Many Hurricane Sandy victims are finding little to celebrate this holiday season. The super storm devastated their homes and they are finding it difficult to restore normalcy in time for Christmas.
"I just wish it were over," said Staten Island resident Billy Stout, who was living out of his car until last week, going from one home to another in search of a warm bed. While FEMA is now putting him up in a hotel it does not take the place of being home for Christmas.
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"It doesn’t feel like Christmas; I’m trying to make the best of it. It’s not the same living in a hotel. I wish it were over. How can you be happy about things?" he said, referring not only to his current situation but also to the mass killing in Newtown, Conn.
"I have a wreath on my hotel room window," said Stout. "It stinks. You just can’t go home. I feel like I’m on a road trip in my own neighborhood. It’s not like I have a tree up with lights."
"It’s very different from what we’re used to," said Vinny Accetta, a Midland Beach, Staten Island resident. He, his wife, and twin 2 ½ year olds are living with in-laws. "We usually do Christmas Day at our house," he said. But that is not possible as his home has been flooded out.
"We’re not doing what we usually do. We don’t have our own tree or decorations, we feel out of sorts," Accetta said. "If it weren’t for the kids, we would not be celebrating."
The upheaval is compounded by FEMA’s ineffective response. Those insured by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA, cannot rebuild their lives until they hear from the government how much they will be receiving.
Accetta said he has so far received $2,900 in assistance from FEMA for emergency housing needs but he has not "gotten a dime from FEMA" through the NFIP, his flood insurer. He cannot yet begin rebuilding.
"I have a contractor, but how can I allow him to go forward until I know what FEMA will be giving me?" he said. The difference between wood floors and carpeting, certain types of cabinets, and other decisions to be made are all on hold until he gets answers from FEMA.
The uncertainty of the future is weighing on the minds of the victims of Sandy. Wondering what will happen and how they will be able to rebuild their homes has replaced the wonder of what presents will be left under the tree.
Accetta said his children seem to realize what is going on. "House is broken. Daddy will fix," his son told him. But they are resilient, he said, and, like most children, they are excited for Christmas. "It has gotten a bit better. Hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel."
According to Accetta, FEMA said it would let him know his settlement after New Year’s Day.
Others are less hopeful than Accetta.
Stout said that he is now going through different assistance programs, wondering how much he will receive so he can get a new apartment.
"Christmas is an afterthought right now. I cannot even keep up with my current extra expenses and cannot truly conceive of presents right now," Toms River resident Mary Natoli said in an email. "I promised my boys I would give them money for new sneakers but realistically I do not know how I am going to pull that out of my hat," Natoli said.
She has three children, ages 22, 19, and 17, and said she is behind in her car payment and her car insurance.
"It has been a very difficult time, to say the very least. I have to be strong for my children, be pro-active, go to work every day, smile, and focus. I am very good at pretending," Natoli said. "I need to keep every day as safe, normal, and calm as possible but the close quarters have definitely gotten to all of us … I try not to cry because I may not be able to stop."
Gerritsen Beach Sandy Relief is continuing to care for its own in the Brooklyn borough after some 10,000 of its residents’ homes were flooded by sewer and sea water. Their call for people to loan its residents motor homes continues after being denied trailers by FEMA.
The wish list posted on Amazon a week before Christmas for the residents lists not video games or toys but bleach, paper towels, gloves, hot chocolate, 2x4s, and canned food like Spam and Chef Boyardee.
Westminster Presbyterian Church Reverend Joe Hein said that prayer has helped Sandy victims in Middletown, N.J., rise from despair to resiliency and strength. He said Sandy directly affected 10 congregation families, rendering their homes either destroyed or inhabitable. Four families have now taken in Sandy victims.
Hein recalled riding through town on his bicycle the day after the storm as some streets were impassable and main highways were closed. The first person he came upon was a woman named Holly.
"’What do you need?’ I asked her and her response was, ‘I need everything. I lost everything.’"
Westminster sprang into action and 50 of its congregation members set up a Sandy relief effort. For the past five Saturdays those church members have distributed cleaning supplies and helped Middletown residents in the areas of Port Monmouth, Belford, and Leonardo with cleanup and restoration.
"The initial response was despair and grief. It was loss initially and we dealt with it with prayer. We prayed that God would help," Hein said. "It was profoundly disturbing, losing everything and taking it to the curb."
"There’s been anger at FEMA and the government agencies and also at insurance agencies being too slow," Hein added. "But there’s great strength within the people. Various churches have united to help the victims and people are so grateful."
"We saw the Mennonites, the Amish, the Presbyterians, the Catholics, the Southern Baptists, and the Methodists who were there helping Sandy victims," Hein said. He noted atheists seemed conspicuously absent.
Hein found the evidence of God’s presence in the aftermath of the storm. It was when residents lost everything and people came to help them in their desperate hour of need, he said.
The "flood of tears" he saw from victims in the days after the hurricane hit has now been replaced with hope. He said victims are now saying, "We’re going to make it."
Many charities have been collecting gifts for children and gift cards for families affected by the storm this Christmas season. The day before Christmas Eve, Westminster Church is holding a "Relief From Sandy Party" with music and food. Presents and cleaning supplies will be given to Sandy victims, according to Hein.
The website of the American Red Cross, which has helped Sandy victims, can be found here.