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A Thief in the Night

Susan Deitz

 Susan Dietz has lived in Point Pleasant Beach with her husband for over 43 years. During Hurricane Sandy, her husband was out of town; she rode out the storm inside of her hilltop home with her daughter and two grandchildren. In her narrative, Susan discusses the flood damage that forced her family to leave the home they had lived in for 38 years. She also discusses her work with the local fire department in the days after the storm, and how this work shaped her perspective of the devastation.

I was on the committee in town and I’m sitting there in a meeting and somebody said, “Have you heard about the storm?” And I said, “We’ve lived through so many scary things at the Jersey Shore, where absolutely nothing has happened, I’m really not too worried.” But then I realized that my husband wasn’t going to be there and I thought, I guess I better take some heed to this. I had my whole punch list of everything that I needed to do if this that or the other thing happened. I’m pretty organized, almost to a fault, and I would run out and I would test the generator to make sure I could start it. I had to make sure I had enough gas in the gas cans. I had to make sure everything looked okay with the sump pumps. My brother in law, who is one of my dearest acquaintances in life, was back and forth with my husband on the phone, I really felt secure.

The crazy part about it is that so many people had it worse than I did. I guess it was just all of what happened to everybody. You know, it’s just sad. What happened to me was an unusual experience. The police came and they told me I had to go because we live on the Manasquan River… and I just said, “I’m not going to go. It’s far better if I stay here!” Somehow or another you think that you can change the course of events if you stay home, which you actually can’t… I know that now. It was smart, all of the preparations we made, but as it worked out it didn’t help us at all.

What were your experiences during the storm?

There are storms that we have lived through on The Jersey Shore where there is a lot of noise and the windows are rattling and everything. This came in like a thief in the night. It was just really quiet and I did not even realize that my house was surrounded by five feet of water. So as I walked down the steps to pick something up I fell into all of the water. And then I went back in the house and I thought oh my, we probably have a problem here. The house has a full basement — and it pales in comparison as I said to what other people went through, but — it had my work area and my crafts, my tools and my freezer, refrigerator, dishwasher, lots and lots and lots of things. I got out not a regular flashlight, but like a spotlight and I started looking and I realized that we were in a bit of trouble here. The water just kept on coming and coming and coming, because underneath older houses [there are] windows all over the place, and as the water came, it blew everything in. I watched the water destroy everything. I watched it turn my freezer over with all of my food in it. I mean, we tried to hold on a bit but what happens when you get that much water is it just takes everything and turns it over and over like a little toy.

We measured after the storm of course: five feet four inches.

My husband knew more of what was going on than I did because he was in Chicago and could see it on the news. We couldn’t see anything, except black. Black and water. So, here’s the kicker, the next morning I think, “okay this is done now and it’s water and I’m just going to deal with this.” I had no clue. It’s an odd thing when the unimaginable becomes a reality. I woke up and my eyes were burning and my nose was bleeding and I thought what the heck, what the heck is going on here? There was a terrible, terrible smell. So I got out of bed and I ran downstairs and I got my flashlight out again and I open the basement door and there was oil everywhere. What happened was the flood waters lifted up my two oil tanks and deposited about a thousand gallons worth of diesel in my basement and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back because my husband was gone and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. My daughter went nuts because the smell was very bad. It permeated the whole house.

Rightfully so, my daughter took her two children, she had to get them out of the house and I was left alone. I didn’t know if the house was going to explode. So then, the fire company came. Once again, it was great to have the help, but very intimidating when you see the guys come out charging and they have got axes in their hands. They were pretty fired up because they had so many calls and so much to deal with and they turned the gas off and then they told me I had to get out of the house. Once again, being an old Italian over here, I was still trying to hold on and I said, I’m not going.

My husband is a first responder, he is on the First aid. The First aid people came and they said to me, “Suzy you have to go, you just can’t stay here, you just can’t. It’s going to kill you”. I was petrified to drive because of darkness and no traffic lights and this and that. There was nothing normal in my life anymore.

What did you do in the days after the storm hit?

Everything was different, so I said okay, what am I going to do here? I tried to pick myself up. So I went over to the First aid. Everyone on the First aid is just wonderful people; they’re just a great organization and they’re great people. Point Pleasant Beach is a town that is a mile by a mile, and it is a wonderful town. The name of it is really very true, it really is. I don’t think you could really ask for a better group of people. I stayed at my brother-in-law’s house; I cant tell you how helpful he was, he would take me over to fire company at six o’clock and I volunteered there for a week. It was very, very good to do what I did because I wanted to feel useful and I no longer had anything that I could do at my home. There were people from everywhere that just came here to help us.When I was working at the firehouse, the mayor came in one night. And sometimes people in a position of authority are a little full of themselves, and he came in and looked at me and said is there anything that I can do? And I said yes there is, you can go over in the kitchen and wash some of those dishes and the pots and pans. And he did, he came in. There was this one councilman, and he would come every night for cleanup. But everyone in the town pulled together and did the most for each other that they possibly could. It’s a real tight knit community, so I didn’t feel really lost. Everyone really was wonderful. I can’t think of one nasty story. I can’t think of one. I think everyone was just devastated in one way or another and if it wasn’t their home, it was for their neighbor or their friend. Everyone realized that it was just time to pitch in and going to the firehouse for that week saved my life. So we did breakfast, as soon as we had finished breakfast we would clean up and then do lunch and then dinner.There was nothing, when you have that type of thing happen you can’t say well I’ll just get down there and clean that up, you have to get a remediation team to take care of that. One of the odd things that happened, as I said it was a wonderful experience to help people, but you would get so caught up in it that when it would be time for [my brother-in-law] to come and pick me up, i guess maybe around 8:00/8:30, I would walk outside, I would’ve forgotten that there was no light, and it was just really an eerie feeling. You would walk outside and they would have the fire pit in the front and everyone would be sitting around it and people would be walking back and forth between the fire company and the first aid and it would sort of be like you forget that Hurricane Sandy happened. For a week I wore the same clothes. I couldn’t take a shower and I was trying to make jokes about my hair. I was calling it Hurricane Hair, because I just kept running my hands through it.

There was a landline at the fire company and I tried to hire people myself to come over and none of that worked because the one little company I found locally, they looked at it and said we can’t touch this, this is just impossible. I was feeling extremely defeated and I was sitting outside thinking Mother-of-God what the heck am I going to do with all of this oil and everything. By the grace of God my insurance company called and they said they were sending a remediation team. And I think one of the reasons why they got us going faster than anyone else was because this was an environmental issue. I had the board of health there, I had the EPA there. It was really scary because I didn’t know if they were going to tell me that I couldn’t live in my house anymore. So anyhow, I hung in there, my husband came home. I was sleeping outside in the truck. He’s crazy, so he said he would sleep in the house and I said I’m not breathing this stuff in.

I think that no one in the world could have ever imagined what would have happened — houses washing into the bay and this and that. It was just absolutely monumental. FEMA explained things to me the best that they could. But you know what happens is when you get very nervous and a lot is happening by yourself, someone is talking to you but you’re really not absorbing what they are saying. So it was a very confusing time, but no I think they did okay. With my insurance I have learned that you really have to pay attention when you are paying for these policies and if you check off that box or you check off that box, we still don’t know why, but for some reason or another, my husband checked off oil spill. They worked there for two weeks and that bill was upwards of 100,000 dollars and that isn’t something that we could’ve taken care of ourselves.

They were very, very good at the remediation and this company that cleaned everything up. They came with two dumpsters and they just threw everything we owned out. And I know I shouldn’t feel bad for myself, but I do. As I said, because I know people had far worse situations, but when you’re just watching them take all of your stuff that you had… we’ve been in that house for 38 years. And we lost half of our dock, we lost our fence, it was just a mess.

Is your house completely fixed now?

No, there were situations that occurred that part of the dock just went and we had to get that all straightened out and my husband has been rebuilding that himself. The fencing is gone, you know, money is an issue. And you just can’t keep putting out for everything so I said to him, “when we moved in we didn’t have a fence and if we don’t have one now we’ll just do without.”

We had damage from the radiators overflowing and I just had one ceiling taken care of and I have some other spots so the whole thing isn’t totally wrapped up yet. It’s just a long process and everybody was busy, so you were lucky if you could even get anybody to come. Because the insurance company kept saying to me, “you have to have three estimates you have to have three estimates.” And I would call them back saying, “don’t you understand what has happened here?” You cannot get people to come because everybody needed them. But anyways, everything isn’t totally put back together yet; we’re just going to get to it when we can.

I really don’t think there is anything else to say, but now if somebody tells me there is a storm coming I’m going to feel a lot different about [preparing]. I’m never going to feel confident about it again. You go from a busy housewife, and you look at your house and there is nothing you can do. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It was a weird feeling and my husband promised me he won’t go away again if there is a storm coming. I said I would really appreciate that. Originally, they were going to interview him. And he said no, no, no you have to call my wife because I wasn’t even here. So that’s it.

Interviewed by Trevor Fullman and Kyle Goldberg
Edited by Colin Kochenash
Point Pleasant, New Jersey
Recorded November 9, 2013