Finding Normal After the Disaster: Superstorm Sandy
The Aulettos build up what Superstorm Sandy ripped down
October 1, 2013 by Staci Giordullo
As the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy’s devastating trek along the entire Eastern Seaboard approaches later this month, Manahawkin, N.J., residents Elizabeth “BJ” Auletto and her husband, Jimmy, say they’re thankful to finally return home. The Angie’s List members moved back into the home in August after spending the past 10 months recovering from the storm, which left their one-story bungalow, as well as their entire neighborhood, in ruins. “This is a long, long time to be out of your home,” BJ says. “But it’s stronger and it’s beautiful. It’s not my old house, but I believe it’s much safer.”
As the superstorm threatened the Jersey shore, the Aulettos evacuated to their niece’s home 90 miles away in Bridgeton with only a few pieces of clothing, family photos, passports, birth certificates, insurance polices, and their 11-year-old Labrador retriever. Five days later, police removed street blockades and allowed residents to return to their properties, located on an inlet off Manahawkin Bay, less than two hours from New York City.
Driving through the neighborhood — in which all 40 homes overlook water — BJ says it appeared as if the bottom of the bay had risen up and settled on everything in sight. “Everything was covered with this muddy gook,” she says. “It smelled horrible, like dead fish. And when it dried, it became like a hard clay covering the lawn, the steps — just everything. My whole block was devastated.” When they arrived at their doorstep, BJ says they just stared in awe at the destruction — a wave runner and boat sprawled across their yard, parts of two docks splattered in the driveway, and a shed from 10 houses down smashed on top of a telephone pole.
Despite the debris, the exterior of their home remained intact. When they walked inside, BJ says they could tell the waves had washed clear to the top, but the seawater settled about 4 feet deep, steeping their home in mud, sand, grit and grime. “We lost everything — all our belongings, all the furniture,” she says. The couple managed to salvage some clothing after taking it to the neighborhood laundromat, which offered to clean clothes for $1 a pound. “Other than that, we had nothing,” she adds.
The couple started an insurance claim to clean and repair their two-bedroom, one-bath home, and hired highly rated JAL Enterprises, a construction firm owned by Bert Lowerre in Brick, N.J. “We heard so many horror stories from friends about bad contractors who showed up and took their money and never returned,” says BJ, who joined Angie’s List in February to submit a Page of Happiness review on JAL. She advises disaster victims to take time to check a contractor’s references before hiring. “When you’re in a situation like this, finding someone that you can depend on is very important,” she says.
In the months following, Lowerre’s crew stripped the inside of the house, spearheaded mold remediation, replaced the siding and reconstructed the interior. “Rebuilding is double the work compared to new construction,” Lowerre says. “You have to dismantle everything and bring everything up to code. For the homeowner, you only get so much insurance money and you have to decide what you want, whether it’s better curb appeal or structural changes to the home.”
Lowerre says many homes destroyed by Sandy were constructed with materials not rated for hurricanes. He rebuilt the Aulettos’ home using hurricane-resistant materials, such as reinforced walls and steel hurricane clips on the rafters and floor joists. The Aulettos say they plan to spend the rest of their lives in the home, so the rebuilding process also offered an opportunity to add central heat and A/C, all of which totaled about $15,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
The biggest change to the bungalow involved placing it on 8-foot wooden pilings to comply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood zone for their area. The couple considers themselves fortunate — and advise others to do the same — to have purchased a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program, which covered all of the water damage. NFIP policyholders also are eligible for up to $30,000 to help pay the costs of complying with the flood plain ordinance. In the Aulettos’ case, the money helped to defray the $41,000 cost of lifting their home onto the pilings.
Andres Hernandez, owner of Builders22 in Surf City, N.J., says he’s rebuilding 12 storm-ravaged homes in the area, and raising six, including the Aulettos’. The lift, done just inches at a time, takes about 12 hours and involves six men. Once the house is lifted and moved forward, a crew of three men install the pilings in one day. Then, it takes another 12 hours to lift the house onto the pilings. Hernandez cautions homeowners to be wary of contractors who request large deposits. “When you get someone asking for a high deposit, you know something is wrong,” he says, adding that no regulations exist for deposits on construction projects in New Jersey.
Looking back, BJ says no one can truly be prepared for such a catastrophe. “We learned as we went, we educated ourselves,” she says, and advises other homeowners to keep abreast of the latest regulations, procedures, ordinances and codes for their neighborhoods. “We made sure to stay in contact with FEMA and we asked a lot of questions.”
The Aulettos expect their $190,000 home to increase in value, thanks to the lift and hurricane proofing. “Even with the 15 steps to get upstairs now, I’m higher and I can see much more of the water,” BJ says. “It’s a very nice view. We have a nice deck out back. My kitchen is just beautiful.”
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