Advice from Superstorm Sandy survivors: ‘Document everything’

 FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2013 photo, the sun rises in Seaside Heights, N.J., behind the Jet Star Roller Coaster which fell into the ocean during Superstorm Sandy. In May 2013 it was dismantled and removed. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2013 photo, the sun rises in Seaside Heights, N.J., behind the Jet Star Roller Coaster which fell into the ocean during Superstorm Sandy. In May 2013 it was dismantled and removed. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

New Jerseyans who survived Hurricane Sandy five years ago have watched heartbroken as scenes of devastation have unfolded in Houston and beyond from Hurricane Harvey, and with dread as Hurricane Irma closed in on south Florida.

While Texas continue to recover from Harvey’s overwhelming drenching, Irma devastated a huge area of Florida. As the downgraded storm continued north, thousands were without power, with serious flooding from Miami to Jacksonville, and enormous damage reported in the Florida Keys.

Some Sandy survivors have loaded trucks with supplies and plan to set off to help. They also have some hard advice for those coming back to flood-damaged homes as the water recedes.

The “storm after the storm”

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“I’d tell people coming home that it is as bad as you think, and it’s going to get worse,” said Joe Mangino of Beach Haven West in Stafford Township, an area slammed by Sandy’s storm surge. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it.”

Mangino, and many others, talked of the storm after the storm, the grinding process of grant applications, fighting with insurance companies, dealing with remediation crews and contractors and innumerable other details at an already difficult time. He said he did not want people to give up hope, and spoke of the strength he found in his community, but said there is no getting around the fact that rebuilding after a storm takes enormous dedication, and far longer than anyone looking at their still soggy home wants to contemplate.

“It takes so long, and every step of the way is a struggle and a fight,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. The one thing you do is celebrate the small milestones.” For instance, his family held a party when the new electricity meter was installed at their house.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Mangino helped organize the New Jersey Organizing Project, a citizen’s organization that advocates for storm victims, and a group called START, or Stafford Teachers And Residents Together, which helped meet immediate needs in his neighborhood and his community. His wife is an educator, and people she works with came by two days after the storm to help him tear out the sodden drywall. His gutted, storm damaged house became an organizing center for food and supplies soon after the storm, feeding people and making sure their immediate needs were met.”That helped me cope with everything that was happening,” he said.

On Labor Day, he set off for Texas with a truck full of supplies with other volunteers to help with the cleanup in Houston, joining a growing fleet of aid heading south.

Hidden dangers

The nation watched, transfixed, as an armada of private boat owners ventured into Houston’s deluged streets to try to rescue strangers, in what’s been described as an American version of Dunkirk. The danger was clear, and visceral. As the water recedes, Amanda Devecka-Rinear warns, dangers remain. She’s the director of NJOP, the group Mangino helped found.

“Mold is really dangerous,” she said. It can grow on wood, drywall and furniture that has been immersed. People should wear face masks, and be prepared to throw out almost anything touched by flood waters.

That includes cutting out drywall well above the water line, and removing any insulation that got wet. The Red Cross says mattresses, carpets and anything else that absorbs water must be thrown out.

Gas and power lines may also be damaged. The Red Cross also says those returning after a flood should turn off the power to their homes until a professional can inspect them. Expect the demand to be high, so it can take days or even weeks to get a qualified electrician on site after the storm.

As soon as possible, reach out to your insurance company. Depending on the situation, they may want an adjuster to make an inspection before any repairs begin, or when there is extensive, widespread damage as in Texas and Florida this year, they may accept photos showing the damage. Those who’ve been through the process stress the need to document all damage. Owners should also take steps to avoid further damage, like putting tarps where a roof has been damaged or a window broken.

Take a break from it

With an overwhelming to-do list, people should make sure they are taking care of themselves.

“People need to pay attention to their health right now,” said Devecka-Rinear. “There’s about to be an uptick in strokes and heart attacks.”

In every blizzard, the television meteorologist warns about overexertion and the threat of heart attacks from shoveling snow, but storm survivors often feel that they should just keep pushing through, to work that much harder to see themselves and their families through the crisis.

But as Mangino pointed out, the crisis is not short term.

Psychological trauma

In addition to the physical strain, the psychological impact can be intense. And it hits different people in different ways, sometimes when they least expect it.

“Keep an eye on family members,” suggests Frank Donato, Ocean City’s emergency management coordinator. “Going through a traumatic event like that, everybody processes things differently. Check in on friends and family to make sure they properly decompress.”

In Ocean City, New Jersey, Donato helps train people to be part of the Community Emergency Response Team, based on the guidelines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One class is called disaster psychology. “It’s extremely important to make sure everybody’s mental health is being checked on.”

This becomes more important, not less, as the days and weeks wear on. Donato said each person reacts in his or her own way, and the intensity of the feelings can sometimes surprise people long after the storm.

“Some wear it on their sleeves, some push it down. Everybody has their own way of coping,” Donator said.

“I’d tell people that you’re going to feel all kinds of things, and that’s OK. You should get support from people you trust and love, because that stress is really hard,” said Devecka-Rinear. ” The worst part is, and I hate to say this, their trouble is just getting started.”

Document everything

In Mystic Island, a waterfront community at the mouth of the Mullica River in Little Egg Harbor Township, Jody Stewart evacuated at close to the last minute as Superstorm Sandy bore down on the Jersey Coast.

It’s a good thing she did. She had 40 inches of water in her home, and when the storm was at its worst, she would have been out of the reach of emergency services. She’s now back home, in what she describes as “just a small little house” where she’s lived since 1989. But she describes getting there as a grueling process.

“I’ve been home for two years now. I was lucky,” she said. But she’s still fighting about a grant she received to help lift her home, and described the five years since Sandy as hellish. Those who’ve been through a storm look at news coverage of other storms differently.

“My heart breaks for everybody down there right now,” she said.

She had pragmatic advice for those starting to clean up. She, too, said to be careful with your health, and wear gloves and a mask for the cleanup. But don’t forget to document everything, both for insurance, and for potential aid programs.

“Take pictures of everything you own, inside your house and outside,” she said.

As survivors start to apply for help, through state or federal programs or filing insurance claims, it remains important to keep records, she said. The more detailed the better. And don’t be surprised if the rules seem to change while you’re applying for aid. Other survivors suggested also documenting every conversation with insurance companies, relief organizations and government officials.

“You’re probably freaking out. But you have to get organized. You have to document everything,. Keep your head straight. The stories may change every day,” she said.

But don’t give in to despair, she added.

“It’s been five years now, and some of us are still going through it. You may want to fall apart and just give up, but it really can get better.”

Organize in the community

Part of things getting better is getting organized and making them better, according to Devecka-Rinear.

“People have to make sure that recovery programs actually work for them and their family,” she said. Some aid organizations and a few politicians were wonderful after Sandy, she said, but as she put it, her group had to fight Gov. Chris Christie “tooth and nail” to get the help people needed.

“You’re the one on the ground. You know what you need, but you’re going to have to fight to get it. But you will be able to do that. That’s the most important thing,” she said.

She, and others, said people in disaster-hit communities have to stick together, and realize they are not helpless. They have more power than the realize.

“The fundamental thing they need to know: There are moments when they’ll think, I wish someone would come along and make this all better. They need to understand that they are that someone,” she said.

Devecka-Rinear and others from NJOP visited New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city.

“We were so lucky to meet with Katrina survivors,” she said. The city was much different than the Jersey coast, in terms of the infrastructure, the demographics, the climate and more. But there were patterns in common, she said. For one thing, marginalized communities, including immigrants, African Americans and those in poor communities, had to fight just that much harder to get home after a storm.

Also, she said, the tourist areas were rebuilt the fastest, and the contractors tended to make out a lot better from the various aid programs and grants than did the communities they were working to rebuild.

But the main lesson she took from Katrina to Sandy?

“Universally, people have to fight to get home.”

Warning: vultures circling

“Right after the storm, it’s pretty straightforward. You have to gut your home, and try to save what can be saved, and you have to be ready for the vultures,” Mangino said.

Stewart warned against giving any contractor much money up front. Even crews with a good reputation, and contractors she investigated, took a deposit and disappeared. People who just want someone to make it all better can make for easy pickings.

For storm remediation crews, there is a wave of work after the storm. That means even the best companies hire almost anyone who can swing a hammer to do demolition work. In the rush to get things done, that can mean anything from wrecking things that don’t need wrecking to theft.

For those with flood insurance, one immediate decision will be whether or not to hire a public adjuster, someone who will advocate for a better settlement in exchange for a percentage of the payout. Many insurance companies advise against using a public adjuster, but some storm survivors say they ended up with a much better deal having a professional in their corner.

But as New Jersey’s barrier islands opened back up after Sandy and residents and homeowners began the long cleanup, adjusters were going door-to-door, making deals and looking for a signature right away. For someone looking at extensive damage, they could seem like the white knight coming to the rescue, but the deals varied widely from adjuster to adjuster, and even from house to house with the same adjuster, with some asking for 15 percent of the final settlement or more.

For donors, this is not a time to empty your closet

Throughout New Jersey and around the country, communities are gathering supplies and donations to send to east Texas and other areas hit hard by Harvey. A fresh drive for those slammed by Irma is likely to get under way this week. In Ocean City, New Jersey, local companies gathered truckloads of toiletries, new socks and underwear, diapers and cleaning supplies to take south.

Mangino planned to bring cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products, as well as demolition gear.

But as one Ocean City storm survivor put it, find out what people actually need before donating stuff you don’t want anymore. Her experience included a well-meaning but tone-deaf attempt to donate a truly hideous sofa, a donation made all the more troubling because she was out of her house while repairs continued. Mangino said after Sandy, his group received donations of high heeled shoes and prom dresses, which were not immediately useful in a disaster area, and after Hurricane Andrew slammed south Florida in 1992, truckloads of winter coats, sweaters and other gear from around the country ended up piled in parking lots, useless in that sub-tropical climate.Most experts suggest cash donations are likely to be the most helpful after a storm.

Don’t cut corners

Ocean City’s Donato said because Houston is not in a flood zone, and therefore few people are required to carry flood insurance, only about 20 percent of those hit have flood coverage, and homeowners insurance typically won’t cover any flood damage.As Michael McMahon of the McMahon Insurance Agency pointed out in an earlier interview, homes across the country are more likely to be damaged by flood than fire, but almost everyone carries fire coverage, but few take flood policies unless they are required to.

In Houston and the surrounding areas, that’s going to mean many owners have to go into debt or dig deep to cover remediation and repairs. Donato said that may lead some to try to do things as cheaply as possible. Don’t, he said.

“They may not properly dry things out that got wet. That can cause a hazard from mold, and fire hazards from electrical systems,” he said. “If the electrical elements got wet, you have to be careful.”

There are a number of potential hazards, even from pilot lights for gas ovens. He said some appliances require a professional to relight, and to make sure there are no gas leaks.For Mangino, there were two big steps toward returning home, first fixing the immediate damage from flood water, then lifting his house with funding from New Jersey’s RREM program, which stands for Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation.Immediately after the storm, he and his family camped in their house, with no electricity or water. For that first round of remediation, making his home livable again, he, his wife, their two young children and two cats stayed in one room of a friend’s house for seven months.”If we didn’t kill each other then, we never will,” he said.

They were back out for the house lifting portion. “It was supposed to take 90 days. It took over a year,” he said. Through the process, he’s tried to give the kids a normal life, but the storm destroyed his business as well as his home. Recovery continues. Don’t give up hope, he said.


Editor’s note: Readers who saw this story on Jersey Shore Hurricane News, one of New Jersey’s most popular Facebook’s websites, offered additional advice to all hurricane victims. I thought I’d share some of their comments with you. To read all of the comments visit the Facebook post.

Erika Balestro Desimone don’t listen to everyone ready to doom and gloom your entire life. You can and WILL move on and recover! Start at the beginning. Document all damage. Photos from every angle. Register for FEMA assistance right away so you are on their radar. Work with your neighbors— band together with knowledge, have meetings and share resources with regard to insurance, contractors, mold remediation and cleanup. Set up community Facebook pages for FAQ’s and comments. Don’t get taken for a ride by people offering to do work. Use referred businesses, not fly by night contractors looking to take money and run. NEVER pay for a job in full until ALL the work is completed. If your home was not damaged structurally but you have mold growth— consider cleaning up on your own, wash down with bleach, and rent a mold machine from Home Depot. It utilizes a solution and essentially gasses your rooms with a fine mist of mold-killing spray and really takes care of the growth and kills it off. Remember that mold can discolor wood and surfaces, it may not be alive just because you see it and can’t clean it off.

Pamela Martin FIRST: Pictures! Of everything before it goes to the curb. And pictures of everything after it goes to curb. Then use those pictures to make your insurance list. SECOND: Let go of your feeling of loss. Wedding albums, love letters, kid’s crafts are important. But the very best memories reside in your heart. Cherish those memories. And cherish the here and now. Can’t change it. So take a deep breath and move forward. A wonderful future awaits you – if you let it! 

Christina O’Leary Yes, document everything for sure!! And hire a private adjuster. Biggest mistake we made was using someone FEMA assigned. Sending sympathy for all who have to deal with insurance companies and FEMA! It’s gonna be a tough heartbreaking road ahead. 

Adele Amato Tamburo I am still not completely settled since Sandy it will be 5 years next month. Apply for everything offered you will need it. It does get better, I am now in an almost new home that was raised 9 feet and I have an Ocean and Lake view from my top floor. Glass half full. Good luck and God bless.

Gina Campo Save all receipts and invoices. Take photos. Keep records of repairs and document everyone you speak to regarding recovery. Do not pay in cash. Do not trust all contractors. Try to hire local and do due diligence on anyone you hire.

David Cassiere Hire a Private Adjuster. Yes there’s a fee, but with thousands at stake, you need a pro to deal with the Insurance Companies. Best money we spent, our Adjuster did a great job. Don’t give up, fight to restore what you lost.

Sunni Genovese Just remember… DON’T LIE like so many Sandy “victims” did. Claiming second homes as primary, losing that $1 mil painting. NJ takes the lead in fraud right behind New Orleans.

Molly Burwell Heaney Get battery back up for your phone. Video everything even if just for record of audio — it’s stressful. You may forget things, others could deny they said. Document. Keep logbooks of conversation in a bound book or composition book.

Delia Coleman Graziano Acceptance of possible total loss and be prepared to move on…my elderly parents had to with their Brigantine home during Sandy…be realistic of what may or may not be recouped…accept help offered from loved ones..neighbors and your church or synagogue.

Grace Oehlmann Hold on for the rollercoaster ride. Agree document everything. Keep files. Apply for everything and give them everything they want 4 times. You can’t sweat what you lost. They are only things. You will be better at the end. You will come out the other side. Persevere. And keep moving forward even when it’s tiny steps they are in the right direction and God bless you

Amy Pepin DeRosa Apply for everything even if you don’t think you qualify,and take a deep breath ,it will be a long struggle,get keep a file box(or 2)for all of the many papers you will be filling out ,contact home owners asap

Jodi Acker Weiss Trying to find out all the grants given away was a nightmare, never knew what was out there.

Dolores Dragan Be a community, stay connected to each other and let there be no strangers. Everyone needs help. Our country has been divided since the last election because of the hatred that was preached….now is our chance to show who we are, we are better than that. We can child a better home and a better community by reaching out across lines of religion, race, legal, illegal….we need each other.

Maryann Leonardi Don’t take first offer from FEMA flood or hurricane insurance. You have to be sure All work can be done for that price! If you don’t have contents insurance try to save wood furnishings and possibly some metal. Special cleaners work as long as you work fast. And finally don’t rush to elevate. Check into demolishing and rebuilding even a modular is good. We made many mistakes and would have torn down if we knew elevation problems and swindlers!

David Gersic Watch out for the construction scammers, shoddy workmanship, and general incompetence. Whoever you hire, make sure you understand the contract, only pay for accomplished work, don’t pre-pay for anything you can’t touch, and watch them like a hawk.

Jana Kaplan Move to higher ground. Take the loss and move forward. Do not wait for FEMA or insurance companies. Make your own path. You will be happier that way.

Lette Magrini Please use reputable contractors!! The ones who have been in business LOCALLY for a while!! I know a number of Sandy victims that were scammed by sweet talking con artists- THOUSANDS of dollars lost when they up and disappeared! Good luck!

Annie Moore It’s a new beginning. Stay strong & positive. Document everything & everyone you speak too. Call everyday for assistance with FEMA & insurance. Pay attention to who comes around & who you hire. Don’t be bullied into anything & stand your ground. It will get brighter each day I promise you.

Carol Bruce Shaw Watch out for unscrupulous companies who swoop in to make a quick buck and do lousy work. Try as best you can to work with reliable and honest tradespeople.

Stuart Young Keep the faith AND know that the religious organizations will be there until job is done. They’ll come back in waves!!

Elisa Stein Strow Don’t hire a public adjuster. They ripped us of. My husband ended up doing all the work himself after they collected 10%.

Mike Roche If you are able to, get a good insurance adjuster to help with your claims. Other than that just go one day at a time.

Sunny Esms Aside from the physical damage, take care of yourselves and each other to get through the grief and trauma. <3

Beth Lane Advice take pictures of all your paperwork. With your phone etc. Extra in case something happens to originals. Make many copies of paperwork if they say they didn’t get it.

Pat Chrebet Murphy NEVER GIVE UP!! FIGHT THE FIGHT!! Too many people walked away from their homes. DON”T GIVE A LARGE DEPOSIT ON ANY WORK YOU GET DONE. THERE ARE RIP OFFS OUT THERE. I signed my contract to raise with $100 down!! Installments!! There is always help! Ask!

Larry Guerriero Lmao. New Jersey people giving Florida People advice on hurricanes.

Mark Alessi Be prepared to be screwed any way that the insurance company can as they are heartless

James Bohan Pictures pictures pictures, document everything

Ben Scasserra Don’t rely on the Red Cross. Make sure the money you get was or wasn’t a loan!

Carol Davis Photos, photos, photos, document, documents, and do it more. Don’t take no for an answer from insurance, apply for every I mean every grant.

Robert Nolan Be ready for a lot of days off to do paper about 30 for me

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