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“The Only Shining Light: The Volunteers”

Vera Pizzo

 Vera Pizzo is a resident of Long Branch, New Jersey and has lived in her family home for decades. During Hurricane Sandy, her house was desecrated by the storm. The sewer waters and the creek just behind her house caused irrevocable flood damage that led to the demolition of her house. In her narrative, she talks about her experiences of being unemployed, working along side volunteers to rebuild her family home, and in this process, all of the challenges that she confronted. 

It’s a beautiful community. It’s so close to the beach. When we were growing up in this house as kids back then, you didn’t have to worry about anything. We were free. All of the neighborhood kids had their friends and their bikes. I used to live up at the beach since it was so close. You know, if you come out here around 11:30 at night, you hear the waves crashing. That’s what I love about it.

This was a once in a lifetime storm. We’ll all be dead when the next major storm hits.

With the red tape and all the delays that have taken place with the rebuild of the home, it feels like it’s not the family home that I was raised in as a younger adult really going into adolescence. I would’ve said, told them here are the keys. But, what makes this so memorable, is that it’s our family home.

How did you prepare for the storm?

I did everything I could possibly, possibly do. I packed up personal, because we were expecting a major storm, so I didn’t even know if the house would be standing when it was over with, so a lot of the personal items I took all that I can that could fit into my car. We were all forced to evacuate so I went down to my sisters. She lives in Howell. I cleared all the areas so no flying debris is around. I took all the precautions with the yard area by putting everything in the sheds and everything else I couldn’t take with me I put it all on top of the beds.

What kind of damage did you sustain from the storm?

The creek is right here and that’s what flooded us and the river is right in our territory. It wasn’t the ocean that flooded us. Well, the high tides affected it, but the actual water that affected us was from the river.

Everything on the beds was flooded. That was the first time to have water come into our home. One of the water lines in the house was two and a half feet. But, yet, there was three feet of water in other areas of the house. This house was built in the early 1900s so it didn’t have the proper foundation for it and unfortunately when I had hired an engineer after the storm to come look at it, because you could see that it sunk, he said what happened was when the flood waters came, in slightly lifted the house and when the water receded, it came down and it collapsed on itself.

I wasn’t able to get back right away. My other brothers were able to but that was because they had the parkways blocked off and everything. No one was allowed in.

The governor had everything closed down everything. So, the very first time I was able to come back, all the stuff in the house was all filled with muck and water damage; everything was ruined. We were just throwing everything out. My brother

took pictures of everything so I could start recording things. He has already gone through all of this, through hurricanes in Florida. So, he took pictures of everything and was able to upload everything and put it on a disk. Insurance representatives came in and saw everything. They saw that my floors were cracked and that everything was thrown out of the house. Everybody else had lost everything that was in his or her basements. There were piles and piles all up and down the street.

I couldn’t carry furniture out because it was wet and it stunk. My brother was throwing things out that he could throw out; it was just a nightmare. All I remember seeing was mud very deep all throughout my house. Everything was ruined. Everything was thrown out in piles. I was trying to rummage through anything I could salvage. But, everything on the bed was damaged and the boxes in my closet that I packed up high, they, unfortunately, toppled over.

The stinch was so bad because right there in the street was the manhole, which is the sewer line, which comes right through my property. But that sewer line, it all came up. So, we weren’t just hit by the salt water. We were hit by sewer water. I mean, we had toilet paper in the street and all over my yard. We had feces. We had everything. You had everything over here because the stinch two weeks later was so bad even the representative couldn’t stand it. I was going back and forth to my sisters and trying to help with the clean up but then I had breakouts and had to go to emergency. I couldn’t do it. So, my brother went and couldn’t get anyone to help us, so he went and got some guys off the street and we paid them. We had no electricity and no sub pump. It was a shame.

Where did you live when your house was destroyed?

Everybody had to fend for himself or herself because everybody had to empty out their own homes and clean up and take care of it. My neighbor across the street, Lucia, was very nice and invited me if I needed a place to stay that I could go stay with them. But, it’s not just me. I have a dog and I also have two brothers, one brother that always did live here but now I have a second brother that lives with me. They’re both in needing to have a roof over their head as well as me so I just can’t go and take care of myself. That’s our family home. So, it’s like I have a responsibility to my two brothers. I can’t say, “oh well I’m going to go take care of myself. You go figure out and go stay somewhere.” So, that’s my worry.

I originally got sick upstairs because of allergies and the downstairs you couldn’t live, so we stayed in a FEMA hotel. Unfortunately, it was a night here, then a night or two there. You had to keep on calling them to see where you could get in and you can’t go and count on for being there for five days. It was a constant thing. It was a nightmare. So, after that, we had to come back home because that’s when FEMA ended all of the support with providing with the hotels. We had nowhere else to go. So, we came back here. It was the winter because it was freezing cold. We had no electricity, no heat, no nothing. So, my brothers and I came home and stayed upstairs until they were able to put us up in a trailer out in Farmingdale. We stayed in a FEMA trailer; it was an actual FEMA trailer in Farmingdale, New Jersey. We were there for one year and that ended in April. So, then, after that, again, we had nowhere else to go. So here we are coming back home again. So, we bounced all over the place, and thank God we still had a house to come back too. Now, we don’t have a house so we don’t know what I’m going to do.

What have been the biggest challenges of rebuilding?

Because I’m not sustainable, meaning that I don’t have a job currently, I can’t get any help. So, I’m on my own and I keep explaining to them that I’m unemployed, my 401K is almost depleted, and every dollar I have to put into the rent is taking away from me to hold on to my house a little bit longer. If I run out of money, I’m going to be out on the streets.

We’ve done everything you could possibly do to save our house after the storm and I was getting sick. No matter which way you go you get it in the back and you just keep getting knocked down. All you can do is keep getting up. I mean, that’s what I’ve done. At times I’ve said, “Here are the keys. Do what you want because the aggravation is not worth it.” There’s so many of us, it’s not just me. Everyone has a different story to tell from the beginning to the end. I’ll tell you that if you aren’t sick you will be sick trying to get it all done.

That’s the tragedy of the storm. I mean, no matter who you are, you’re going to experience that. But, you don’t expect to have the tragedy of the storm to ruin your life and then have your government and insurance companies really do the number on you. It’s like a slap in the face and stabbing you in the back at the same time. It’s bad enough you have to go through the devastation of a storm but then to have the red tape and the constant repetitive explanations and the providing of documentations over and over again, it’s tough. I have boxes with all these papers with all the filing and you have to go to one place and they need you to do this and that. You go to another and they need this and that, so you pull from here and there and you’re just constantly going in and out these papers like a revolving door.

How have volunteer groups helped with your recovery process? 

If it weren’t for the United Way and the manager being here and making sure everything was done, I don’t know where I would have been. I guess the house would have rotted because I couldn’t afford to get it taken down. So, I really have to give thanks to the United Way and all the volunteers- we had the Lutheran Church groups that came from Maine, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, we had Comcast here, and we had AT&T here. I can’t tell you all the companies that had signed up and volunteered with United Way to come not only to do what they did with my home, but other people’s homes too, whether it was a weekend or, you know, just one day, but I met so many people. I tried to be here for every group that was here and show my appreciation and that is the one thing that I hope you can really print because those companies and those volunteers deserve recognition. I learned and I couldn’t believe it because they were volunteers and they were only getting a stipend of a few dollars. It’s not a paycheck, yet, they’re still on their own and they totally have to support themselves. Volunteers came from all over the country as well. They gave up their lives at home, their leisure, and their conveniences to help other people. I’m touched. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the gift that was given to me to be able to meet everyone. I mean, that’s the only shining light that has come through this; it came from the volunteers.

Interviewed by Evan Gingrich
Edited by Evan Gingrich
Long Branch, New Jersey
Recorded June 28, 2015