Months after Sandy, Brigantine still far from normal

"Everybody has a story that is slightly different," one Brigantine resident said. "Some have slipped through this real well. Others hit every bump. Patience was a real virtue."
"Everybody has a story that is slightly different," one Brigantine resident said. "Some have slipped through this real well. Others hit every bump. Patience was a real virtue." (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2013

BRIGANTINE, N.J. - As milestones go, Memorial Day weekend was always more of a shoobie thing than for the locals on Cummings Place.

After all, a local was there the day before and would be there the day after, when the crowds recede again in Brigantine.

Since Sandy, though, that "we'll be here tomorrow" assuredness is not something anyone around Cummings Place and similar blocks at the Shore will ever take for granted.

"It's really been so much longer than we expected," said Bill Haeser, displaced with wife Laurel since the Oct. 29 storm. They received insurance money only five weeks ago and are rushing for a return. Appliances were delivered Friday. "I should have been flipping burgers and vacuuming the pool by now."

Even as merchants keep fingers crossed, lifeguard boats sit ready, and Pennsylvania plates are already blamed for fender benders around Brigantine's lighthouse circle, it's a long way from normal here.

This formerly carefree and quirky block of barrier-island residents has clearly lost its innocence, still largely unsettled and under-inhabited. There's nary a geranium to be found amid the saltwater browned evergreens in front of porches, though Sarah Huff is planting her lettuces out of a wooden pallet found in the street.

In a neighborhood of mostly modest homes wedged along The Links public golf course, the reality of post-Sandy recovery has been agonizingly slow. Insurance companies took so long that for many, work has only just begun. Others are paralyzed by unsettled FEMA flood elevation maps, living in homes down to studs on the ground floor, hot pots for kitchens. Patio season will be a relief.

"Everybody has a story that is slightly different," Haeser said. "Some have slipped through this real well. Others hit every bump. Patience was a real virtue."

'To the bone'

For Bill and Laurel Haeser, down and depressed for months about their predicament, the load has noticeably lightened. Their living-room walls are freshly painted with the politically oppositional (for Bill) "Conservative gray," the kitchen awaits appliances, with a fresh coat of "Bagel" tan. A new hot water heater at last.

They are back in the game, within a few weeks of moving home. Never mind the state of the pool.

For neighbors Shelley and Brian Hewitt, complications and uncertainty about rebuilding requirements have been debilitating. Reworked FEMA flood maps, expected any day, may provide relief.

As homeowners trying to cling to a modest piece of the local lifestyle, the Hewitts feel squeezed.

"We are already broken to the bone," said Shelley, a salon owner whose ready-to-rebuild spirit after Sandy has faded into a more hardened realism.

The Hewitts were three days from elevating their home on concrete blocks when Gov. Christie announced the preliminary FEMA maps were to be enforced. The city revoked the permit, saying those maps - placing Cummings into the Velocity zones - required pilings.

"We did so much damage to the house preparing for the lift that didn't happen," Hewitt said. "They're making it very difficult to stay. I'm still in a V zone, and I'm not leaving. I'm trying to get on with my life."

She says the requirements of the V Zone for raising her house - which she once viewed as a way to get herself a view of the nearby ocean and bay - are impractical and prohibitively expensive. "How am I going to get into this house, let alone get furniture in the air?" she said.

Brigantine City Engineer Ed Stinson is hopeful that Cummings Place and blocks like it will no longer be V Zoned in the new maps, allowing more flexible elevating methods. But he worries that steep flood insurance rate increases will drive the middle-class Shore dwellers away.

The Hewitts have done it by the FEMA book. They opened up an "Increased Cost of Compliance" claim, which gives up to $30,000 to raise a house, but results in a lot of regulations kicking in. They feel stymied.

The Hewitts started in her father's RV trailer on their lot, then decamped to a rental after seeing the enormous electric bills.

Robin Hood Foundation and other charitable funds cap incomes at $50,000. A new pot of federal money is now available to apply for - at 1-855-SANDYHM - for grants of up to $150,000 for those with household incomes below $250,000.

Digging deep

Stinson says the city is urging people to repair their homes enough to get back in, and wait out the FEMA uncertainty. There is a four-year window to raise the houses, which Stinson said "is not a gentle process" and will again displace people. The Huffs, who dug deep into savings to pay off their mortgage, at least have control over how they will use their settlement.

Bob Huff says if he can't find a feasible way to elevate their house, he will tear it down and sell the land, hoping to fetch $225,000, maybe $235,000. (In better days, such as in 2005, he figures he could have gotten $380,000.) At the Shore, that is where most of the value lies.

Others fast find out that with a mortgage, the bank retains joint control.

Some with temporary rentals had to give them up May 1, when summer-season rentals kicked in. The Haesers' 32-year-old son ended up in a motel, and they have been unable to secure promised FEMA rental assistance.

In Brigantine, as elsewhere, some people left, abandoning homes that were profoundly damaged. Officials estimate that between 20 and 30 homeowners just walked away.

On Cummings, the residents who could do their own work, or who, like the Haesers, had some contractors in the family, were able to go forward.

Next door to the Haesers, Bob Solari worked nearly nonstop on his own to repair the house so his ex-wife and her son could move back in. As he had quietly hoped, he also is back spending time at the home.

For Ina and Tony Molinari, who had some damage but never had to leave, the street is only a little less lonely. Tony has welcomed back neighbors with his oatmeal cookies.

Incredibly, as these locals face their seventh month of recovery, there are summer neighbors who are only now facing up to the damage.

"I can tell you we are still getting people coming in and having a conversation the same as we had in December and January," Stinson, the city engineer, said. "They went and saw how bad it was, locked the doors, and said, 'We'll deal with it in the spring.' "

The Haesers, meanwhile, settled in to life at their daughter's in Somers Point, and grew to deeply appreciate the help they got from their two daughters and the men they married. Bill found pals at the local American Legion.

And while they are looking forward to being back on the Narnia-like island of Brigantine, they have new respect for the place that took them in: unassuming Somers Point, on the mainland, where everyone doesn't have a five-mile head start. And a silver lining: extra time with the grandchildren.

And some perspective. "I think this Oklahoma thing made me rethink everything," said Laurel, who finally stopped crying about being out of her home, as at least she had one. "I'm sure it took a toll on us. We haven't slept in all that time."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg

at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on twitter @amysrosenberg.

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