Teresa Keefe has lived in Belmar, New Jersey for more than fifteen years. On the night of Hurricane Sandy, first responders rescued Teresa and her family as the flood waters began to rise into their home. Nearly three feet of floodwater destroyed much of her one-story rancher as well as their personal belongings. In her narrative, Teresa talks about the challenges facing her family as they struggle to rebuild and return to their home.
Where is your home in relation to the shoreline?
It’s actually pretty far from the beach, but it’s the marina that took us out, which is right around the corner.
What do you like most about living in this community?
It’s tight knit and everybody knows everybody. It’s like we’re family.
The night before Sandy how did you prepare for the storm?
I mean we prepared, but it was more or less canned food, extra water. We didn’t board up or anything. We stayed here, we were here for the storm, and we had to be rescued.
Can you describe the night of the storm?
We were all outside playing; we were having a good time. We watched the water rise up, coming down the street, and we all decided to go inside the house. It was probably around 6:15 when the lights went out, so went to go get the flashlight. That’s when I stepped into water in the back of the house. The surge hit probably twenty minutes until seven. The cops were here, probably by six forty five.
What made you stay during the storm?
I just didn’t think it was going to get that bad. It seemed like it was going to stop at one point. And it just did not. There was water inside. By the time we got rescued it was up to our knees in the house, and then, by the time we got outside it was up to our necks.
How did rescuers rescue you?
They actually parked at the end of the street, and they came in with buoys. My two little ones were piggy backed out, my mom, my daughter, and myself were buoyed. I was scared because they had to take my two little ones first, so they were already down the street while I was still here. And it was more; we need to get to a safe place. There really wasn’t any feeling. We couldn’t take anything with us. The dogs and our two cats had to stay here. We were pretty much the first ones rescued, so the feelings were more of we have to get out, we have to be safe and, that’s what it was.
What kind of damage did your house sustain?
There was about two and a half to three feet of water inside. Being that it wasn’t still moving water, everything inside was contaminated because the sewer line had also broke, we found out days later. So we lost everything on our first floor. We lost our car. There was about five and a half feet outside of the home. They said about five, five and a half feet. The roof ended up lifting up. One of the fan vents blew out so we ended up losing everything in the attic as well.
It was just frustrating, I don’t really know if frustrating is the right word. I didn’t think that the house was going to be completely damaged. I didn’t think it had to be torn down. I just figured they were going to fix it up and everything would’ve been fine. I didn’t think that there would be fights with the insurance companies. We came here, and we looked around, and obviously, we walked in after the third day there was still water. Everything was soaking wet. I mean I probably have about two albums, they’re ruined but I have them. We walked out with the clothes on our backs, and that was it.
What were your kids’ reactions when they first saw their home and town destroyed?
They were devastated. They were really shaken up. They took it very well considering the fact they lost everything. I told them I was like well listen we’re all still alive, and we’re all still together and that’s all that matters. They survived. I didn’t care about the material because at that point, we can’t replace our lives anything else, it can be replaced.
Can you go over how you went about rebuilding your house?
We went through the insurance company, and being that our house was over fifty percent damaged, it had to come up to state codes. We only had a three bedroom and there were five people living in there. When the house was condemned, and needed to be rebuilt, we had to add a bedroom, so we ended up going bigger from what we had. We started with the plans with the insurance companies, the insurance companies had to approve the plans, then there were back and forth with okay the engineer reports we ended up with three of those, that was a little incessant because they weren’t conclusive. Basically just going back and forth, how are you going to get this money to raise this, how are you going to get this money? Then the grants came in and said okay, we approve of these plans but this is what we need to get the money done. Everybody wasn’t putting out money the way they should’ve put out money. Nobody every coincided with each other. If you see those weather strips, they are called hurricane strips. It locks in the floorboards. If you’re going to different levels so it’s not as easy to sway, damage, move. I know that those are newly required for houses being built.
How has the process been?
Slow. Fighting with the insurance companies, arguing with people. It’s been a nightmare.
They fought every move we’ve made. One person says the house isn’t damaged. Two other people say the house is damaged. It lifted off the place, the foundation needed to be raised.
They said that things were preexisting, but then the other two companies said that yes there were some preexisting, but the house had lifted, shifted, due to buoyancy. There was mold everywhere, it was just bad.
We ended up having to have three more examiners come out because their initial exam showed absolutely nothing, even though it stated in the report that the guy couldn’t even get a good view of everything because it was so wet. We did receive money, but they wanted us to just fix what we had. In reality, it was more expensive to fix and repair than it was to knock it down and rebuild.
What has been the biggest challenge of rebuilding?
Getting the money released to build. We pretty much are getting it settled now; there are still some monies that are being held from the bank because the money goes through the insurance. We’ve received state grant. That’s being held up for a little bit, till they see more progress on the home.
How has the community helped?
They are doing a fundraiser for us now. If it wasn’t for them, all the people who donated, we would not have gotten this far. We would still be on the phone, tracking people down, making phone calls, and stressing out. We’ve had a press conference, they had done concerts, and we’re going to be doing a zumba thing. Nationwide they’ve stepped up. I still can’t believe this is all happening.
After the two and a half years how has the community recovered?
I don’t think we’ll ever recover. I don’t know if anybody actually will ever recover from something like this.
You are now living in Lakewood, but your children still going to the same school in Belmar. What made you keep your children in this school district?
It was the only normalcy they had. Especially after a tragedy like that. They have kids that missed school days, they’ve been traumatized. They’ve been awesome! If the kids needed anything extra, they were there for them.
It’s been a lot of driving, lots and lots of driving.
What do you think are some lessons for the future?
When they tell you to leave, go. When they tell you to be prepared, be prepared. I definitely would have left. My kids were very traumatized, I was traumatized, my mother was traumatized. I would’ve seeked to go elsewhere so we didn’t have to go through what we went through.
What experience during the storm most impacted you?
Being rescued. That was rough. Just for the simple fact that we weren’t expecting it, and after that just living so far away. Finding out there was more damage done than we thought there ever could be. And now going through this, and the fundraiser and now negative people, and then you have more positive people thank God.
Are your kids responding well?
They are very anxious, they had a lot of anxiety. They thought we would never come home. But, now that it’s being built, and they see it, they have been getting very anxious. So in one breath they can’t wait to get home, and in another breath it’s “Do you think we’ll ever really make it home?” It’s actually been a little tougher now, seeing the progress. They’re getting antsy; I think I might be too though. I think I might be. You hold back so many things because you want to get through it and now that you’re getting through it, it feels like, it feels like you’re right there, but somebody is just pushing you back.
What are your first plans when you come home for the summer?
I think we’re just going to walk the town. For like hours, go to the beach. I think the first thing I’m going to do since I don’t have my own room and I haven’t had my own room ever, I probably will lay on my bed and cry all the tears I’ve held up for the past two and a half years. It will be happy tears, but it will be crying a river. At one point I had all of my three kids together. Even before that, we had a child in the room together, so everyone was always on top of each other.
Interviewed by Megan Moast
Assisted by Stephanie Pappas
Edited by Megan Moast
Belmar, New Jersey
Recorded April 7, 2015