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We didn't win the lottery

Lisa and Wayne Howell

Lisa and Wayne Howell live in Branchburg, New Jersey, but like many New Jerseyans they have long spent much of their summers on the Jersey Shore. Since 1997, they have owned a summer home in Lavallette, just across the street from the bay. Flooding from Hurricane Sandy caused severe damage to their beach home and made nearly all their possessions unsalvageable. In its aftermath, the storm left them with a tough decision: fix their existing house and raise it, or knock it down and start anew. In this narrative, Lisa and Wayne discuss the tough choice they made, as well as their hopes of returning to Lavallette by July 2015.


Can you tell us about your experiences as the hurricane was taking place?

Lisa:     The house was already closed for the winter so we didn’t prepare for the storm. We felt that everything was safe based on every other year and storm that came through.

Wayne:     We actually lost power here in Neshanic Station. We were at a friend’s house who had a generator in Branchburg. And while the storm was going on I don’t remember too much of what we were doing. I remember after I was trying to get aerial views of the shoreline so I could see what happened to the house and what happened to the surrounding area.

When did you come back to your beach house and how?

Lisa:     Two and a half weeks after Sandy we were allowed back. And how did we get back?

Wayne:    We drove. They had bus rides where you were able to get in sooner but we weren’t picked, so we weren’t allowed back on the island earlier. It was like a lottery and we didn’t win the lottery.

Lisa:    The island was like what you would picture a war zone.

Wayne:    Yeah, driving through Ortley Beach was horrible to see because it had more devastation than Lavallette. Lavallette had a lot of flooding but it didn’t have the devastation of housing being knocked over, and decks being knocked over, and all that. So when you drove through Ortley it looked horrible, but when we got to Lavallette it didn’t look as bad cause most of the damage was inside.

Although, going down other times I was amazed. The first time I was able to come North on Route 35 and people had had a chance to clear out, I was amazed and I remember calling Lisa and saying, “I’m trying to move through a canyon of garbage.” Because everybody took everything from the stores on Route 35 and just pushed it out on the street and it was as if I didn’t really see the real estate, all I saw was the garbage. That’s how bad it was.

Lisa:    We were expecting to find that water did get in our house because people had been there before us, neighbors, and they looked in the windows and said they saw water marks on the walls and on the outside. So we knew that there was water inside. But it was far worse when you got there and you went inside, the remnants of what was left, it was like black sludge that was left behind from the water. The furniture was still wet. Mold had grown on everything. Pretty much the first floor was destroyed.

And essentially the house was destroyed too, because of the new regulations we were faced with. Either having to raise the house or to knock it down and rebuild it in order to stay there. And it really wasn’t worth the money that it would cost to just fix what was there or to raise it. So, we essentially lost the house.

Wayne:    Just going in and seeing your house that way. I mean Lisa walked in and looked at me and said, “What do we do? Where do we start?” And I just said, “Start taking pictures and I’ll just start dragging things out.” And you just took everything out of the first floor and you brought it outside and you started cutting out sheet rock and doing stuff like that so you’d get the moisture out. At that point we didn’t know whether we were just going to fix it or whether we were going to rebuild. We didn’t know any of that.

I remember thinking, what am I going to feel like next time they say another storm’s going to hit the coast? Am I going to be worried every time? Should we just fix it? All those things were running through my mind as we dragged everything out of the house.

What I found most interesting is after the storm I started to research what we should do. And I don’t know if you’re aware but all of these laws went into effect the summer before the storm, as far as new flood zones coming out and everything having to go up should there be a storm. And nobody was aware of that. I had a friend who put the permits to build his house in right before the storm and nobody had even told him, “Hey, everything’s changing.” And even after the storm hit we did research, he and I independently, and I stopped construction trying to fix the house because I realized that we’re going to have to go up.

I actually talked to several people and nobody had connected the dots. I was reading online every night for two hours. Lisa would make fun of me, and finally I read an article that said, “When people connect the dots this is what they’re going to come up with,” which is what I’d come up with, that we better not fix the house because it’ll be a waste of money. Cause we’re going to need to knock it down and [raise it]. I don’t know how many months before everybody realized what needed to be done. Which I think is kinda ridiculous, being it should’ve been out there the summer before the storm. People should’ve known what was coming and nobody knew. And FEMA wasn’t helping people figure it out either.

I think FEMA could’ve done a much better job letting people know what they could do and what they couldn’t do. When people went to FEMA, and we didn’t ourselves but we heard when people went to them, they would hand out pamphlets. FEMA might hand them ten pamphlets, and it was up to the individual to put together what FEMA said in each pamphlet to figure out what it all meant. As opposed to somebody coming out and telling you in a brief synopsis, “Well, here’s what you need to do, here’s what all this means.” It’s as if FEMA didn’t want you to know, they wanted you to try to figure it out yourself so that they weren’t tied to anything. That was the impression that I got because I don’t understand why they couldn’t tell people, “Hey, here’s what your up against, here’s what you need to do, here’s the game plan.” They didn’t do that. We had to figure that out ourselves.

Lisa:    I think personally the government should’ve been a little bit more sympathetic to second homeowners. I feel that primary homeowners should’ve gotten priority and been taken care of first. But I think that as far as second homeowners getting nothing, well that’s a little unfair because everybody was kinda lumped into, “Well, I guess if this is your second home you have money.” But for a lot of second homeowners, you put in everything, all your savings, all your hard work, into having a second home. And as a second homeowner you pay taxes just as if it was your first home. You don’t get a break for it being your second home for taxes. I wish that the federal government would’ve taken that into consideration and offered a little bit more to second homeowners as opposed to nothing.

Where are you in the process of rebuilding? And what has this process been like for you?

Lisa:    We are building a modular up ten feet from the ground.

Wayne:    Yeah, we decided to go up higher than we needed too. We probably only needed to go up 6 feet but we went up 10 figuring we wanted garage space and storage. Plus, if you go 4 feet over the base level of elevation your flood insurance is the lowest it can possibly be. So we wanted to go up as high as we could to get the lowest flood insurance as well. We had to take something out of our roofline because you have height restrictions so, we took more above but then had to take the roofline and not have as much of a peek as you normally have.

The house is now set. We’re a couple months away from being finalized. The process was very long from the point of at the beginning trying to determine what you had to build. The township determining the new building codes and once that was done then we needed to go in for a variance cause we have a small lot. And then to rebuild a house you tried to get as much as you could out of it due to the incremental cost of going a little bit bigger. So we had to go in for a variance. Then once we got the variance we had to find a builder and work through what we could build. We actually switched companies that we were using to build at some point, so it’s been a long, long process.

The biggest challenges were first waiting to see what the township would let you build height wise, getting the variance, going to the meeting and asking for the variance. We had an issue cause we’re on a corner and they wanted a sight triangle on the corner. We had to work through that, we had a problem with our attorney who disappeared during the process so we had to work through that. It just seemed like there was one hurtle after the next. The sight triangle was something that from a point you had to be able to see across our property and you would’ve actually cut our old house in half so it didn’t make any sense. And then second, our neighbor had already built up close to the curb so, you’d never see the sight triangle that they wanted. So Lavallette had to go out to the county to get it approved. It took us a few months to get it approved that we didn’t need to use the original sight triangle.

Lisa:    So, township red tape was probably our biggest obstacle.

Wayne:    Yeah, and our town’s pretty good with that but still, we had to jump through a lot of hurtles.

Are you going to keep your beach house as a summer home?

Lisa:    For now. But eventually within the next 5 years or so it’ll probably become our fulltime house.

Wayne:    Yeah, we’re rebuilding with the thought that it’s going to be our fulltime house cause it’s very expensive to rebuild.

What do you think are lessons for the future that should be learned from Sandy?

Lisa:    I think when we hear that there’s a storm coming, people should take it seriously and believe that it can happen.

Wayne:    And I think building up makes a lot of sense because if there is another storm there are going to be problems with the town, you know the Main Street which they really can’t build up. But at least the homeowners won’t really have as much damage because their houses will be a sufficient height where they really wont need to worry about their house and can then wait for the town to do what they need to do. Although, a lot of people haven’t raised yet and if another storm hits they’re going to have problems again unless they raise between now and the future storm.

Interviewed by Meghan O’Brien
Edited by Meghan O’Brien
Neshanic Station, New Jersey
Recorded April 19, 2015