“Mom, they can’t stay,” I pleaded into the phone. “That’s a really bad idea.” Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on my parents’ waterfront home, and a mandatory evacuation order had been issued for their town, but my father and brother said they had no intention of leaving—and worse, my mother was thinking of staying with them. Governor Chris Christie was on TV warning that anyone who ignored the order and got in trouble would be left behind. And forecasters were predicting nearly apocalyptic storm conditions for the Jersey Shore. My mom had undergone heart surgery less than two weeks before and was in no condition to flee a storm surge.
But Dad and my brother, Kevin, thought they could weather Sandy, just as they had Hurricane Irene a little more than a year before. The house my parents bought in 1999 to enjoy their golden years (Dad is 70, Mom is 66) sits less than 30 feet from a tidal lagoon, with an expansive view of big sky and shimmering water—features that now presented a direct threat to my parents’ safety. I told my mom they were risking their lives.
“I know. There’s no point in trying to change their minds,” she said in a tone that said drop it already.
I tried anyway, calling Dad from my Brooklyn apartment as the wind bent the treetops alarmingly close to our sixth-floor windows. I ran through the reasons: Sandy was much stronger than Irene. High tide would come in the dark. Calling for help would threaten the lives of the first responders, and it would probably be too late for rescue anyway.
“I appreciate your concern, but we’ll be fine,” my dad said. If the situation turned dicey, my family would take refuge in their neighbor Richie’s house across the street, which had a second story. Two of the guys staying there were “young” like my brother—who is 43. “Plus,” Dad added, “we have life preservers, and there are a lot of docks around here.”
When I protested that they weren’t going to be able to float to safety on placid waters, I could almost hear him roll his eyes. He didn’t explain. He just repeated, “We’ll be fine.”
Apparently my mom thought so, too, because she decided to stay with them.
When the storm surge started to rise from the lagoon about 9:30 p.m., it came fast, in the dark, flooding into the garage. Soon it lapped at the living room and the kitchen and the bedrooms. And all at once it swelled up from beneath them, gushing out of the floor vents. It swallowed their shoes, ankles, shins. Rising. The lights went out.
By flashlight they hastily grabbed a few things—a change of clothes, blankets—and headed across the street. They waded through chilly thigh-high water as driving winds and rain battered them. They passed their motorboat, which was mounted in the yard for the winter on a trailer and cinder blocks. They passed their cars in the driveway. Water lapped at the door handles.
When Mom called to tell me what had happened, I demanded she call the police. “They probably can’t come get you, but at least they’ll know where you are.” My mom, her voice shaking, agreed. Too late, the police told her, just as Christie had warned. Stay put. The tide was receding. By 1 a.m., they felt safe enough to fall asleep in Richie’s house.
The next day reports rolled in of a devastated East Coast: houses erased by sand, roller coasters drowned, boats jumbled like bath toys in smashed harbors. My inland Brooklyn neighborhood survived mostly unscathed, though one young couple was crushed and killed by a falling tree while walking their dog at the height of the storm. In my mom’s north Jersey hometown of Little Ferry, the Hackensack River flooded into homes, including those of my aunts and uncles and cousins. All were displaced for days, and their homes had significant water damage.
According to FEMA, 76,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey were affected by the storm. Of the 500 buildings leveled, 420 were in Ocean County. That meant my family had been at the heart of the destruction. Their neighborhood, Beach Haven West, was especially hard hit. They were lucky they hadn’t lost their house—or their lives.
But it didn’t feel lucky. It felt devastating. Like tens of thousands along the East Coast, they essentially became refugees displaced by a climate-related disaster. The day after Sandy, my mom, dad, and brother were taken by ambulance to a shelter at a local high school where the evacuees took turns charging their cell phones. I booked them a car and a hotel, without knowing whether the places I planned to send them to were under water; the national offices for Ramada and Avis couldn’t get through to the local branches.
My family stayed with friends the night after the storm and picked up the rental car the next day. Another friend knew of a furnished house 25 miles north, just inland from storm-ravaged areas like Seaside Heights and Brick, that the owner had planned to sell before Sandy. This friend convinced the owner to rent it to my family for a reasonable price on a month-to-month lease.
Every day they returned to their own house to empty it of possessions that had been turned to trash—a disheartening, wearying ritual. The water had risen to two feet in the house and higher in the street. Everything the brackish flood had touched was ruined—fridge, couch, cabinets, beds, clothes, shoes. Minnows from the canal still swam in the garage. My mom’s voice cracked as she described throwing out my three-year-old son’s waterlogged toys. “It broke my heart,” she cried.
For a while the bad news kept coming. First the duct work under the house had to be pulled out. The soaked sheetrock needed to go, too. The insulation was moldy and ruined. Electrical? Destroyed. Gas line? Off until the township made sure it wouldn’t explode.
Eventually they were told by contractors that the entire house would have to be gutted. This struck me as old news. Hadn’t it already been gutted? Hadn’t they? Never had I so viscerally understood what gutted meant until I heard the grief and stress in my parents’ voices as they watched their house be disemboweled bit by bit, day by day.
But three weeks later, there is much to be grateful for. FEMA gave my family $2,800 for housing assistance, which will cover more than two months’ rent. All three were able to trade in their salt water-corroded (and insured) cars for new ones. The reconstruction process has begun, and my family is better positioned to recover than many others around them. Decades of careful budgeting left them with some pennies for this rainiest of days. While that cash is gone now, and they have to borrow against their home equity, they’re confident the money from their flood insurance will come through eventually. And they must rebuild; selling their shell of a house would be a tremendous financial loss they can’t afford.
Besides, after a catastrophe, the impulse to restore your life to what it once was is potent, irresistible. That’s what people all over the shore are attempting to do. My family isn’t about to walk away either. It was in this house that their three grandkids—my brother’s two kids, my toddler son—spent countless hours playing on long summer days. It was from this dock that they took frequent boat rides through the lagoons out to the bay.
Yet the reality is that there’s no going back to what once was, either in daily life, or in the big picture of a changing climate. We know this much from Sandy: we can’t just hold on as the waters rise and expect to float away into a safe future.
My parents spent Thanksgiving in Atlantic City, where $150 in coupons and a free dinner buffet awaited them. (My mom sometimes likes to relax with a glass of wine while playing the slots. Her loyal patronage yields perks.) While parts of residential Atlantic City suffered damage—and the city’s mayor famously became a target of Christie’s ire when he failed to require evacuation for the city’s residents—nearly every casino re-opened within days of the storm. The gambling must go on.
Whatever happens next, I’m thankful my family survived Sandy—and for the small mercy of a few hours’ diversion they got from shrimp cocktail, cold Chardonnay, and the nickel slots. Together, later, we’ll sort out the rest.