Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lessons from the Storm

What I Learned from Super-Storm Sandy

Super-Storm Sandy was two years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Monday night and we were safe at home together, my husband Al, daughters Christina and Debbie, and our grandson Gio. We just finished dinner when Debbie noticed a flash of light. We rushed to the front of the house and saw this. It is hard to see because it was so bright, but an electrical line had come down in front of our driveway, and the sparks were flying up right next to the tree that hangs over our house. We called 911 multiple times but the fire trucks did not come. My husband, of course, was enjoying this show, not at all worried but us girls were screaming like middle-schoolers. Both the front and side doors were blocked by the sparks so we decided if the house caught on fire, we would jump out a side window. “What do we do, mom?” they asked me, as if I knew. I had no idea. The firemen were supposed to come and save us, and where were they?? I told them to put on their shoes and jackets and put their pocketbooks on their arms so just in case the house caught on fire and we had to jump out the window, we were ready. It was amazing how quickly they did what I said, especially since, as 20-somethings, both are usually reluctant to take my advice.

Turns out our house did not burn down and the electrical fire went out by itself when the storm took out all the electricity on our block. In the light of day, as we walked up our dead end street, we discovered why the firemen never arrived. A huge tree had fallen across the street, blocking it. Turned out the downed tree was a good thing: it put us on the top of the list of repairs and our electricity was only out for hours and not days as many people had to endure.

Perhaps you have your own story of that storm and the aftermath: weeks of electricity outage, lost days at work, rotting food, endless gasoline lines, family or friends camping at your house, or maybe you were camping at theirs.

But our Super Storm Sandy story did not end there. As a matter of fact it continues on today. But before I explain that part, let me fill you in on some family history. About 30 years ago, my husband bought a beach cottage with his dad as a family get-away/investment. It is in a small beach resort community called Ocean Beach Unit 3. It is tucked away on a tiny sliver of land, two blocks wide. Our cottage is a half block from the bay and a block and a half from the ocean. Located in between Point Pleasant and Mantoloking to the north and Ortley Beach and Seaside Heights to the south, it is a community of mostly two bedroom homes, about the size of a big two car garage, but location-location-location, as they say. It was wonderful place to get together with family and raise our daughters.  Every summer we would pack everything we could fit into our car, drive down right after school was out in June and we would return the day after Labor Day. My daughters made great friends and we all have delightful memories.

Because our home was so close to two large bodies of water, I always had the thought in my mind that it was only a matter of time before a storm would come and blow our home away. But years went by. We survived several devastating storms, and although we had neighbors closer to the water whose homes had flooded, our cottage stayed dry.  So we were lulled into a false sense of security.

It was the summer of 2011 when my husband opened the flood insurance bill and announced “we can’t afford to pay this.” But we no longer had a mortgage and we were not obligated to keep it so I told him, don’t pay it. A month later, Governor Christy was on TV evacuating the shore communities for Hurricane Irene. Our daughters were at the beach with friends at the time and called us, “What do we do, mom?” I had no idea. It was too late to pay the flood insurance bill now.  I told them to put everything inside the house, lift everything from the floor they could. “Take home everything you ever want to see again,” I told them, “because when this is over, the house might just be swept away. And come home right now!”          

Again we survived Irene with no damage at all. So the following year, when Governor Christy was again talking about evacuating for a storm named Sandy, we were not overly concerned. We had a busy weekend planned, including a wedding, so when someone volunteered to check on and close up our beach cottage, we welcomed the opportunity not to go down ourselves. After all, we had escaped unscathed up to this point. How bad could this storm be?

After Super Storm Sandy was over and the electricity came back on here in Bloomfield, we were glued to the TV. And as we watched the live feed of the aerial videos of the Jersey shore, we began to realize the extent of the devastation. The peninsula where our beach house was had been turned into an island. The ocean met the bay and created a new inlet at Mantoloking to the north of us, and water had also swept away most of Seaside and Ortley to the south, cutting off both ways onto the island. We hoped, we prayed that somehow our home had been spared but we could not be sure. The more photos and videos we saw, the more our hopes crumbled and we began to fear the worst.

It was 25 days later, the day after Thanksgiving, when Al, Christina, her boyfriend Mike, and I waited in line for 3 hours, crawling in traffic, to get onto the island to see our home. Everywhere we looked the damage was breath-taking. We found our home, still standing, but water had come in, to the tune of about 19 inches. There was still water in the dresser drawers, the oven, the refrigerator, the pots and pans. Everything felt wet and smelled foul. The lion’s share of our furniture, all the mattresses and any electrical items were carried out of the house to the curb. The shell of our home that remained was covered with sludge from the bay and sewer water.  The entire island had no electricity, no gas, no water and no sewer. The island was under Marshall Law and everyone had to leave before dark. During the following week after the first visit to our wet moldy house, Christina developed bronchitis. 

It was overwhelming. We had no flood insurance and FEMA assistance was not offered those owning secondary homes, which is totally understandable. Any work we had to do, we had to do ourselves. Everyone we talked to was frantic about the mold that festered in the homes left wet for weeks. Winter was coming with no running water, heat or electricity for miles. And my family, who does great when we vacation together, tends to bicker and procrastinate when doing family projects together. Which was why we never did family projects together. But we could not walk away from this project. We all loved our beach house too much.

So we began to work and pray. We prayed for provision and God gave us dear generous friends who provided funds for the many things we had to purchase. My frugal husband had unspent money stashed away in his underwear drawer that I started counting in desperation and we discovered much more than we thought. We prayed for wisdom about how to remove the mold, and made many day trips to the beach with containers of water, bottles of bleach, masks, and endless pairs of plastic gloves.

We prayed for strength and the Lord provided us with Mike who was our hero. Mike took supplies back and forth for us in his truck, found a gently used stove just the right size, ripped out walls, put up sheet rock, and most importantly, encouraged my husband to keep working when he would have procrastinated and given up.  Christina, Debbie, and Mike went down on their own to clean the muck, remove the ruined flooring, carry out a soggy cabinet, and dispose of the old refrigerator full of rotting food.

Work at the beach house was depressing and exhausting. We had to carry in water to drink and water for cleaning, a generator for electricity, a propane heater for warmth, and a pot to pee in, literally. There was no place to buy supplies or lunch on the island, and no clean place to eat. We had to eat in our cars. We could only stay during daylight, and afterwards made the long trip home, filthy dirty and totally drained.  We found we not only had to repair what the storm damaged, but ripping down our walls revealed other rotted areas of our cottage we had to rebuild.

I prayed most of all that our family would not come to blows on this project, because truth be told, my husband is stubborn and I am controlling. He is talented in fixing things but wants to put them back together with wire and duct tape. He struggles to finish projects so there is always that piece that is not quite done yet. I prayed I would be patient and gentle with him and my daughters, because in the fear and fray of all that needed to be done, I knew it was my default to be a screaming ranting shrew. In the end I did not want to have a repaired home and a torn apart family. And the Lord in His mercy helped me to do that.

Little by little our house came back together and we were so grateful to  be back in our beach cottage by the time the summer season started in 2013, but the battered houses were still everywhere. On the news we saw the ads stating “Jersey, Stronger Than the Storm”. I understand the governor was trying to encourage people to come to the shore communities because the businesses were hurting but the sentiment did not coincide with what I saw. Stronger than the storm? Really? To see all these sights in person, and remember what it was before, did something to my soul. Suddenly I saw, up close and personal, the power of nature.   That first summer after Sandy, walking in the area gave me nightmares. All of these photos, we took our selves in our community within walking distance from our cottage.   Our beach community, a haven of peace and joy for our family for decades, suddenly became a horror, totally devastated, a natural disaster.       

We think we are smart enough and strong enough for anything. And we just are not. We are fragile. What we build is fragile. Your world and everything in it could all get blown away in a moment. My world did.  Staying at the shore that first summer was sad and scary and humbling. It was like visiting a dear sick friend.

Two years have passed since the storm of the century. Al and I were at the cottage earlier this month, taking more photos and we are still working on parts in our cottage left undone, but at least we have a home we can sleep in. Some families are still fighting with insurance companies to pay and others with builders to finish constructing their new homes, like our friend house.  There are homes half done. There are shells of homes, gutted and empty. There are vacant lots.  There’s construction in the streets and enormous trucks and dumpsters everywhere.  Labor Day ended the “stay pretty for the tourists” pause and the frantic pace of rebuilding had started again. Super Storm Sandy is long over for most of you, but not for me.  Not yet.

But even if you are not rebuilding a damaged home, you have experienced storms in your life. Life brings much uncertainty but there is one thing we can count on, storms will come. It may be something as brief as a 24 hour stomach virus, although at the time, it seems like forever, right? Or it could be a long-term chronic medical or physical condition for your child, your spouse or a parent. Or a financial downturn, or career setback, or relational conflict. Storms come in all different shapes and sizes. They come at unexpected times. Maybe you are in the middle of a storm right now and you are wondering, am I stronger than this storm? And you look around at the devastation and you don’t think so.

How can you be brave in the middle of a super storm? Here’s what I have learned.

First, it’s good to be prepared. Even though the Bloomfield house did not catch fire that night and we did not have to jump out the window, it was good to have our shoes and jackets on just in case. I wish we had heeded the warnings and gone down to our beach house before the storm and took care of things better there. 

Second, it’s good to dive in and just do the hard work. For me, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the things that had to be done and I got tired just thinking about it. But when I focused on only the next thing, and did it, it was still hard but manageable. I found that starting a task was the hardest part. And that is where fear is a good thing. Fear is a great motivator. We need to remember that being brave kicks into gear when there is something to fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is fear turned into resolve and action.

For me, prayer was a huge part of the process. Prayer changed things for us. God provided in so many ways: with friends to help work on the house or provide funds and furniture. I thank God the storm did not come until my daughters were grown and could help us in the rebuilding process. God gave wisdom in choices and calmed fears especially for dealing with the mold. Even the weather that first winter was a great blessing to us. Mike, who was so instrumental in helping us, works as a landscaper who also does snow removal. The winter of 2012-2013 was mild so he had free time to help us. Plus the lack of snow made being at the beach house in the winter bearable. If we had to make repairs during the horrid winter of 2013-2014, we never would have been able to complete it by May.

As we plan for life’s storms, everyone trusts something or someone, and I have seen that in my beach community. Some neighbors trusted in their own strength, some relied on flood insurance, FEMA or the government to provide. Some had relied on their well-built homes or the dunes. From what I saw, none of these came through 100%. Many large homes and all the dunes were swept away. FEMA and the government were overwhelmed. Even these big organizations did not know what to do with the storm’s far-reaching damage. Many neighbors did not get enough insurance to rebuild as they needed to, and others did not get the money they were entitled to receive. Everyone trusts something. We chose to trust God and it is my testimony that even though God did not take away the storm, He helped us through it, far beyond anything we could have asked or imagined.

I think God allows storms in our lives to get our attention. Like my adult daughters who are more apt to seek my counsel and take my advice when there is an emergency, I must confess I am like that too! When I am in over my head, I pray more, I am more apt to ask for help, and I listen better. I am also more open to change. I have been changed by this experience. I am more patient, less controlling, and less fearful because we survived this. Our family has grown closer in the storm.

I could have dwelled on “God, why did you do this to us?” We did pray at first that we be spared the flood water. But when God said no to that, we trusted Him and continued to pray through the process. God sometimes says no because He has a greater plan. He allows the storm but always stays right besides us through it, if we let Him, if we are aware of Him. It is so difficult to see this, but because we hung in there and trusted God, we found Him trustworthy.

Today, our beach house is in much better shape than it has been for years. The walls are more solid than ever. The house has a new refrigerator (that’s my favorite part!), more space, fresh paint, new furniture. This is not true for just my house. All the houses around us are built better than before. Governor Christy was half right with his slogan. Certainly Jersey wasn’t stronger THAN the storm. But we were stronger AFTER the storm.

And in spite of all the work there is still to be done, there remains so much beauty in our community.  We are grateful we had room at our house for old friends to come and visit us since their house is not completed yet. Here are the girls and their friends this summer, all grown up. We are hopeful next summer their house will be ready and we will have more time to enjoy together. 

As I thought what I learned in the storm, I found this from the book of the Bible written by James, the brother of Jesus. James knew all about experiencing the storms of life, and I feel his words sum up this experience for me.

Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them. If you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure.

And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing.

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.
James 1:2-5 (The Voice)

Storms come. When I talk to women, it seems to me that we are always in the middle of one storm or another. I am sure you have been thinking of your personal storm. Let me encourage you that although nothing is going to take away all the storms of life, but God wants to be there for you, to direct and comfort you in your storm!

Do you have a story from the storm? Please comment and share!

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