of storms in the past. I think…1992 was the “perfect storm” they called it. That was a really bad storm. We had some flooding, but not nearly like Sandy.   And there was another storm, but I can’t think of the name. I can’t think of all the names but we have been through a number of smaller hurricanes. And we never had any problem, but now that hurricane Sandy, Superstorm Sandy…hit us its left you with a feeling of …when is it going to happen again? Are we in danger of losing our home again or going through this whole process again?

Did you ever consider leaving?

Well, we have considered leaving. Unfortunately I’m in a predicament where it’s not like I can just pick up and go. I’m in a wheel chair. I’m a quadriplegic. I need certain things. I need a home that’s conducive to my needs. I need the door to the shower. I need the doorways to be wider…You can’t find many houses that are built…accessible.

There are specifications that I need. So picking up and leaving is not so… You think about it, then you don’t think about it. Then you think about it again…It enters your mind and then it leaves your mind. Since Sandy hit we probably thought about moving a thousand times…but, there is always something that says, “No, let’s just take our chances and see what happens.” I don’t want to… move from there… I mean it’s one of the places that I’ve always wanted to be. It’s quiet. It’s a wonderful neighborhood and I don’t want to move from there, but if such a storm like Sandy comes along again, I think it will probably make our minds up for us.

You did not think this way in the past?

No, never. Past storms never made us feel like that. We felt safe. We felt, not indestructible, but you felt like you were safe. You had a nice, well built home. You were in an area that was safe. Now Superstorm Sandy changed our idea of what can happen in a storm. Even though I study the storms and know what can happen, and know how these things work. It just came together perfectly that storm and really showed you how fierce and how insignificant you are as a human compared to Mother Nature. I mean, Mother Nature is pretty intense and that was an intense storm. And again, to recap, we got lucky. We weren’t there. We weren’t as damaged as some other homes. But we have a lot of damage to our home.

That really is the goal—trying to get back to some assemblance of normalcy. You know, whatever that is now. Is normal going to be the same normal? …I think normal still has to be written now within the next few years…I found myself this year looking at every hurricane report. Ten before the hour the hurricane report comes on and you’re looking at it and you’re wondering when the next one is going to come…It’s almost like a living entity…Is another Sandy on the way? The likelihood is probably low, but according to the scientist and some of the people in the weather community they think that it’s going to get worst. So that’s not something that you look forward. It’s not encouraging.

…If you’re going to move to the shore you should know what you’re getting yourself in for. Know what could happen. Know the flood evacuation routes. Get out when they say get out. You know don’t have that He-man [mentality that] “I’m going to stay through anything.” It’s better to lose a home than a life. You should really do your homework before…anyone moves in or if your thinking about moving down to the shore. We moved down to the shore thirty three years ago and…[a storm] wasn’t one of the things we had to worry about. Now it is. Now that is something you have to take into consideration. And you have to study. You have to do your homework. I am [not] in a low lying area that’s constantly getting flooded out even if it just rains. So…some of the people that got flooded probably didn’t think that they were in flood zones. We never got flooded before and then, “bam.” So I would say if you’re going to move down you could do it safely…I think it could be done if you did your homework. Do your homework. Make sure you know what the area is all about…spend some time there before you go build a home there.

What are your thoughts about the preventive measures that are being taken now, such as moves to elevate homes and building up dunes?

…[I live in] a swampy area that was built up…Truck load after truck load was dumped to make the peninsula that I’m on. I think that we have to take a step back and think about where we are building on the ocean and what we are doing to natural areas. Like, in reference to sand dunes, they’re there for a purpose. These plants are there for a purpose—to keep the sand dunes in place for such an event, such as Sandy. Or events yet to come. There is some good science out there that says why dunes are really there. As humans, we don’t want to hear that. We just want to be there. Now, what’s good for me now? Well it’s good for me to live on the ocean…Is my view good?… Not what is the consequence of me ripping down the mangrove trees that used to be there and the grass…roots that hold the sand together there. We have to build. Humans always…have to have what they want. I think that’s one of the biggest things. I think if there is some way to coincide or live comfortably with nature [then] we have to find that balance. That balance that says that only so many houses can be built here and still not…disrupt or degrade…I can’t think of the word, but you can’t take half of the dunes away just to build homes. You have to be able to leave the dunes there. Maybe have some way of building…away from the dunes and let nature do what it’s supposed to do…We definitely have interfered with nature. And we are paying for it…We are paying for it with sea level rise…[With] the more pollution we keep releasing into the air, these things are going to happen. We are speeding it up…I think the earth goes in cycles and it probably has its warm cycle and its cold cycle. But, I think we’re speeding things along…by doing what we do.

Do you think this storm, in particular, is changing the conversations about how people should live on the beach?

…If you’re going to move to the shore you should know what you’re getting yourself in for. Know what could happen. Know the flood evacuation routes. Get out when they say get out.

I do. I think that this was a good wakeup call…for local officials…The scientist can now have their…proof and say, “hey look, these storms are getting worse and there is a reason for that.” I think that there is something behind what we are doing—the pouring of carbon dioxide into the air, the cutting down rain forests. There is something to it. Are [we] the total cause of that? I don’t believe that. But, it’s definitely exacerbating it.

With your past experience with storms, could you foresee that there would be a storm like Sandy?

I don’t think you could. Unless you were really…well schooled—And like I say, the scientists knew…what to look for. Maybe the government knew what to look for. But as an average citizen you’re not thinking [like] that. I’m not out there measuring my water at high tide in my backyard near the dock saying, “Hey, this is an inch higher this year or six inches higher.” I think that if I could make an analogy to cancer. It’s like cancer. You don’t know it’s there, you don’t know it’s there and then, “bang” it’s there. And that seems like the way this went. You don’t know you’re screwing up the environment, you don’t know you’re screwing up the environment and then all of a sudden, “boom” this storm comes along and says, “you know what, if we didn’t build the houses on the beach, or if we didn’t do this, it wouldn’t have been that bad.” …With the cycle of the earth and us polluting the air and our waters, it’s exasperating it. It’s definitely making things worse. And I think we are going to pay for it with bigger storms like this—with superstorms.

[1] Comment made by Richard Nauyoks’ mother who was also present for the interview.

[2] Description by Richard Nauyoks’ mother

Interviewed by Erik Snyder and William Castore
Toms River, New Jersey
November 2, 2013
Edited by Erik Snyder