Until Sandy made landfall as a post-tropical cyclone a year ago in Brigantine, less than a dozen miles from here, the 1,250-square-foot house had been more than just a memory-holder for her and her husband, Bob, 64. It had been the centerpiece of their retirement investment strategy. But Sandy forever changed things for the Noonans and scores of others.
Dubbed "Frankenstorm" because of its enormity and its proximity to Halloween, the storm was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. When it was over, it had killed 159 people and damaged more than 650,000 homes as it stretched across 24 states, including the entire Eastern Seaboard.
In New Jersey, the storm caused $38 billion in damage and displaced as many as 380,000 people. A year later, storm victims say, relief money is only beginning to trickle in.
Three months after Sandy, Congress reluctantly approved a $50 billion relief bill - which subsequent automatic spending cuts reduced 5 percent - but only a fraction of those funds have been paid out, according to victims' advocates.
And for some storm victims, such as the Noonans, no relief is in sight.
Like thousands of Jersey Shore property owners who have primary residences elsewhere, the Noonans, whose home was swamped in three feet of water, aren't eligible for grants, loans, or other disaster aid. Officials say that, although secondary homeowners like the Noonans have paid into federal flood-insurance programs - in the form of insurance premiums that are sometimes at a higher rate than primary homeowners for the supposed same rate of coverage - the government's main focus has been getting year-around Shore residents back into their houses.
Gov. Christie said Friday that he had argued with President Obama in the Oval Office about helping second-home owners.
"I said to him, 'Mr. President, these second-home owners, not all of them are multimillionaires on the beach in Bay Head,' " Christie recalled. "They're cops and firemen and teachers and construction workers who saved to buy a little bungalow. Or they're third-generation who inherited the house, but can only afford to pay the property taxes. . . . The president simply refused to allow federal money to be used for second-home owners. And Congress agreed with him."
Christie said he worried that the ban on federal recovery dollars for second homes, along with skyrocketing flood insurance, high rebuilding costs, and home-elevation requirements, would conspire to make the Shore a haven for the wealthy.
The Noonans' Shore home had been at the center of retirement plans that the couple - she a former court clerk and he a retired water-company supervisor - had envisioned for years.
They sunk their 401(k) and an inheritance into purchasing the small south Ocean County property for about $245,000 and planned to eventually move to the cottage full time.
After Friday's demolition, it is a pile of rubble.
Property inspectors determined that the house was not salvageable. And rebuilding means that a new structure will have to be raised about eight feet off the ground on pilings and will likely cost more than $250,000.
"We're basically on our own to come up with the money," said Bob Noonan, noting that although the property was insured for $250,000, the couple's insurance company had refused to pay for the rebuild, at first offering them $40,000 to just make repairs. After hiring a public insurance adjuster and with the help of their builder, they were able to negotiate with the insurance company to come up with an additional $100,000. They will likely have to take out a home-equity loan on their primary residence to come up with the rest.
"They are in the exact same boat that so many others throughout New Jersey are in," said Arthur M. Fierro, president of the Seaside Heights Property Owners' Association, a group of about 700 who own homes in what ultimately became one of the worst areas for Sandy destruction.
"These are not rich people; these are people who scrimped and saved or inherited a property that had been passed down through the generations," he said.
A stretch of hundreds of oceanfront homes in Seaside, Ortley Beach, and Mantoloking was virtually washed out to sea by the storm, many owned by out-of-towners.
"The second-home property owners are the unsung victims of Sandy. . . . Nobody from the government wants to deal with them," said Fierro, adding that there were an estimated 100,000 significantly damaged properties owned by secondary homeowners in the state's four Shore counties.
The properties account for billions in tax ratables, he said, and those who own them - many out-of-state residents - provide a stable economic backbone for communities along the coast.
The precise number of such properties is unknown, says the state Department of Community Affairs. Property records in communities - often based on tax information - do not reflect whether a home is used as a summer, or "second," residence or as a year-around home.
"When you think about the enormity of the impact that so many properties can have on these individual towns if people walk away from the properties, end up selling them for peanuts, or leave them boarded up for years because they don't have the money to make repairs," Fierro said, "what's going to happen to the tax-ratable base?"
That is a question no one seems to have an answer to, but that worries municipal officials, said Jennifer Blumenthal, city manager for Brigantine.
"From the time Sandy hit and we saw that aftermath, that is something that we've had big concerns about," Blumenthal said. About half of the town's 8,900 properties are secondary homes.
Blumenthal said about 2,700 homes in Brigantine sustained damage during Sandy, with about 250 of those in the Atlantic County town substantially damaged.
Most of the secondary homeowners are choosing to demolish the properties and start over, because private flood insurance is covering some of the cost, she said, while there is no funding available for repairs through the government.
"We get calls constantly from secondary homeowners asking for help, asking us what they should do," Blumenthal said. "But there's just nothing out there, no place where we can direct them. And these are not rich people."
Always a struggle
Joyce Rickter, 73, a resident of Brigantine's north end, agrees.
"Our primary home in Florida was something my husband and I bought as an investment so we would have something when we got old," Rickter said. "But it had always been a struggle for us to maintain two homes, but we did it for 25 years. This storm was the final kick in the pants for me, though. One of the houses has to go, and I can't sell this one in the condition it's in."
It has been tough, too, for Frank Columbo, 43, a bartender from Jersey City, whose Ortley Beach bungalow was washed away in the storm. He had inherited the tiny four-room house 10 years ago from an uncle.
"People think we're millionaires because we owned a second home . . . and we're not," he said. "Some years, it was hard for us to scrape together to pay the taxes. Now we just don't know what we're going to do."
He said he had fielded offers for his land, whispering the "paltry" amounts he's been offered - "$10,000, $20,000" - for his lot. He added: "I know I'm not selling to some developer."