Ghost Town Greets Residents Returning to New Jersey Barrier Islands After Sandy

Emily Belz | WORLD Magazine | Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Ghost Town Greets Residents Returning to New Jersey Barrier Islands After Sandy

Ghost Town Greets Residents Returning to New Jersey Barrier Islands After Sandy

(WNS) -- Natalie Zozzaro is so tired, when she falls asleep at night she feels like she is going unconscious.

Last week, the state began allowing homeowners back on New Jersey’s destroyed barrier islands to do cleanup on their homes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Zozzaro took off work as a therapist at a school for the disabled, and every day she drives an hour and a half north from her brother’s house, where she has been staying, to the house she shares with her mother in Seaside Park. She cleans and trashes all day, and her boyfriend Dave McKay and her brother Jim Zozzaro join whenever they can. It’s been all-consuming: “I don’t even know what time the Giants [football] game is,” Dave said.

When the police come around at 3 p.m. to kick everyone off the island, Natalie drives another half hour north to the hospital where her mother is recovering from heart surgery (see "On the front lines," Nov. 20). Then she and Jim drive two hours back to his home. Then they do it all over again the next day. The last couple days were harder because their mother was admitted to the intensive care unit. The family has set up a rotation to be with her at all times, but she might be transferred to a hospital farther away. 

Thousands of people like Natalie have a home but no home after Superstorm Sandy. The strict curfews are likely to continue for some time, with the gas company predicting that its service would not be functioning in Seaside Park until the end of December. The storm caused extensive infrastructure damage to the islands, especially to the gas lines. 

The local police have checkpoints onto the islands, so only residents and contractors with special permits can enter. Because of these restrictions, the Jersey barrier islands have been uniquely cut off from the rest of the ongoing relief efforts. 

Natalie drove past the checkpoints, over a bridge, and onto empty, quiet streets. Police guarded the edges of town, as copper thieves had snuck in and looted earlier. One Salvation Army truck puttered around the town offering hot drinks and cleaning supplies. It was a stark contrast to the hard-hit neighborhoods in Staten Island, N.Y., for example, where the blocks were buzzing with National Guardsmen, police, relief workers, and church volunteers helping residents dig out. 

On the side of Seaside Park facing the bay, house after house after house displayed the red “condemned” sticker. One house’s porch dangled off the front, another had the bottom half kicked out from under it, many others had gaping holes where rooms used to be.

“Yeah, this one is condemned,” Natalie pointed. “There are just so many.”

The boardwalk is broken in pieces. But Seaside Park wasn’t hit as hard as some of the other barrier towns because it has tall dunes protecting the oceanfront. 

Earthmovers worked the beachfront. The storm washed sand onto the first block of houses, filling up sidewalks like snow after a blizzard. An elderly man repaired his roof. The few neighbors there jawed about what work they have left to do. The homeowners were mostly upbeat, happy to be alive. But Natalie said some weren’t ever coming back. 

When Natalie arrived at her house, she first opened all the windows -- despite a moldy house she had to lock them because of the threat of looters. Then she gunned up the generator, which had a web of cords running from it to fans and dehumidifiers around the house. She checked on the “drying room,” where she had laid out soaked photo albums and yearbooks in front of fans in hoping to salvage them to the point that she could at least scan them into digital files. Then she continued doing what she had done all week, hauling possessions soggy with contaminated water to the curb. Earlier in the week her boyfriend Dave heroically climbed into the crawlspace under the house to pull out soaked insulation. The Zozzaros had flood and homeowners insurance on their house, which covers some of the damage, but Natalie discovered after the fact that their policy has a hurricane rider that doubles their deductible. 

“We’d be better off without insurance,” she said, because she could access more benefits through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and relief groups.

One room was virtually untouched by the floodwaters -- Cameron’s room. Cameron is a 19-year-old with cerebral palsy whom Natalie and her mother have raised. His art and photos of him are plastered all over the house. The Zozzaros have a special beach chair for Cameron’s needs and a special bicycle where he can sit in the front and Natalie does the pedaling from behind. But Cameron’s biological parents have reentered his life and since July asked the Zozzaros to step back from contact with him. It’s killing both Natalie and her mother, who asked to see him in the hospital. 

“My mom and my sister -- Cameron is their life,” said Jim, who is the interim pastor at Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Seaside Park.

On Friday, Natalie carefully packed up Cameron’s stuffed animals, books, and his Halloween costume from last year. It was the first time she looked really sad. She said she was glad Halloween was canceled this year because of the storm. “I want all holidays to be canceled until I get him back,” she said. She hoped his wheelchairs and bikes, all worth thousands of dollars, would be salvageable.

Dave described his girlfriend Natalie as “tough,” and that characteristic comes out in her unfailing optimism. As we were leaving the island we drove past a new landfill, many stories tall, of Sandy wreckage. If the islands get a lot of snow this winter, “it’d be a great sledding hill,” she said.

As Natalie left the island, she switched to what she calls “hospital mode.” She has to drive north to go check on her mother in the ICU. When word came that the hospital might have to transfer her, even farther away, Natalie said something that might sound pat but isn’t coming from someone who has suffered: “I might have been more upset about losing stuff if I hadn’t had such a crazy summer. I’ve learned that God’s plan is better than mine.”

c. 2012 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: November 27, 2012