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This town was Ground Zero

Dorothy Ross

Dorothy Ross, born in 1928, has lived in New Jersey all of her life. For the last forty years she has been resided year-round in Ortley in a home located three blocks from the ocean and two blocks from the bay. She is heavily involved in her church: Saint Elizabeth’s Chapel by-the-Sea in Ortley Beach. During Hurricane Sandy, she evacuated to her daughter’s home in California. She returned to find her home severely damaged and the Chapel completely destroyed. In her narrative, Dorothy talks about the rebuilding process, as well as how her family and church community have helped her cope with the recovery process.


Why did you choose to live here year round?

That was a sad story – because my husband was being treated for a brain tumor. I thought if he couldn’t drive anymore at least he could walk to go fishing and wouldn’t be in the house all the time. My daughter was going to Ocean County College and I was still working, therefore the decision was made to renovate, however he had three years and passed away in 1979.

In the days before Hurricane Sandy, what preparations did you make for the storm?

I thought we were just going to be evacuated for a day or two, and I just took enough clothes for the next day. I have a few antiques, and I made sure that they were safe. And other than that, I didn’t do anything.

What kind of damage did your house sustain?

My whole first floor had to be gutted. Every piece of furniture and floors right down to the subflooring had to be gutted.

Everything on the first floor was just thrown out. The floors, everything, the walls, right up to the ceiling were taken out. All the furniture was out on the curb.

We got the bay water here. I had off-white carpeting. It was just black and it was slippery. Because we could not see or get to the house for four weeks, the mold had already gone at least a foot above the water line. We wore masks and gloves to try to save anything that was not touched by the water.

There was two and a half feet of water which made it necessary to gut the whole first floor. We could see the sand under the house. I will say that I got a price to have it gutted and the company gave me a price of $11,000. There are three groups that volunteered to help people and I would like to give them recognition. They are the Mariner’s Purse, Christ In Action, and the North Carolina Baptists. The Christ In Action people came here and gutted this house. They took all the furniture out, everything to the curb, then they came in and started pulling out the sheet rock, the walls, the floors, and they would not take a penny. I even tried to pay for their lunch one time and they would not take it.

They were absolutely wonderful. Our little Chapel gives ten percent of what we make at a gift auction, and now they’re on our list for $100 every Christmas. At least we can give back.

And then you came back in May?

I was very fortunate to have a daughter in California and was able to live there in a studio apartment for free. A carpenter came down and looked, and I got prices, something like from $90,000, down to $60,000, down to $30,000, and buying this and buying that. He was a wonderful carpenter. And he took over. I hired the electrician that was in the chapel, doing work there, so I knew of him. I hired a plumber, because my plumber wouldn’t do it. He works alone. And I hired the heating through the Internet. And I did everything by email or faxes which I had to send signatures.

I did all that and came back in May because the carpenter had everything, had the walls up, but then I had to go out and buy [furniture]. In June, my daughter came here from California and her husband and my daughter here, the four of them, they started painting. I didn’t have to hire anyone to paint, they did all the painting in the house, and they did everything that could be done without hiring, and my daughter helped me go out and choose the appliances and put the blinds up. So I had a lot of help. My family was wonderful. But they couldn’t do the other things that I had to do because they work. You can’t work and be on the phone.

Was there anything lost or damaged in your home that was meaningful to you?

Yeah, quite a few things. I had, they used to call them the ice cream parlor chairs that were bent, they call them bent wood. My mother had them when I was a kid, and we repainted them white, and they were about eighty some years old, and that seems like nothing. And I just bought a refrigerator three months [before], and I had to pay for that when it was out on the curb. And I had just bought a new television and a console from Seaside Furniture. It was all floating.

Did you have flood insurance or homeowners insurance?

No, I didn’t have flood insurance. I didn’t have a mortgage on the house. From 1950 to 2000, never had a drop of water, never had flood insurance. I had homeowners, but not flood.

There was no damage that homeowners could pay for because everything was under the flood insurance. It was strictly from the flood. The roof was fine, that’s where the homeowners would have come in, but it was fine.

I’d never had a drop of water in this house. Not even under the house, since 1950. Never.

How did your neighbors or friends in this town hold up during the storm?

They’re mostly all summer people. There’s no one on this block that lives here year round. So I can only talk for people that I know from the chapel. [A] lady lost her house by Fisher Boulevard, over the by the river. I think she was ninety at the time, and she never even got back in her house to look at it or to get things. So, it was sad, to me. A couple people went in and found some diamond earrings she had. She had to be evacuated because they didn’t have mandatory [evacuation], and they had to come with a little canoe and get her out. It was sad. She’s in assisted living now, and she’s fine. She’s 93.

How do you think the Federal Government responded after the storm?

I have no complaints. I really don’t. I didn’t even realize the money was in my account. I had no idea. I went right away while I was still here, before I went to California. I took care of everything I could, and next thing I know, the money was in the bank.

Have people become closer because of the storm?

I think we have. I’ve helped a lot of people just with what I did. I found a place that would help with furniture. A young couple with three children from the chapel, they didn’t have the money to go out and buy, and I told them about this. It’s called MOVE, and they gave them dressers and they went out and they even got three bicycles for the children, so I helped her through that, and that’s what brought people closer. The friend that sent you here to me, we were on the phone from California, and we’d help each other with anything we learned. I think it brought a lot of people together.

Are there any stories associated with the storm and rebuilding that you’d like to share?

There’s so many. There was a sad day. I don’t even remember what month it was, but I just decided to ride into Lavallette and just go to one store, whether it was a drug store or whatever, and I turned around, I went to come home, and I looked around, and I kept thinking how fortunate I was, and I started to cry.

If there was another natural disaster to occur, how do you think this town would respond?

Well, I hope they respond like they did, but this town was ground zero. People have to realize that, because everything was compromised. The gas lines, the water lines, electric lines. Other towns didn’t have their gas lines ruined, so I think they did well. Some of these lines down here were pretty old, so I think that the new lines that have gone through for all the utilities, I think that they’d stand up better if there was ever another disaster.

Can you tell us about your involvement with your church?

It’s an Episcopal church, Saint Elisabeth’s Episcopal. It’s the first structure on the south side of Third Avenue from the beach. It was founded in 1885.

I was treasurer for fifteen years, when we decided to put up the Fellowship Hall. It was quite a job, having to juggle different banks, because you get so much money in one bank and it’s not insured, so I was able to handle that. After the hall was all done, and we had our annual meeting, I said, “I wrote the first check for this building, I just wrote the last check.” I said, from now on, I think someone else can, and finally, I got someone to step forward to take it over.

The Chapel was destroyed. It was 127 years old. Just pieces here and there. We saw the bell tower somewhere down the street somewhere. It was completely demolished.

The Hall was damaged with water, and that we had to redo. In the meantime, we were having services in the Baptist Church. [They] offered us an 8:00 slot to have service, and on Memorial Day, we held our first service.

Very interesting, we have a chair in the alter area. It’s called the bishop’s chair, and we had beautiful needlepoint on that, and kneelers. A woman from Lavallette did the beautiful work. That chair was found three blocks down on Third Avenue, and someone found it, and called the police, and someone said, “that belongs to Saint Elizabeth’s.” They took it to our warden, and it was almost perfect, except a little woodworking had to be done, and the cushion. Nothing was destroyed on it, and one of the local men heard about it, and he refurbished it for us for free.

A full year after, a kneeler was found way down almost to Mantoloking Bridge, and a man had taken it and put it in his garage, and he forgot about it, and he called us up and we got that. We had a plaque that had all brass plates on it, from people that have helped in some way, not just money, for things they’ve done, and that split it half and we got half of that. There’s those little plates here and there, but that’s about all we’ve found. We were hoping that we would maybe find the bell, because they came off the ship in the 1800’s. This week, the architect will be going to Toms River to be taking care of the variances that we have to take care of, a couple little ones, but I think we’re on the move now. We did have very good insurance. We still need more money, but we had very good insurance. They paid us right away.

Have you stayed involved with the church?

Yes. I’m still a trustee and I’ve been a trustee for maybe seventeen or eighteen years now.

It’s a very nice group of people, and it’s like our second family, really.

After the storm, you said that the members met at a different church? Has the size of the congregation changed at all?

Yes, [we met] at the Baptist Church on Bay Avenue. The size has changed in a sense, because some people are still not in their homes, even the summer people, some of them are coming back. But we had one lady who lived on Fisher Boulevard. She’s in Lakewood now, and she has someone bring her every Sunday, and our warden or someone else will take her home every Sunday.

Has rebuilding [of the Chapel] started?

The architect plans are all done. We know we need three different variances. For one, maybe parking area, maybe a setback on somewhere. That will be taken care of this week or next week. Toms River will act on that, I think. We’re okay. We hope.

Do you think that the storm brought the members of the church closer?

Yes, I do. We were always very family-oriented. We all considered the chapel as our second family. And I think it helped more.

Is there a time frame for the church to be finished?

We were hoping by next Christmas we’d be in, but we don’t know. That’s something now with the variances, you don’t know with the township how long it takes them to make decisions, and then it will be on pilings. The local boat builders built that chapel, and now pilings will be a little deeper, so we’re hoping for Christmastime. Were just hoping.

We just hope that we can get the church going. We’re going to make it a little bit bigger. It only held 75 people. We’re hoping to make it big enough for 100 people. The one particular thing we’re going to do is make a wider aisle, because when there were weddings, the bride had to walk alone because there wasn’t enough room. It’s going to be connected now, to the hall. Every Sunday we do have a coffee hour, and we’ve been told we have the best coffee hour of anyone. We have people who just do the coffee hour every Sunday.

We can socialize, and it’s a really nice get-together. They make an announcement; we go out to breakfast after, and anyone is welcome to come and join us. We make the announcement all the time. At one point before the storm, we had a spaghetti dinner, and then we had Tuesday pancakes, and that’s when everyone said they were really good, and it’s nice company for everyone, again, another social. People just love the camaraderie, the friendship. We try to give to the first aid and the fire companies here first, and help our local whenever we can, and then we go to caregivers, and St. Jude’s Hospital. Every year we’ve done that. And to think that we don’t have envelopes, it’s just what people bring in. We don’t keep track. The only reason we keep track of it for the people is for their income tax. Other than that, we don’t have any envelopes. It’s just we’ve never borrowed any money.

Interviewed by Shannon Yeager
Assisted by Allison Jones and Meghan O’Brien
Edited by Shannon Yeager
Ortley Beach, New Jersey
Recorded March 25, 2015