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No, never in a million years

Courtney Chibbaro

Courtney Chibbaro lives in South Seaside Park, New Jersey. After Hurricane Sandy, she became heavily involved in the recovery and rebuilding efforts in barrier island communities. Notably, she organized a “Christmas on the Island” party and gift-giving caravan that brought a bit of Christmas joy to people from Lavallette to Seaside. In her narrative, Courtney discusses challenges of recovery and rebuilding as well as the spirit of community that emerged after the storm.


Did you think it was going to be that bad?

No, never in a million years.

What preparations did Seaside make for the storm?

They plowed up a lot of sand up against the dune, sand bags on the bay. They did everything that they could, in the amount of time that they could. I think now after that we’ll learn the better ways to do things, the smarter way to do things, and be able to have those materials ready. Maybe if we had 50,000 more sand bags we could have stopped just one street from getting filled up and at least that would have been ten families that are home. Hopefully that’s something that we won’t forget.

How did you prepare?

At the time I was a case manager for a home health aid agency. My biggest concern was getting all of our clients that lived in evacuation areas out of their homes, so I didn’t really take much time to think about myself. And from the prior year from hurricane Irene I was up in the mentality that it was nothing, we would be back in two days, it was just nothing really so I didn’t pack, I didn’t really get ready until about eleven o’clock the night before I had to evacuate. I left the day before, I wanted to stay, I planned on staying, my next door neighbors stayed and my neighbors, we all kind of consulted what we were going to do, and I wanted to stay because I didn’t want to go through the hassle of packing up my cats and moving them. But the morning that they were evacuating I woke up and it was pitch black outside and sirens were going off and they were moving up the time of closing the bridge because it was coming earlier. So I decided that I might as well get the heck out.

How did they close the bridge?

They stationed police at the bottom of each point of the bridge. The issue was that because of the height of it at a certain wind, you just couldn’t go over it. They originally said that at four o’clock on that day that they were going to close it and then it went to noon and I think they ended up letting people over until around three o’clock. My best friend’s parents had stayed and they were hell-bent on staying and then the winds kept picking up and the storm hadn’t even hit yet and the water was rising to their front door, they decided to leave, and they were able to get over. I know they tried to let as many people out as they could, but there was just a certain time where they had to cut it off. The day after the storm from my area they ended up rescuing about 500 people.

What were your thoughts during the hurricane?

I evacuated to Pennsylvania so I had power and TV the whole time, so it didn’t really leave much leeway for thoughts of “what if”. Because I could watch so I kind of watched the whole thing happen, but I don’t know at what point it was really processed. The next day with the mass devastation was tough. So there were a lot of different things, it was a lot of fear. You know a lot of sadness, but mostly fear.

During the few days after the hurricane, were there any resources that were the hardest to get?

Cellphone service. I was in Pennsylvania, I had full service and it drove me nuts because I couldn’t get in touch with anybody. I was calling my best friend. I couldn’t get through to her, only text messages, some texts didn’t even work it was just Facebook. Everyone was on Facebook. If you saw someone’s status that said ‘I’m good, I’m okay’ you felt great. I posted that I was safe and that I was okay, but you were looking for other people, you were typing in people’s names and trying to see if they’re okay, and you can’t find them and I just wanted to talk to my brother. He was in East Brunswick and the cell phone service just wouldn’t allow for it. It was days until I could talk to him and the conversation got cut off. But that was definitely a resource that would have been really nice to have. Luckily, since I was in Pennsylvania it was much better. When I finally came back through New Jersey, the lines were down highways and there were police every couple of cars. It was like we are living in a third world country.

Looking back at evacuating now you would have taken more or less stuff with you?

It was crazy, leaving, packing, and realizing that what’s right in front of me is all that I am actually taking. It kind of is a huge definition of simplicity when you realize that when you do have to leave your home and consider the fact that you might not actually be able to get back to everything. The only things I took were my cats, and my important stuff, pictures, jewelry, and clothes for two days.

I remember two weeks after being in Pennsylvania and hearing that everyone was starting to get rentals that realization of ‘oh my god I’m not going to be able to go home’. The thought that goes through your head, ‘I don’t have a blender, I don’t have a spoon, I don’t have anything’. You don’t have anything, every little thing that you took for granted that you have is just not acceptable, whether it’s okay, I knew my stuff was okay at home, but I knew I wasn’t allowed to go to it for months. It was a hard pill to swallow. I had a breakdown over that one, sat in the car for an hour crying. Then you go back and you hear the stories the people you meet that crawled into the attic and just looked at each other and said “we’re going to hope we make it” and they

I mean now, if I found out a hurricane was coming like next week, I would be the smartest person in the world and rent a U-Haul and a storage unit. I would have utensils and everything I could ever need. I think that your simple things you forget, like towels, just something as simple as that. Shoes, that was the biggest thing, I left with flip-flops on my feet and I didn’t even think to put sneakers, or work shoes, or work clothes. You don’t think about it and all of a sudden you spent five hundred dollars on just essentials that you need just to get through. I would definitely pack much more strategically now but I also would keep an extra of everything in my trunk.

How did it feel when you came back to your home?

It felt horrible. We came back by bus we weren’t allowed to go back so we had to, wait for information on going back. Finally we got the O.K, we went to our municipal building at 5:30 in the morning, got a number and then with that number you would get on a bus. We went back over and it was just the most unimaginable thing that you could think of. You know? Nothing like you ever imagined. But it was very much a feeling, a feeling like a refugee. You just got let off in the middle of your town on a bus, you were allowed one suitcase and you could go back to your house pack whatever you wanted. We had very strict rules that you weren’t allowed to step on anyone else’s property line, you weren’t allowed to walk freely, we were only allowed to go to our homes get what we needed and go back to the bus.

What damage did your house sustain?

The water luckily did not come in our front door. I do live on the bay, but we’re elevated from the rest of the island. But I had damage on my roof, I had water damage and then other things, like the deck. But in comparison with the rest of it…..

If for some reason you would have sustained more damage would you have considered just leaving or would you have stayed and tried to rebuild?

It’s hard to say not being in that situation, as much as what I do now, I would love to say no matter what, I would stay, but I honestly don’t think I would. I don’t have plans on staying there much longer, maybe another year. I don’t feel safe. That feeling that you should feel when your home, I just don’t have anymore. I love it, but… I love being by the beach and by the bay, but I don’t want to take the chance of ever having to go through what I went through before. To me it’s just not worth it. I hate to say it, but it’s the honest truth.

How would you explain the process of rebuilding around your area?

In my particular neighborhood it was, I mean, I want to say simple and easy because my street really lucked out because we are elevated. We were kind of allowed back before a lot of other people came back. I mean any damage any minor damage that we had, we all fixed really quickly. So it was kind of almost like a little bubble around us but if you go one block over where people their lives are just out on the streets, you know their whole lives are just put out into the water, and it was like that for a really long time. It’s hard to say how successful it is because I don’t know the correct way, but, there somethings I would have done differently. Originally they told us that we wouldn’t be back for six to ten months and at that time they were going to dig up the gas lines, sewage, redo everything and then they’d let us back in when it was safe and good. They ended up letting us back two months after and now they just started doing the sewage and all that stuff and the major roads. I personally think they should have kept us out and done it all then. We probably wouldn’t have had the house fires we have now.

I think it would have been smarter to do it that way because there wouldn’t be human population in these massive constructions. I don’t make decisions. I think that would have been much smarter but I also understand that politics and that people wanted to get home and they wanted to let people home, they wanted to let people get back home. I would say the biggest challenge is probably just supporting the rebuilding. So many people are without insurance or you know don’t have enough and the debate whether it’s their fault that they didn’t get it or didn’t have it to me it’s kind of nonexistent, it doesn’t matter, regardless these people can’t go home and the grants don’t work fast enough or aren’t as user friendly for older people. It goes on a good stretch and then it kind of halts.

Why did you decide to get into the volunteer work?

I had been displaced and I was commuting from Pennsylvania to Lakewood, and then I decided to do the “Christmas on the Island” event. The idea came on Thanksgiving. I was alone and had no family, no friends near me, because everyone was just scattered all over the place. So, I decided to do an event for Christmas, to try and bring people together. I figured I should just go on Facebook and just put out something. The next morning I had two hundred emails from people, all across the country, who wanted to help.

After Christmas I just couldn’t stop, I met so many great people, the mayor of the town, the Department of Public Works, the police officers, the volunteers, and there was just such a great need. The day after Christmas I lost my job. So, I obviously had some time to fill, and I just put on my shoes and went out and asked what do you need and I would find volunteers. From there we just kind of ended up getting a trailer and working. I started teaming up with people at Americorps. So it just kind of blossomed. And I’d love to say I enjoy it all the time, but that would be a lie. But even on the worst days I feel fantastic doing what I do. I have learned in the last year that it is not about the paycheck, it is about what I do every day and even on the worst days I know I’m doing something to help people in getting home, and getting normalcy, and getting their life back. But there are days and weeks that are exhausting, and there are days and weeks that I want to strangle someone. But I own that and I let myself have it, I don’t try to be sane. I don’t try to pretend that it’s all perfect and wonderful. It’s not, when you have that you just have to take a step back, and take a day or two and refuel.

What are the biggest challenges of your job?

Seeing what people went through. I’ve taken myself back from that aspect, I have project managers who go out to the houses because I know I can’t do it every day. I think that’s part of it is knowing what you can and can’t handle. You have to put the community first so even though I want to be out and doing everything, it’s not what’s best for the people. You forget some days when you’re sending group out and you’re given a sheet of paper and you say alright you’re going to rip out the floors. For that family’s home that’s the floors their kids learned how to walk on, that’s the floors that they had so many memories on, and you’re taking part of their lives away. It’s very important I make sure that I orientate the volunteers for them to really understand the extent of what they’re doing and the impact it has on the family.

And Funding. There’s not really funding for grass route operations, which is sad because we’ve done the bulk of the work in the county last year. We have been out to more than three hundred homes, we have deployed over four thousand volunteers and committed over 42,000 volunteer hours. We’ve done a lot of work, but there is no funding, which makes it difficult. At this point, a year later, you can’t figure out a way to afford rent or space or even hire people. You can’t really stay up and running. I’m fortunate that I can, but I don’t get paid for what I do, I’ve given a year of my life to service and to doing what I do. It’s a very difficult battle in that aspect.

Are there any stories that you have ever heard of or that you have experienced personally about that storm that stand out?

There’s so many, so many. I’ve met a lot of people since the storm, and every story is just as bad as the next. We were positioned out of a building that had no electric, and the building got condemned by a sink hole. So I called the mayor and said we really need help, we needed somewhere where that we can run our operation out of. So the Seaside Heights Mayor gave me a trailer, it wasn’t fancy, it floated from the ocean to the bay, and we had to rip out the mold, but it worked. At that time, I think what stuck out the most to me was the time we spent in that trailer, we had so many people that would come in and sit down in this container, this box container and they would just cry their eyes out about what has happened to them; but every time they walked out they felt better. On the back of our trailer we had everyone sign it when they came through. So by the end, we had thousands of signatures and messages of hopes. People would just come and read it and it would make people feel better. But there are tons of stories, just crazy, crazy stories.

With people experiencing the power of Sandy, If there were another storm to occur in the future what different precautions do you think people would take?

I think people would prepare their home much more. I think that in any disaster, any situation we learn from it. So I think personally, I would pack and be ready a lot quicker and earlier. I wouldn’t wait until the last minute. I know a lot of people who waited until the last minute to leave and I don’t think people would do that as much because I know the storm hadn’t even hit yet and the way it look on the island was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I know for a lot of people when the bridge closed that was it you were stuck on the island. So there were a lot of people that last minute were just terrified and left. I think that people would heed the caution a lot more because of what has happened.

In what ways did Hurricane Sandy affect the community?

It made us all ten times closer. The weeks after, I mean even just the days after, I talked to my neighbor’s probably more in those days than I did in ten years. We were on the phone every second you know trying to figure out, one of our neighbors had stayed so we were constantly with the police with the fire department trying to figure out where they were and if they were okay. And then afterwards I started doing what I was doing, volunteering, and I started going to townships and the amount of people that have just all come together. We are kind of just one big family from all walks of life. We, you know no matter where you live in Ocean County, the storm affected you. You definitely have your issues but being able to go back on the Barrier Islands and be able to have a street to look like so much what it did before is now a days you don’t get that it’s not a reality anymore. You drive through your town and your streets look completely different. It’s a very big appreciation to be able to go home and actually have it look like home so we’re all definitely grateful for what we all have.

Do you think that the government and the first responders did their job?

Yes. Whether I like Governor Christie or not, whether I like Seaside Heights or not, whether I like Seaside Park or not, I think all of the municipalities acted and responded properly. My township, South Seaside Park, is Berkley Township and my police chief, my mayor, I till this day can text my mayor and he will respond to me and anything I need. The police chief was on top of things and also knew, and this was unknown to us, but she was supposed to be in Disney that week with her kids, so she really didn’t want to be there. But she moved with us and didn’t fight against us on a lot of things, she really did a great job. I think that we needed more volunteers. Of all things I know that ideally we would love to have more free water. Where my organization is, we’re inside Ocean County’s Pantry, the People’s Pantry, and it would be great if we had more food and water to give out to the people that need it. It would be great if we had electric right after the storm, but I think the greatest resource we’ve had in the last year are volunteers.

How do you think the news covered the storm?

I think the news did well. I think for the media’s safety they couldn’t obviously be in certain places, so I don’t think they did bad, but I think that there is just a block of time that we just know nothing about. In the time period what we went to bed and woke up the next day, a monster just came through and tore and destroyed.

I think that social media was insanely amazing and that people kind of just started tweeting different things. That’s how people got rescued, how a lot of people got heard, and how a lot of people got there information. I think that there’s been times in the last year where I’ve been mad that they don’t cover it. I’ve been mad that they keep covering it, and I just want them to shut up about it. You always find faults in things, but I think naturally the light doesn’t get shed on it, unless it’s the one year anniversary or the fire, or if something comes up and that’s just disaster.

Somebody I’ve become friends who is a very high up executive for disaster cover and national had told me utilize the one year anniversary because you’ll have a lot of awareness and attention on it. So we did. We were able to have the lieutenant governor come and have a lot of great things go on. But now it’s just kind of an old story. I think that’s all part of life and that’s the issues that happen to you don’t happen to everyone. People don’t want to hear about they don’t want to be brought down by it. We are battling actually being able to repopulate as a community and I don’t know if it’s really going to happen.

I don’t think that they’re hiding anything, I don’t doubt that they do hide things. But I don’t think, because I’ve been around and I’ve talked to so many and the right people who have been there. I talked to the police, the front line guys who were up there and they watched it happen. As they told me the story on Christmas they stood there and cried their eyes out. So I think it’s just this unspoken kind of rawness that if you were there and you survived it your just happy. I think that the awareness is definitely not where it should be for our entire state. There’s people twelve miles North who have no clue this happened. I feel guilty about that too, I couldn’t tell you what Union Beach looked like. I haven’t been out of my little bubble for a year, so I couldn’t say how bad it is south or north of me. But I think given the battle we’re up against, really repopulating Ocean County to what it was, if we’re going to make it not a ghost town anymore and we’re going to make people come back the entire state and country needs to be aware of what we are up against.

Do you ever fear that another storm like Sandy is going to come through?

All of the time. If the wind picks up, on the island we get very heavy winds just from a regular storm. When a bad storm comes through, just the other night we had high winds and my rocking chair blew over a little bit and a part of me gets very tense and very anxious. Every time the siren goes off you start texting everyone in town ‘what’s going on’ cause you’re just terrified. I’ll be happy once hurricane season is over. You know we just get through it with nothing but at the same time I know now that our municipality and our government will keep us ahead of the storm because we were so prepared. I mean we weren’t prepared for what happened. But we were prepared to evacuate.

Do you think the community will be able to overcome the damage of the Hurricane and be the way it was before the storm?

I don’t think that we will ever be the way we were before, but I think that’s a good thing. I think that if we were the way we were before we wouldn’t have the awareness, we wouldn’t have the preparedness, of the experience of taking on this mass devastation and somehow being able to realize that we can turn our corner and get what we need from a neighbor or a friend or something. I don’t think that there will ever be a day that we all go ‘Oh remember when Hurricane Sandy happened?’ I think it is always in the forefront of everyone’s mind but I can see already now that people are moving on but we remember and celebrate the good that has come out of it. On the bad days you call a good friend, and you cry it out.

How else would you say that the storm has changed your way of thinking?

I think that I am resilient because of it, there is this certain aspect of life now that it doesn’t matter what happens. I know I’ll get through it, I’ll figure it out. I know that if somebody calls tomorrow for a tractor-trailer to move something, I’ll find it. There’s no question involved, I’ll work until I have to find it. There’s a confidence that comes with being able to survive, just in general. For me, I think it’s also put some faith and hope in humanity and I enjoy life a lot more now. I appreciate it.

Interviewed by Sebastian Casas and Emma Pasula
Edited by Ashley Fuzak
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013