Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
5:31 pm
Tue November 6, 2012

Jersey Shore Storm Survivors Face Uncertain Future

Originally published on Tue November 6, 2012 8:37 pm

The barrier islands off the coast of New Jersey were hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and for the moment, most residents are banned from living in their homes because the area is far too damaged.

Which is why this past weekend, in a Red Cross shelter at Pinelands High School in Egg Harbor, N.J., on the mainland, around 100 stranded island residents were lining up for dinner, while Red Cross volunteers worked hard to keep things reassuring.

"Excuse me everybody!" shouted one of the volunteers, waving her arms above her head. "Is there a Jan and a Manny in the house?"

A stocky 61-year-old man looked up from his tray. "Right here!" he answered, looking wary.

"OK, everybody!" the woman shouted again. And then the whole room, filled with dozens of weary, heartbroken people, suspended its tragedy for a minute.

"Happy anniversary," they screamed, so loud that it maxed out the levels of my recorder.

The couple started smiling.

It was Saturday, Nov. 3, six days after their dream had been ruined.

A Picnic Table Becomes A Bridge

Jan and Manny DiNunzio have been married for 38 years. They met, they tell me, in the 1970s, at the bar Manny owned, The Hungry Eye.

"When I saw him, I said, 'See that man? I'm going to marry him,' " Jan says. Then Manny finished her sentence: "And we've been together since. We moved in together by the end of the same year."

Manny, who's from Italy, and Jan, who's from New Jersey, came to the shelter the night before — after they were forced to leave their home in Seaside Heights.

Most of the world knows Seaside Heights from the reality show Jersey Shore, but Jan's relationship with Seaside began decades ago, when she was just a teenager.

"Oh, it was like a must-do as a kid," she tells me. "You worked all fall and winter to save money for that week in the summer. Seaside Heights was the place to go."

Seaside Heights clearly occupies a big place in Jan's emotional world. So big that when I tell her I've never been there she is genuinely scandalized. She simply can't believe it. Just as she can't believe that her husband — the modest bar owner — actually bought them a house in Seaside five years ago.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would buy a place in Seaside Heights," she says.

But Manny did buy a place, secretly, just to please her. He bought the house on the sly, then took her to see it, claiming he'd rented it for just a couple of weeks.

It was a modest place with a couple of apartments out back that Manny planned to rent to bring in enough money to pay for everything. He says she walked in, and she loved it.

"She goes, 'So how long do we have here? How long are we going to stay?' " Manny tells me, smiling. "So that's when I start telling her ... guess what?"

Hearing this story makes it easier to understand why Jan and Manny behaved as they did during the storm. Jan and Manny didn't evacuate. They spent a terrifying night riding out the storm in their home — at one point they had to use a picnic table as a bridge. And then, after the storm had finished — had clearly destroyed their town — they refused to leave. They remained in their house, by choice, for four days.

This is hard to fathom. The streets of Seaside Heights after the storm were filled with sand — as high as 4 feet in some places — and everywhere there was the hiss of broken gas pipes, but somehow Manny and Jan couldn't absorb that. They were in denial.

"I said, you know, probably tomorrow A&P is going to open up," Manny says. "Probably that other one is going to open up. We're going to be OK, I told her."

So they started cleaning up, putting their lives back together.

There was no light, there was no heat, but they still had gas for their stove, so Manny was able to make morning coffee for his wife. But then the fire department decided to turn off the gas; and that was the breaking point.

"They cut the gas, and that's when I kind of lost it," Jan says.

Without a stove, Jan told Manny, they couldn't make it. But even then, Manny wouldn't agree.

"I brought the grill out," he says, crying. "I said, you know, we lost the gas, we lost the heat ... this is a grill, is just like a stove ... we are going to use it to make coffee."

But Jan told Manny she couldn't do it anymore. "This isn't [the TV show] Survivor," she told him.

And so they left.

"I cried like a baby," Manny said. "Tears rolled down my face, I locked up the place, and as I was closing the units up, the apartments, it hit me: When am I going to come back? What is going to happen? No one can give you an answer."

That is the question: When can people move back? Manny and Jan have been asking everyone that question, and everyone has a different answer. Two months. Six months. Nine months.

The problem for Manny and Jan is that financially, they need the apartment rentals in the back of their house to survive. They figure they can last for a bit, but if it goes on for "four or five months," they say, "we're done."

Keeping Emotions Under Control

Can people survive financially? Emotionally?

That's what everyone at the shelter was asking, and so to keep the dark thoughts at bay, the Red Cross had arranged for a local entertainer to perform in the cafeteria. At 8 p.m. a very nice woman with very tall hair took the stage. It was a strange scene. She would sing and then do things like invite the shelter children on stage for their own performances.

A little boy called Connor Jr. got up for a bit. "Banana phone, banana phone," he sang into her microphone.

Meanwhile, outside in the hallway, a 28-year-old woman named Jennifer Ruiz and her 2-year-old daughter were also singing.

"I love you, you love me, we're a happy family!" they sang together.

But the truth was that Jennifer wasn't happy. She was sad, but didn't want to share that with her daughter, whom she calls "Moo Moo."

"How do you tell a 2-year-old we don't have a home to go to?" she asked me.

Jennifer, like Jan and Manny DiNunzio, lived in Seaside Heights, but unlike them she evacuated during the storm with her fiance, his parents and Moo Moo.

They went to stay with her brother but decided to come to the shelter after a few days because things were getting tense.

She is upset about this — upset about everything — but doesn't want her daughter to know, so she's pretending that she feels fine.

"I just act like it's a regular day," she tells me. "Like nothing is out of the ordinary. I still play with her. I still feed her. I still laugh with her."

It's clear that keeping her emotions under control is very important to Jennifer.

"I don't want to be weak," she says. "When you're crying, you think of the worst and you lose hope."

And Jennifer doesn't want to lose hope because — deep breath — since Sandy hit about a week ago, she hasn't been able to get in touch with either her mother or her oldest daughter, an 8-year-old who lives with her ex. She's called and called both of them, checked Facebook, contacted family, but nothing.

Even before the storm, Jennifer had a difficult life. Though she has a good job, her relationship with her ex has been very difficult, and she recently got into a huge fight with her mom.

"It was something so dumb, but she just stopped talking to me, and I stopped talking to her, like both being stubborn, not wanting to be the bigger person and say sorry," she says.

And then came the storm, and Jennifer says that her thoughts have been cycling and cycling.

"There's like too much going on, to be honest, like I don't have a main focus or a main thought right now ... When I start to think, 'Oh my god, are they OK? Are they thinking about me as I'm thinking about them?' It's like, emotionally I'm a wreck."

Still, with Moo Moo she is her normal self, or something near her normal self.

At 9 p.m. she tries to put Moo Moo down to sleep in the gym where close to 100 people are going to be sleeping on narrow green cots.

"Come on, you lay your head right here," she coos. "Good girl."

"I love you," she tells Moo Moo.

"I love you," Moo Moo says.

They kiss.

Moo Moo lies there, but all around her people are moving, so it's hard to sleep. About half an hour later she's up again. It's past 11 p.m. before Jennifer and Moo Moo actually do get to sleep, and even then — like almost everyone else in the room — their sleep is fitful.

How can it not be?

Like Manny and Jan, and all the other people lying on the narrow green cots around them, their future is uncertain. They don't know where they will live, or what they will do, or what tomorrow will bring.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Hurricane Sandy has forced thousands of people in New Jersey out of their homes. That includes residents of the barrier island that lines the Jersey coast. For now at least they're banned from living in their homes.

Over the weekend, NPR's Alix Spiegel visited a shelter set up in a public school gym, where island residents are staying. She has this story about one night there and a few of the people she met.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It's dinnertime at the Red Cross shelter and the volunteers are working hard to keep things reassuring. And so, as the residents lined out in the cafeteria, one of the Red Cross women starts waving her arms for attention.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Excuse me everybody. Is there a Jan and a Manny in the house?

MANNY DINUNZIO: Right here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Right here. OK, everybody. Happy anniversary.

CROWD: Happy anniversary!

(APPLAUSE)

SPIEGEL: Jan and Manny DiNunzio have been married for 38 years. They met in the '70s, they tell me, at the bar Manny owned.

JAN DINUNZIO: I saw him - when I saw him, I said, see that man. I'm going to marry him.

M. DINUNZIO: I think ever since, we've been pretty much - we moved in together at the - yeah, at the end of the year, the same year.

SPIEGEL: Manny, a stocky 61-year-old Italian, and Jan, who's tiny and from New Jersey, came to the shelter the night before after they were forced to leave their home in Seaside Heights.

Now, most of the world knows Seaside Heights from the reality show "Jersey Shore." But Jan's relationship with Seaside began decades ago, when she was just a teenager.

J. DINUNZIO: Oh, it was like a must-do as a kid. You worked all fall and winter to save that money for that week in the summer. Seaside Heights was the place to go.

SPIEGEL: Seaside Heights actually occupies a big place in Jan's emotional world. So big that when I tell her that I've never been there, she is genuinely scandalized. She cannot believe it. Just as she cannot believe that her husband actually bought them a house in Seaside five years ago.

J. DINUNZIO: Never in my wildest dreams thought he would buy a place in Seaside Heights.

SPIEGEL: But Manny did, secretly, to please her. He bought the house on the sly, then took her to see it, claiming he'd rented it for just a couple weeks. It was a modest place with a couple apartments out back Manny planned to rent to bring in enough money to pay for everything. He says that she walked in and she loved it.

M. DINUNZIO: She goes, so how long can we have here? How long are we going to stay? So that's when I start telling her, guess what.

SPIEGEL: Now, hearing this story makes it easier to understand why Jan and Manny behaved as they did during the storm. See, Jan and Manny didn't evacuate. They spent a terrifying night riding out the storm in their home. At one point they had to use a picnic table as a boat. Then, even after the storm had clearly destroyed their town, they refused to leave.

M. DINUNZIO: We were there for four days. For four days.

J. DINUNZIO: Four days.

SPIEGEL: The streets of Seaside Heights after the storm were filled with sand, as high as four feet in some places. And everywhere there was the hiss of broken gas pipes. But somehow, Manny and Jan couldn't absorb that. They were in denial.

M. DINUNZIO: I said, you know what, probably tomorrow, A&P is going to open up. Probably the convenience store over there is going to open up. We're going to be OK, I told her.

SPIEGEL: So they started cleaning up. There was no light, there was no heat, but they still had gas for their stove, so Manny was able to make morning coffee for his wife. But then the fire department turned off the gas, which was the breaking point.

J. DINUNZIO: They had cut the gas. Yes, I think when I - I kind of lost it after that.

M. DINUNZIO: Yes, it was the gas.

SPIEGEL: Without a stove, Jan told Manny, they couldn't make it. But even then, he wouldn't agree. He brought the grill out.

M. DINUNZIO: I said, you know, we lost the gas. We lost the heat. I said this is a grill, it's just like a stove. Just like a stove, I said. And we are going to use it to put on the Mr. Coffee to brew it.

J. DINUNZIO: He said, don't worry. Just don't worry because we're going to be all right. So I said that's it. I can't do it anymore.

SPIEGEL: And so they left.

M. DINUNZIO: I cried. I've been crying like a baby. Tears roll down my face. I locked the place up. And then, as I was closing the units up, the apartments, it hit me: When am I going to come back? What is going to happen? Where is everything? Nobody can give you an answer.

SPIEGEL: That is the question. When can people move back? Manny and Jan have been asking everyone and everyone has a different answer. Two months. Six months. Nine months. The problem for Manny and Jan is that financially, they need the apartment rentals in the back of their house to survive. They figure that they can last for a bit. But...

M. DINUNZIO: But if it goes on for four or five months...

J. DINUNZIO: We're done.

M. DINUNZIO: We're done.

J. DINUNZIO: We're done.

M. DINUNZIO: We're done.

SPIEGEL: Can people survive financially, emotionally? That's what everyone at the shelter was asking. And so, to keep the dark thoughts at bay, the Red Cross arranged for a local entertainer to perform in the cafeteria. At 8:00 a very nice woman with very tall hair took the stage. It was a strange scene. She would sing and then do things like invite the shelter children on stage for their own performances.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is Connor Jr., everyone. And he's going to seeing a song for you. You ready? OK, go ahead.

CONNOR JR.: (Singing) Banana phone, banana phone, banana phone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, all right.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Very nice. Thank you. I know you make people smile with that. Thank you, Connor. All right, this is something from the Commodores.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A little bit older tune.

SPIEGEL: In the hallway outside, a 28-year-old woman named Jennifer Ruiz and her two-year-old daughter were also singing.

JENNIFER RUIZ: (Singing) I love you. You love me. We're a happy family, with a great...

SPIEGEL: At that moment, though, Jennifer was not, in fact, happy. She was sad, but she didn't want to share that with her daughter, who she calls Moo-Moo.

RUIZ: How do you tell a two-year-old we don't have a home to go to, we don't have anything?

SPIEGEL: Jennifer, like the DiNunzios, lived in Seaside Heights, but unlike them, she evacuated during the storm with her fiancee, his parents and Moo-Moo. They went to stay with her brother, but decided to come to the shelter after a few days because things were getting tense. She's upset about this, upset about everything, but doesn't want her daughter to know and so she's pretending that she feels fine.

RUIZ: Just act like it's like a regular day. Like nothing is out of the ordinary with my daughter. I'll still play with her. I'll still feed her. I'll still laugh with her.

SPIEGEL: It's clear that keeping her emotions under control is very important to Jennifer.

RUIZ: 'Cause I don't want to be weak and I don't want to lose it. When you're crying, you think of the worst and you lose hope.

SPIEGEL: And Jennifer can't lose hope because, deep breath, since Sandy hit a week ago, she hasn't been able to get in touch with either her mother or her oldest daughter, an 8-year-old who lives with her ex. She's called and called them both, checked Facebook, contacted family, but...

RUIZ: There's no communication whatsoever and I don't know if they're okay.

SPIEGEL: Well, how are you doing? Are you okay?

RUIZ: It's just sad because I don't have my family.

SPIEGEL: Even before the storm, Jennifer had a difficult life. Though she has a good job, her relationship with her ex has been very difficult, and she recently got into a huge fight with her mom.

RUIZ: It was something so dumb, but she just stopped talking to me, and I stopped talking to her, like both being stubborn, like not wanting to be the bigger person and say sorry, but how are you?

SPIEGEL: And then came the storm, and her older daughter and everything and she says her thoughts have been cycling and cycling.

RUIZ: There's like too much going on. To be honest, like I don't have a main focus or a main thought right now. It's too much. Like, when I start to think about, like, oh my god, are they OK? Are they thinking about me, like, as I'm thinking about them? It's like, emotionally, like I'm a wreck.

SPIEGEL: Still, with Moo-Moo she is her normal self, or something near her normal self. At 9, she tries to put Moo-Moo down to sleep in the gym where close to 100 people are going to be sleeping on narrow green cots.

RUIZ: Come on, you lay your head right here. Good girl.

SPIEGEL: Moo-Moo doesn't seem ready to sleep, but Jennifer still tries.

RUIZ: I love you.

MOO-MOO: I love you.

RUIZ: Give me a kiss. Give mommy kiss.

SPIEGEL: Moo-Moo lies down, but all around her people are moving, so it's hard to sleep. And half an hour later, she's up again. It's past 11 before Jennifer and Moo-Moo actually get to sleep, and even then, like almost everyone else in the room, their sleep is fitful. How can it not be?

Like Manny and Jan, and all the people lying on the narrow green cots around them, their future is so uncertain. They don't know where they will live, or what they will do, or what tomorrow will bring. Alix Spiegel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.