You can’t even imagine what it’s like to take a shower in your own home, she said while seated at a table that folds up for easy storage. When the new hot water heater was installed in her home and the bathroom made available for showers for the first time in six months, it’s things like that, she said, that make you appreciate what you’ve really got.
Jennifer Russell’s life currently is very much about the small victories. Her family gets to eat dinner together every night. She’s been able to reconnect with friends from high school she hasn’t spoken to, in some cases, for more than two decades. And her parents’ home, despite having been gutted is on its way to being rebuilt.
She remains hopeful, said her family remains hopeful, even after Hurricane Sandy forced them from their Maria Drive home in Toms River into an RV parked in the driveway. The three of them live together in the 30-foot long mobile home along with their pets – two dogs and a cat. There – she pointed to the front of the vehicle – is where her parents sleep. A few strides in the opposite direction is her domain. It’s tight quarters, to be sure, but it’s what they’ve got and it’ll do.
“It’s a little bit cramped, but we’re together,” she said. “We just make due with what we have. This whole situation, it’s kind of put things into perspective. We each have our moments now and then, but we love each other, we need each other for support.”
From the window in the pop out section of the RV that serves as both living room and dining room, Russell can keep an eye on the house and the progress being made inside. It’s taken some time, she said. Like many families surviving with similar circumstances, insurance payouts came slow, and when they did come in they came in much lower than her family had anticipated.
With the bank holding on to the claim and the Russells unable to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for immediate repairs, the delay stretched from weeks into months. Things are shaping up. The new hot water heater is one thing. The first time Russell said she was able to take a shower inside, even though the rest of the single story home was stripped to the studs, felt like a homecoming.
Now, the insulation has been installed and covered with sheet rock. As the money continues to trickle out from the bank they’ll set about rebuilding the kitchen and painting the walls. Legitimately, the family is probably still several weeks from moving back in, but when it comes to counting down weeks after already facing months, it doesn’t seem so long now.
“People all around us are still struggling on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “We are thankful for the perspective we have now.”
In some ways, Russell even sees the events that lead up to and followed Sandy as a blessing.
Needing a change, Russell moved back into her parents’ Toms River home on Maria Drive in the middle of October. It was good timing, she thought. With her mother recovering from back surgery and her father busy working, she would have the opportunity to lend a hand, reconnect.
Two weeks later, with her dad out working in the school district preparing for the storm, Russell and her mother abandoned their home as surging water poured down the street. What’s surprising, she said, as she described their escape along with two other couple’s into a neighbor’s home with a second floor, was just how fast the water came. With every step the level rose, the water coming not from the canal behind the house, but from a breach down the road none of them could see.
Before they could assess the damage the morning following the storm, they were rescued, the six of them along with four dogs and two cats all sitting in a front loader and being carried down the debris-strew street. Despite the devastation, Russell said she was glad to be there in that moment.
The months that followed weren’t easy. The RV was a generous loan but wasn’t made until the end of February. For the four months before it became available, the Russells lived like a lot of families devastated by Sandy: couch-surfing nomads constantly looking for another place to stay, frustrated by their predicament, worried about wearing out their welcome, and embarrassed at needing to ask for help and for so long.
The situation could have been much worse, she said, if not for the outpouring of support she and many of Sandy’s victims have received since the storm. It’s been seeing the overwhelming generosity of spirit in the wake of tragedy, that, she said, has been the most heartening reality in the months that have followed Hurricane Sandy.
When the Russells needed a place to stay, friends volunteered their homes. Someone to talk to was always just a phone call away. When they needed help cleaning up their home after the storm, they were greeted by acquaintances they hadn’t seen in years.
“I just put a message out on Facebook and people came out in droves,” she said. “People I hadn’t seen since high school just showed up to help.”
Soon, the Russells will leave their cramped quarters for their home. What happens then remains to be seen. Current Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps put their home right in the V Zone, meaning they’ll likely have to elevate or face significant flood insurance premiums if things don’t change.
“It’s really sad for me to see what my parents are facing. They can’t afford to raise their house, can’t afford not to,” she said. “Right now they’re focusing on the minute-by-minute stuff. They’re fighting the small battles, the ones they can actually put up a fight against.”
Right now they’re fighting for the small victories.