By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
In the American experience, where nothing seems impossible, you’d expect that 18 months after Superstorm Sandy hit, the wreckage would be cleaned up and everyone would be back in their homes, or well on the way there. You’d think the case load of people brought to their knees by the storm would have lightened and that the number of volunteers streaming into the Jersey Shore from around the nation to help would have slowed.
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And yes, in many areas of coastal Ocean and Monmouth counties that were badly battered by the storm, you’d be right.
But spend a couple of days in the Visitation Relief Center on Mantoloking Road, Brick, in the geographic heart of the region where the storm hit, and it’s clear that despite the passage of time, for so many people, the fix is still not in.
There, the “problem remains huge,” said VRC director Christie Winters July 21 as activity swirled around her. Volunteers from as far away as Nebraska were pouring in off a big bus to help and “locals” were coming in the door seeking assistance with bills they can no longer pay, food they can’t afford to buy, and houses they can’t afford to complete repairing or raise should flood waters return.
Some six months after the storm, at the high point of dealing with the initial devastation, the VRC lifeline created through the initiative of neighboring Visitation Parish, reported that some 3,000 families had received help from the programs established there.
Now, all these months later, there are still more than 1,500 active cases, Winters said. “We had (recently) closed down 620 cases and then we had a spike in February and March. In one month, 425 new families came in.”
“We are working to get the word out in every way possible – in our publicity, by word of mouth, however we can, that the storm is not over. Things are even more difficult now. The rebuilding is just beginning and people are still struggling to reclaim their lives. The storm is definitely not over.”
Who Are They?
Winters, who helped found VRC, Vicki Cottrell, Visitation Parish pastoral associate/administrator, and VRC deputy director Moira Edge answered that question during a series of interviews at the center. They describe the newcomers mainly as people who tried to make it on their own after the storm hit Oct. 29, 2012, and have finally, nearly two years later, reached their limit.
“What we are seeing now is people who are worn down by their struggles and are at the end of their rope,” said Winters. She said the center began initially as a refuge and morphed into a centralized community outreach where a wide range of services from agencies including Catholic Charities Disaster Relief program and St. Vincent de Paul – can be accessed.
Those seeking help now are basically “people who can’t do it any more, especially the seniors,” of whom there are many in the area, said Winters.
Located in a converted garden center on the edge of the Visitation Parish campus, VRC serves folks coming from a geographic range that has widened greatly since the storm, they said.
“We’re seeing people from up and down the coast. … We’re seeing people from Union Beach to Tuckerton and all in between,” said Cottrell, who worked with Father Albert Ricciardelli, Visitation’s pastor, and Winters to establish the center.
Contributing greatly to the dire situation of many, Winters, Cottrell and Edge said, is the complicated nature of the recovery system with mounds of paperwork to be done and permits to be obtained before homes and lives can be retrieved and an economy that has still to recover.
Money is available through programs such as RREM – Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation – which grants up to $150,000 to homeowners of a primary residence to fill the gap between the cost of repairs and other funds the householder has received, but the paper chase to get them often seems insurmountable, they agreed.
“State, federal, county and local – everybody has ordinances that have to be complied with and not everyone is on the same page,” said Edge. “Almost two years in, people who thought they had funds – 401ks, savings – have realized they are tapped out, they are not going forward. They are just treading water.
“People are realizing that they are not middle class any more, that they’ve slipped off the edge of world. Go to Shore Acres at night and you’ll understand,” Edge said, using that hard hit development as but one example. “During the day it looks fine but at night you see there are no lights … no one lives there. The people are getting older and they are just giving up.”
The VRC effort also extends to environmental issues, which were so compromised by the storm. Winters noted that work continues on the surrounding wetlands so critical to the health of Barnegat Bay and its surrounds and by extension, the economic recovery that everyone is hoping to see someday soon. She related the estimate that 15,000 tons of debris from the storm are scattered through the wetlands.
The team had been conducting cleanup efforts since the storm and has removed a lot of debris, but things have reached a stage where it’s impossible to get back into the areas still impacted without appropriate equipment. They are still awaiting word on a grant application which would help with that process and are also in negotiation with the U.S. Department of Defense about the possibility of Blackhawk helicopters being used to remove debris.
Helping Hands, Healing Hearts
It is these folks that Winters, Cottrell and Edge say the entire VRC crew and everyone involved in the ongoing effort at Visitation Relief Center focuses on. The team remains intent on rescuing them from the post-Sandy abyss.
And to that purpose, VRC has become a “one-stop” where those affected by Sandy can receive aid and comfort from the agencies partnering with the center including Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, Save Barnegat Bay, the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, Rehabco, VNA (Visiting Nurses Association), the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity.
Others who partner with the center include Dress for Success, Portlight Strategies/Alliance Center for Independence and Horizon.
The pool of volunteers lending sweat equity, concern and general good will pour in the door every morning, get their marching orders from the center’s well organized team of coordinators and assist those coming into the center.
Many fan out into neighborhoods where they help restore battered houses, remove the litter that still clings stubbornly to the wetlands and lend their elbow grease to any task assigned.
Among the volunteers are those who were personally affected by the storm such as Trish McAvoy, whose home in the Nejecho Beach neighborhood took a terrific hit. Though she’s been volunteering at the center from its beginnings, she was only able to return home a month ago.
And that achievement, she reports, is due largely to the effort of the assistance programs based in Visitation Relief Center, including volunteers who have come in from around the nation to help.
She speaks fondly of a group from Iowa who swept in and put the finishing touches on the house, rehabbing badly damaged floors.
“I can sweep and wash the floors once again,” she said with a broad smile. “If it wasn’t for Visitation and these groups, I’d be sitting not knowing what to do or which way to turn.”
While McAvoy’s journey to recovery through the programs of VRC is just about complete, many are still clinging to the lifeline or just about to clasp onto it.
Frances and Edward Woytowicz, Brick, 79 and 80 respectively, of Shore Acres, have a familiar story to tell. “We were flooded out of our house with no place to go. Visitation Relief Center helped us through that and when we got back into the house, they helped us again with anything we needed.”
Now, the couple needs help again and VRC was working against the clock to help them meet a new deadline. The approvals have finally come through to raise their house above the flood plain with funding from the RREM program (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation).
“The house is going to be raised and it’s going to take about 65 days. We need help finding a place to stay and money is a problem.”
Facing this new deadline, they turned once again to VRC. “They are working to help us with a place to stay,” she said. “They help us take things one day at a time. They are there for us.”
Mario Ragonesi just realized VRC is there for him too.
The Normandy Beach home that Ragonesi shared with his late wife, Antoinette – who succumbed to cancer after the storm – is still in need of being raised above the flood plain and he, like the Woytowicz’ was in need of help to get the approvals.
The couple had lost their only son, Daniel, six years before the storm. Now it means the world to him to keep the house as a legacy for his granddaughters, Christina, 16, and Stephanie, 14. But raising it, he said as he sat in VRC’s expansive lobby area, would be a very costly proposition for him.
A few weeks back, as he was passing by VRC, he noticed a sign that the Robin Hood Foundation was one of many benefactors of the program. Familiar with the foundation, he decided to stop in and see if perhaps there was a way he could receive some help with the costly elevation certificate.
Like so many people, he just came in off the street. “Everyone offered help and I filled out the papers,” Ragonesi recounted.
It wasn’t long before he received a call asking him to come back for an interview.
Now, interview complete, Ragonesi was very upbeat about the possibility of receiving some assistance with the final steps of rehabilitating his house. “Everyone here wants to help.”
One of the things that the VRC team does best is navigating through grant applications and other processes to access funds for those they assist. Since the storm, they have succeeded in securing $430,000 from NJ Homeowners Relief; $84,000 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is conducted in the parishes throughout the Diocese of Trenton; More than $300,000 from the Diocesan Hurricane Relief Fund (donated from parishioners of the Diocese and around the country) and grant money given to the Diocese from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; as well as $120,000 directly from the Robin Hood Foundation and another $500,000 from Robin Hood administered through Brick Township.
In addition, the agency has inspired many people, of all sorts of means, to give what they can in time and treasure.
Even so, it came as a complete surprise when one particular person who just walked in off the street one day extended to Winters and her crew a magnanimous offer to help.
This person quietly joined a tour of the facility that Winters was giving for a group of Lutherans and the Brick Rotary. “There he was in the midst of the crowd asking a lot of questions.”
The questions continued after every one had gone.
“Then after a while, he said, ‘It is amazing what you guys are doing,’” related Winters. Thinking he was there to fill out an intake application for help for himself, she said they could do that immediately. When he said no, he wanted to help, she asked him what volunteer work he’d like to do.
Finally it became clear that he had other help in mind. She was overcome when he said that he wanted to help financially, offering to match money they would raise over the next few months dollar for dollar.
“We did everything we could think of,” she said. “There was a Christmas tree sale, a Zumba-thon, and a Rock Away Hunger Concert.”
In the end those efforts raised $23,000 and the donor, who is very firm about wishing to remain anonymous, matched that amount. He’s now pledging to contribute $50,000 in a similar effort.
Such good will, Winters said, is inspirational and from the outpouring of those in the community who supported the previous effort, seems to be catching.
With no end in sight to the need, she hopes it bodes well for the future.
“There is still so much help we need to give,” Winters said.