Tag Archives: Hurricane Sandy

The House Fire Chronicles: Homecoming

images[3]Just over a year ago, I went for a walk out in the bright autumn sunshine to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Though the fall colors were still vivid, the trees’ angles were all wrong.  Trees should be vertical, yet most tilted; many lay horizontal—a fall against the road having crushed someone’s  wrought iron fence.  The horror of it was breathtaking: all these magnificent sycamores and sugar maples and oaks, felled overnight to be sliced up and carted away in chunks.

Today, as I drive my son to school, what I notice most about the trees that still stand are the colors themselves.  What is breathtaking is the way they’ve burst into fiery reds and oranges, gold against the sparkling sunlight.  Life, they tell us—the seasonal cycle of our corner of the planet—continues.  And just because it is the anniversary of that natural disaster, when lives were lost as well as trees, doesn’t mean the survivors won’t put on their annual splendor.

A year ago, I had just learned that my house had been mostly consumed by a fire.  I was trying to keep my children calm and recreate some new normal for them, while my husband dealt with the insurance company and the fire department, and we both searched for a place to live.

We were not alone.  Countless others in the region had their homes destroyed by winds and floods, as well as some fires.  Schools were closed for days.  Most everyone had lost power.  Even those whose homes were unscathed had to regroup as the rest of us figured out how to rebuild our lives.

We have been among the lucky ones.  Our insurance was sound.  Fire, I’m told, is insured more easily and completely than flood or wind damage.  There were three categories of coverage: non-use, which meant our rent was covered, when we found a temporary home—contents, which referred to everything that was lost that we’d need to replace—and lastly, construction, which meant the costs of fire/smoke remediation (which was extensive) as well as rebuilding and renovating.

The good news is that one year, less one day following our fire, we moved back home.  My children slept in their old-new rooms in their new beds.  Our home was beautiful to me before, though nothing had been changed or renovated since it was built in 1958, but now, renewed and polished, redecorated, with the gracious aid of our friend Gina (and do check out her site, By Design Interiors) it kind of blows me away.

Here is the dining room before:

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And here it is today:

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The leaves are falling outside, but for us, it is the season of renewal.

On the eve of our homecoming, while I was shuttling our belongings from the rental to our “real” house, I had a moment of identity confusion, similar to what happened when I first saw the effects of the fire: where am I?  where do I belong?  Oh, yes, here.  Home.  For real.

There are so many still displaced by the hurricane.  Still homeless, still being shuffled from shelter to hotel and back again.  I listen to their stories on NPR while chauffeuring my kids around.  I know all those other mothers want for their kids what I wanted—what I have—for mine.  Normalcy.  Space to breathe and play, somewhere to put the donated items they’ve received during the course of the year.  This year we’ve been recipients of generosity but we’ve also done what we could to give back, making donations to the Red Cross and other organizations that help hurricane survivors, including those in Haiti (even harder hit than we were).  But we can’t give these families what they need most: Permanence.  I now have an inkling of what it’s like to crave that.

Sometimes I think, what did I do to deserve to survive this so easily?  Of course the answer is nothing.  We have amazing friends; there aren’t enough words to express our gratitude.  We have good insurance.  As I said, we are lucky.   And lately I fall asleep at night with this phrase on my lips: Thank you.

The House Fire Chronicles: The Things I Wore

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

I don’t write about clothes.  I’m not a fashionista; I don’t think I’m qualified to give anyone wardrobe tips.  But I’ve had to think about clothing—my clothing—a whole lot in the little-less-than-a-year since our fire.

What a strange almost year it’s been.  Living in a house that isn’t mine, several blocks away from the house that is mine.  So close to home but not home at all.  Everyone asks about the house (it’s coming along nicely; we’ll move back very soon) and about the kids (doing great considering.) Everyone asks how our insurance has been (pretty good—not perfect) and of course how we all are.  We’re doing really well, given the whirlwind it’s been.  I haven’t written about the fire for months and months, mostly because after the first few posts, I couldn’t.  I was sick of hearing myself talk about it.  I just needed to live and take care of my family and make the best of the situation we were in.  We’ve been so lucky, to have insurance that really took care of us, for friends that helped in too many ways to count.  For the supportive schools my kids are in, both of which cushioned the blow.  We are beyond grateful for this community.  We are more than fine.  My family is whole and mostly healed and poised to move back into our new-old house.

I wrote early on about the mementos and pictures and trinkets we managed to save.  Enough of us for us to feel like ourselves.  As for the little things we no longer have, we think of wistfully of them from time to time and move on.  Things occur to us, like the wall where we’d marked off our children’s increasing heights over the years.  We’ll never get that back.  But for everything we lost, it seems like there are many more important things we recovered.  Pieces of our identity.

But for me, there’s something I realize I’m still mourning just a bit.  My clothes.  My boots and dresses and silly sweaters and jeans that might have been sort of out of date but who cared?  The things I put on every day that went into making me me.

There were the a-line skirts I’d bought in the 1990s at the Limited, which had held up for some reason.  There was the blazer I’d bought before my daughter was born, at a stoop sale in Brooklyn Heights, tweed, hip-length, by some German designer, which was just about the most flattering thing I’d ever owned.  It went with anything, could turn my casual-mom outfits into work-ready ensembles in the blink of an eye.  Utilitarian sweaters in abundance, one for every mood, every configuration of my body image, every kind of weather.  And dresses, little black ones, flowing, floral ones, more dresses than I needed, but a memory was tied to each.

Right after the fire, the insurance company gave us a lump sum that we were to use right away, a short term advance to replace what we needed immediately.  The fire took place right after Hurricane Sandy, on November 2nd.  Winter was coming, so what we needed were warm clothes.  For my kids, this meant replacing hoodies, easily done since the cut of zip-up sweatshirts doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year.  But I needed sweaters, and found nothing anywhere to replace a single one I’d lost.  (When I shop, first stop for me is always Target, then Kohl’s, before I’ll even consider moving up to Bloomingdales.)  All the sweaters I found were drape-y and thin: no buttons, not even a zipper to close and keep in the body heat.  Otherwise they were skimpy and low-cut with funny, asymmetrical ties.

Here’s the truth: I’d expected to show up at a store and find ALL MY OLD CLOTHES, waiting for me cheerfully from their racks, as if to say: Surprise!  Here we are!  We weren’t in the fire after all!  And there would be a big reunion.  Me and those amazing, quintessentially-Lisa wardrobe finds dating back to 1989.

Of course it wasn’t like that.  Nothing on the racks felt very much like me.  I spent the winter, and then the spring, in a few basics from the Gap and some hand-me-downs from a friend who is close to my size but way more fashionable.  It will take time to rebuild my closet, adapting what I have of a fashion sense to what there is out there now.  Slowly but surely I’m doing it.

I know I am very fortunate; our insurance company was good in terms of content loss.  This isn’t about money; it’s about missing old, faithful duds, my reluctance to replace them with strangers.  Almost a year later, I still remember how each piece felt, how it looked, what it went with.   Some of them I still see in the photographs we salvaged—not always flattering, but a record nonetheless of what I once wore.

Post Sandy: A Home Under Ashes

I should be posting something about the election, putting together my concluding Race 2012 blog post.  I should be reading other people’s posts on the election, clicking on some of those tantalizing titles.  I’m not though.  I can’t write about the election—delighted as I am with the outcome—or about race or body image or identity.   Instead, I’m trying to wrap my mind around this one central fact that’s changed my life, my husband’s and my children’s irrevocably.

A fire destroyed our house.

While we were staying upstate with friends last week, seeking refuge from New Jersey’s widespread Post-Sandy power outage, while we were enjoying the heat, electricity and laundry of our friend’s country home, our own was quietly being consumed by flames.

Our house as it was, photo taken in the Spring of ’06

We’d joked the night before about how lucky we were to be have lost power, forcing us into a splendid weekend getaway at a house in the country by a babbling brook, on acres of gleaming fall foliage.  We’d brunched on French toast, omelets, and espresso, then embarked on an exploration of the town proper, with all its quaint little shops.  I ventured into a consignment store, ogling a pair of wine-colored alligator pumps while my husband took the kids to the book store.  The shoes turned out to be size six—way too small—so I went to rejoin my family.

The kids were reading.  Jon pulled me aside:

“I have to talk to you.”  He’d just gotten off the phone with one of our neighbors who had called about our house.  By this time, it was eleven a.m. Saturday, November 3, 2012.  Smoke was billowing from every orifice of my beloved, raised split-level house, four fire trucks out front.  Our cul de sac, which normally rings with children’s shouts and laughter, was packed with onlookers from the block, all of whom had been ordered to vacate their houses—just in case there was an underground cause that might put the neighboring homes at risk.

Still in our friend’s rural outpost, Jon and I told the children—we had to.  Zoe reacted with loud cries of why?  and no!  and copious tears.  Theo asked a few pointed questions and then asked to use the Kindle for a game.   He had what he liked best, he later explained: his dad, his mom, his sister and best buddies, his favorite stuffed cat, his tennis racket.

Jon drove home to investigate, leaving me and the kids in the country where we’d be safe and warm, where we’d be free to hold onto our images of the house as it once was: whole, comfortable, and well-inhabited by us.  Full—too full—of our stuff.   The unknown: how bad was it?  What—if anything?—was left?—was better certainly than what Jon would face when he arrived.

Back in Montclair, Jon spoke to the fire inspector, who called the cause of the blaze undetermined.  Before we left, we’d blown out all the candles, checked the house twice for stray ones.  We’d had nothing in the fire place for several days.   Besides, it appeared that the blaze had begun in the basement, where nothing had been lit at all.   Then Jon stood with the neighbors and friends and family who had come to meet him, all watching the smoke, still settling, the glass falling all around.

By the time Jon got back upstate, the kids were asleep.  We sat at the table and Jon described what he’d seen: a surreal image of our life.  While the outside of the house looked the same (except for the broken windows), the inside was scorched black throughout.  The dining room had collapsed into the basement.  The kitchen—whose cabinets had been adorned with my children’s artwork—was a charcoal sculpture garden; the living room, much the same.  He could only guess at which belongings might be salvageable.

Questions cropped up as Jon and I talked: where would we stay when we went back?  (We had to go back; I was determined that the kids should start school as soon as it reopened to maintain some form of normalcy.) Where would we live while our house was being repaired?  How long did we think that would take?  The answers to these questions would come in time, as would a quiet resolve on both of our parts to get through this together and keep our kids from feeling the disruption too harshly.

It’s a full week later—that’s how long it’s taken me to post about this.   (Also how long I’ve been totally absent from the blogosphere.)

Here’s our status:  Coping well under the circumstances.  Our house may take over a year to be rebuilt.   Thanks to some good advice, our contractor is an expert in fire damage.  That is of utmost importance, we learned.  If our house were simply repaired and rebuilt, it would forever smell of smoke and mildew from the water that put out the blaze.

Friends are contacting everyone they know to help us find a home to lease in the area while renovations are underway.   In the mean time, we are staying in the home of wonderful, loving friends in our town, who have generously converted the third floor of their house into a suite for our family.  To give you an idea of how this family feels about guests, when we arrived here there were already four other families—whose homes had no heat or electricity—staying with them.  The three year old of the house inaugurates newcomers by having each guest read him a bedtime book.  His favorite is my daughter.  The other children in the home, a boy near my daughter’s age and a girl near my son’s age, are so eager to share their space and things, it is beyond heartwarming to hear the four of them chatting, playing and laughing together.  As for their parents, their mother especially, words cannot describe how much they’ve done for us.    While we’re working out details with the insurance company and contractors, while we’re also looking for a rental house, we have a base where we feel very much at home and are beginning to find a routine.  We are so grateful.

On Wednesday, my kids went off to school carrying new backpacks, filled with school supplies gathered by the school principal and PTA .  Everyone in the town is reaching out, asking how they can help, gathering clothes and shoes for my family.  And I know, many of them are still without heat or power in their homes!  All their kindness has cushioned the blow of this loss.   It’s as if the whole town of Montclair has us enveloped in a big, warm hug.   (THANK YOU ALL!) We are so fortunate to live in this amazing community.

Granted, my heart breaks a little each time I allow myself to imagine the fire itself, especially our three sweet gerbils, Koko, Remy and funny Gemini, the mad sleeve-climber,  who died peacefully in their sleep from carbon monoxide inhalation.  We will remember those rascals fondly.  But our things were just things and not what makes a home a home.   The best news is that Jon and the kids and I are all fine, safe and together.   We are very fortunate.

There are many harder hit than my family—so many homes, property, lives lost in the aftermath of this terrible storm.  Some people have lost their whole communities, living in shelters, no idea of where or when it will end.   The damage, as well the need for aid, is extensive not only in the American Northeast but also in Haiti and other Caribbean countries, where Sandy hit earlier.  Here is a list of organizations offering aid to victims of this disaster.

http://www.pih.org/

http://www.robinhood.org/news/robin-hood-hurricane-sandy-relief-fund-passes-11-million-contributions

http://www1.networkforgood.org/hurricanesandy

http://www.redcross.org/

http://www.directrelief.org/emergency/hurricane-sandy-relief-and-recovery/

For all who are suffering, I wish the kind of support we have.

Rising From the Depths in the name of Bipartisanship

Seaside Heights, NJ Halloween 2012

Reporting from Montclair, New Jersey (which did not get hit as hard as Seaside Heights, shown above):

On my run this morning, the cold sushine revealed huge trees, uprooted, having ripped out yards and yards of pavement.  Yellow police tape draped over dangling power lines, neighbors and dogwalkers, grateful to see one another, embracing, bonding over the no-power experience, laughing with the relief of having survived to see the sunrise.  We’re all managing to stay in touch somehow, finding friends in corners of town with power, who invite us to a “charging-up” get together:  bring your devices, a load of laundry: enjoy a cup of hot coffee, a few hours of heat.  Last night we stayed with friends–which is how I’m able to post this.  On my run, I went to our street to see if PSE&G had turned anything on.  No.  Only the loud hum of someone’s back up generator.

Rumor has it that school won’t be in session until Monday at the earliest.  Though Tuesday is election day–hence no school–and Thursday and Friday are the NJEA teachers conferences, AKA no school.

The kids have been great.  Up at their usual hour, playing with legos, building forts out of the living room furniture, gathering with the kids on the block to scooter around the cul de sac.  They’re all cautioned to STAY OUT OF THE BACK YARDS, many of which are full of downed powerlines.  They listen.  The smallest ones don’t go out without adult supervision anyway.

My friend and I have been ignoring the guidelines about dairy products in non-working refrigerators and using our milk anyway.  It’s still cold–how would it get warm when our homes are cold?–and it smells fine, so we drink and serve it.  Ditto the yogurt.  (Not so the eggs, of course.)

There is a spirit of good will all around, the way disaster often brings people together.  We may be on opposite sides of a contentious election season, but I have extra batteries to share and you’ve just helped move those branches off my driveway and we’ll both write checks for hurricane relief as soon as the postal service resumes.  What we are is human and in this together.  Our hearts break when we hear the stories of people who have lost everything in the floods or fires, the young couple out walking their dog, crushed and killed by a fallen tree.  We do not care whether they were Democrats or Republicans.  We don’t care whether they supported Romney or Obama.

Disaster teaches us to value what we have, to treasure what matters most and to appreciate one another.    The only way to survive, and rebuild in the aftermath is for us all to come together and put aside our differences.

The fact that New Jersey Governer Chris Christie and President Obama have done just this, sets an example for the rest of the country and makes me proud to be an American.  The press is billing this the Jersey “Bromance.”   To me, they’re a little like the Odd Couple: Obama, neat, reserved, fit, if a little too lean these days: Christie: with his shoot-from-the-hip bluster, a bigger-than-life persona and voice to match.  Call the relationship what you will, it is so gratifying after all the partisan us-versus-them mentality of the campaigns, to see these two together, on the same team.  All over the internet are photographs of the Governor and the President shaking hands, sharing a laugh, deep in conversation (where it appears they’re listening to one another), joining in group hugs with citizens whose lives and livlihoods have been compromised by the storm.

Chris Christie, President Obama and FEMA Administrator, W. Craig Fugate (far left) greeting some of my fellow New Jerseyans.

As they tour the state, investigating Sandy’s damage, they have put aside their differences and praised one another, forging a positive working relationship that has some scratching their heads, others breathing a sigh of relief.

Since Obama’s election in 2008, there have been plenty of Republican politicians and pundits whose first priority has been to make him a “One Term President.”  We have just a few days left to see whether or not they have succeeded in making Obama look bad at the expense of the country.  One thing is clear: Chris Christie–despite having been a harsh critic of the president’s in the recent past–is not playing their game, or any other frankly.  He is trying to save his state and the hardworking people in it–as well he should–and to do so, is welcoming the participation of the federal government.  A big faux pas for a Republican possibly seeking higher office come 2016?  Maybe, but I suspect Christie doesn’t care.  I also suspect, and hope, that the average American respects the common-sense joining of forces for the greater good more than petty party loyalty.

There is no doubt that Hurricane Sandy has wreaked havoc on our area, leaving untold tragedy in her wake.  But let there be a sliver of a silver lining to the pain.  As the tristate area cleans up, re-starts and revives, let’s all take a moment to asknowledge the American values of cooperation and partnership.