By Joanna Gardner
In the days following the devastation of Super Storm Sandy, Miriam Tanguay, a Catholic Charities employee, remembers working seven days a week at distribution sites in Wildwood and Northfield, giving out donated food and supplies to storm victims.
She would return at the end of the long days in the cold, not to her home, but to a hotel in Egg Harbor Township filled with other evacuees. Her own home, a bay-front apartment on Long Beach Island she had moved into just 28 days before the storm, had been flooded with three feet of water.
“I was able to get back on land in LBI a week later and when I arrived I found total disaster. Coming over the bridge down the causeway I saw boats that were upside down in marshes, I saw personal property on the curb, a lot of debris, sand in the middle of the road. The apartment had already been completely gutted,” Tanguay said.
She lived for three months at the hotel, managing her own recovery on top of her work with Catholic Charities.
“I remember the hotel put a Christmas tree up. Everyone would just sit in the lobby and cry,” she said.
Long-term recovery programs took shape in the months following the storm. Catholic Charities became one agency in April 2013 to administer a state-funded Disaster Case Management Program (DCMP).
The agency brought on eight case managers to do intensive individual case management with clients in the five southern New Jersey counties with high storm impact. Tanguay moved from working with the agency’s veterans services program to managing the check requisitions for DCMP, a position she continues today.
“Super Storm Sandy devastated this community,” Tanguay said. “Two years after a storm of that magnitude, yes, we are still in recovery.”
Melissa Hruska is the director of Catholic Charities’ DCMP. The program was supposed to end at the end of October, exactly two years after the storm made landfall on Oct. 29, 2012. But it was given a 90 day extension and will now expire on Jan. 30, though future extensions are possible.
In 2013 alone the program served more than 1,000 people. Hruska estimates that the program has served between 100-150 people in the last two to three months.
The program now employs four full-time and one part-time case manager, in addition to Tanguay and Hruska. Much of their work now is guiding people through the process of having their homes elevated according to new regulations in areas at risk of flooding in the event of future disasters.
For those who elect not to elevate their homes, flood insurance can cost five to eight times more than it would with the elevation, Hruska estimated.
State funding pays up to $150,000 for the property elevations, but in the meantime families must find housing while the construction on their homes takes place, sometimes for up to four months. Catholic Charities case managers helped families register for elevations funding and now helps clients find rental assistance.
“We’ve moved into another stage of recovery,” Hruska said. “There are still some people who haven’t been home yet since the storm. Some of our clients have literally lost everything, their homes, their family pictures, things that were passed down through generations. That kind of huge loss is something a lot of people are still struggling with accepting.
“Especially this time of year when it’s hurricane season, every time there’s a torrential downpour or any kind of storm, you can see that their anxiety levels go up,” Hruska added.
Tanguay says she considers herself fortunate to have recovered quickly, thanks to her knowledge of how to navigate social service processes.
She says the best way to help is to be aware of the mental and emotional strain those who were impacted by the storm still face.
“Even two years out it’s an extremely emotional thing because you constantly relive it,” she said. “A disaster like this forever changes you.”