Episode #4: Perspective of someone who lost their house to a hurricane
with Pete and Melissa
Karen: Hello and welcome to the Wish You Knew Podcast. I'm your host Karen Bortvedt. Thank you so much for taking the time to tune in again this week. Before we jump into the interview we have planned for you today, I want to give a shout out to the lovely Laura Mock. Who did the logo design for the Wish You Knew podcast. I realized last week we have done three episodes and haven't given her a shout out. So, if you are looking for a graphic designer to work with, you can check out Laura's work at Lauramock.design. And, like I said, she is the one who did that great logo that you see every time you click on the podcast. So thank you very much to Laura. This week we have an interview with two friends of mine, Melissa and Pete, who lost their house to hurricane Sandy. This is the fifth year anniversary of hurricane Sandy, later this month in October. We wanted to do something in remembrance of that and with all the natural and man-made disasters in the news these days, for many of us, we have never experienced that. We thought it was a good time to talk with someone who has been through that experience so we can all learn from that experience and how to better support someone who is going through such an experience as that. I hope you enjoy the show. So, let's get started with Pete and Melissa.
Pete and Melissa, thanks so much for being on the show. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today
Pete: Thanks for having us.
Karen: We have a bunch of different questions. Some of them are questions that I have come up with, and some of them are questions that were submitted by our listeners who are excited to learn from you today. For those of us that read your bio, we know you lost your house to hurricane Sandy five years ago.
The first question is to help all of us understand the state you're in or what is running through your mind when you hear a hurricane is coming toward your house, do you remember what went through your head when you heard that the hurricane was coming toward where you lived?
Pete: That's a really interesting question Karen. Yeah. To go back a little bit, the year before Sandy hit, there was a hurricane, Hurricane Irene, that the forecasters had predicted was going to make landfall in Long Beach, Long Island where we were living. So we and the rest of the community packed up everything, we moved our TV to upstairs, we put our furniture on blocks, we did everything we could to protect the house, and we followed the suggestion that had been issued to evacuate. Hurricane Irene ended up coming in with a whimper and was nothing more than a glorified rainstorm when it actually made land fall not too far from where we were living.
So when we heard about Sandy, not just Melissa and I, but I think our whole community kind of groaned and said, "Oh here we go again. They're telling us that this hurricane is going to hit, that there's going to be these effects," but I don't think anybody really believed it. There was a little bit of the boy who cried wolf thing going on. So interestingly, we took a lot less precautions to protect our house and our belongings from the hurricane that really ended up turning our lives upside down.
Melissa: It was kind of interesting we kept hearing about the news like oh should we evacuate, should we stay? The last time, like Pete said, during Irene, our neighbors were making pancakes the morning after and we were kind of stuck outside of our house and it took us longer to get back. We're like oh we don't really want to deal with that, but in the end we decided what the heck. We'll probably be more comfortable if the power goes out, we had Evey at the time who was two years old I think and Eli at the time was five, five and a half, and we thought oh we'll go to my mother-in-law's house, it'll be more comfortable. So that was really what did it, is it'll just be better to go somewhere else. It wasn't ,I don't think either one of us was really thinking it was going to be the one that was going to turn everything upside down.
Karen: You mentioned moving your TV. Was that the one possession that you took the time to move our of harms way?
Melissa: No, the story is that Pete was away at work for the week and I was home alone with the two babies, and I kept hearing about Irene, Irene, Irene and it's going to be bad and to fill the or to make myself busy while I was nervous, I did, like Pete said, I packed up all kinds of things that I don't think were very important, but I moved them at the time. Then actually when Sandy was building up, I was working and busy and just never even thought so the TV was downstairs with everything else.
Karen: You also mentioned, prior to the storm, seeing on TV with the announcements that you should evacuate. Is that the only way that you're notified if you're living in an area that may be affected by the hurricane or how does that process work?
Pete: I believe that they had vehicles going around announcing that evacuation had been suggested and that everybody should leave. I think there was also that. The one thing about a hurricane that's different from for example an earthquake like we saw recently in Oaxaca, Mexico is that there's a lot of notice. You hear about it as soon as the computer models suggest that it might come anywhere near you so as the days build, there's also more and more information about preparations that you should take, and then ultimately about evacuation as well.
Melissa: I also signed up for a, it's like one of the things that the local city had provided, was an emergency line so it would send me text messages or voice messages, and it did end up sending us messages to say that this was a voluntary evacuation, and then when the computer said that it was going to be closer and there was much stronger of a likelihood that it would hit our city, then it turned to a mandatory evacuation. So I got those messages and texts from a system, an automated system, that the city had installed for anyone who signed up.
Karen: Had you been through any hurricane prior to Irene or was that the first time for both of you to go through that whole process?
Pete: There had been hurricanes that had mildly affected Long Island in the past, but at that point I had been living in Long Beach for 15 years, 14 or 15 years, and there hadn't been anything consequential that had come through.
Karen: With the hurricanes, did you consider not evacuating or did you have neighbors who decided not to evacuate?
Pete: That's a great question. Yeah. There was actually a lot of our neighbors who because especially of Irene and the fact that they had left and nothing had happened and the fact that what happened to our town was really unprecedented, they just said, "You know what? We're going to stay. We're not evacuating. I'm just going to wait it out. It'll be fine. It's not going to be a big deal."
Then speaking to all of those people a couple days later to a person they said, "Next time I'm going to evacuate," because they had the experience of looking out the window as the ocean filled the streets and the yards and everything in the community rising, excuse me, higher and higher and they didn't know when it was going to stop. So it was really a harrowing and traumatic experience for the people who stayed.
Melissa: It was kind of interesting because up until a few days before, maybe the weekend a few days beforehand, with some people there was an attitude of “oh you staying? Are you staying?” Like there was going to be some sort of badge of honor if you stayed through the hurricane, but for us having the two little kids like I said, there was no reason for us to be proud. At one point Pete said, "Oh I'm going to stay and you go," and I said, "No we're going to stay together." So we all went.
Karen: What factored in for most people when they made that decision to evacuate or what helped you to make that decision?
Melissa: I think for a lot of people it was, well I know one of my neighbors said, "Where am I going to go? I'm going to go to this person's house and inconvenience them. I don't want to do that. I don't want to go and be sleeping on somebody's couch for a night or two," so there was some of that, the inconvenience factor. Other people really just said, "This is my house, and I'm going to stay here." Is what I saw. I don't know. What do you think Pete?
Pete: Yeah I think you captured it. I remember, and I think it was for Irene, where I said, "No you take the kids and go. I'm going to stay here with the house in case there's anything I can do," and Melissa started laughing and she said, "What are you possibly going to do to stop the hurricane from damaging our house or affecting." I came up completely empty. I had absolutely no idea of how I would be able to fight the forces of nature. I said, "I guess you're right," and I packed a bag and went along with the rest of the family.
So when Sandy came, I had already come to grips with the fact that I was useless in the face of natural disasters so packed up my stuff and went.
Karen: How did you decide what you were going to pack up when you left?
Pete: It was like we were going to a sleepover at my mother's. It was totally going through the motions with the expectation that we were going to come back the next day and the resume life and be inconvenienced by having to unpack the few things that we might have packed up to take with us, but we had no sense that we were in for what we were in for.
Melissa: Yeah I think whenever we went back after if I would have really been thinking like oh this is the big one, again I would've picked up photo albums, things that I cannot replace now that I just didn't think of because like Pete said, we just didn't have it on our radar. Maybe other people did, and we didn't, but I don't know. We brought nothing important really to Pete's mom's house.
Karen: You said you packed up as if you were just going to be going to be gone overnight. How long was it until you could return to your house?
Pete: It was a full month before we were able to spend a considerable amount of time in the house. Within a few days we were able to come back to start throwing away pretty much everything that was on the first floor everything from appliances to tearing out the rugs to throwing away the furniture to books. So, we were able to do that, but the whole first floor had been filled about two and a half or three feet with ocean water so even to sleep upstairs, we had to make sure that the house was sufficiently dry, that there wasn't any risk of mold having spread so there was a lot that had to be done before we could spend a considerable amount of time in the house.
Melissa: We also didn't have power for the first eight or nine days after. A bunch of New York City didn't have power, and it also was November so it started to actually get pretty cold so we were trying to gut out the house while it was starting to be pretty cold outside.
Karen: I want to talk more about when you went back to your house for the first time but I want to jump back a little bit. Do you remember what you were thinking when you were at your mother-in-law's house as the storm was setting in?
Melissa: I think it was still denial like, “Oh yeah I remember from Irene.” Pete actually had like the radio on like the local news station so in the middle of the night every once in awhile I'd wake up and hear like oh the water is or it's raining really hard, now it's hitting X area or whatever so I remember that, but I think I was still sort of in denial. I was like okay it's going to be fine. We're just going to go back and it's just going to ... We'll find out more of what's going on in the morning. So I was still kind of in denial I suppose.
Pete: By the time the morning came, the electricity was out so we'd hear some reports or if someone had a wireless device that still had battery you might be able to get on a webpage to read a little bit, but you knew it was way more serious than we had anticipated, but the scale was still unknown until we actually had the opportunity to go back and see what had become of our town.
Melissa: Yeah I think Pete is absolutely correct. I think it started to kind of sink in a little bit that Long Beach had hit when we finally got onto like social media like Facebook and there were pages going out saying, "My mother lives on Riverside and da, da, da. I haven't had contact with her. Someone," and people were just starting to exchange names of people and they were looking for people and they were saying flooding on this block and this block is bad and sand here so once you started to see those things, and even though we didn't see our street on those different social media, Facebook pages and such, I still thought “Oh man that's two blocks away, that's three blocks away.” So that's when it started to sink in that oh our house probably got hit with something. I don't know how bad it is, but I'm sure it probably is flooded.
Karen: What were you thinking when you went back to your house for the first time? Did you have any idea of what you would be finding?
Melissa: Well, Pete went back first so I'll let him share his thoughts.
Pete: Yeah, I went back the first day that they were allowing people back. The National Guard was there, and they were checking licenses. You had to be a resident to even cross over to the bridge that led to Long Beach. So I was like okay let's see what this is all about. I remember just seeing the amount of sand that had filled the streets. As I was approaching our house, on a road that was very familiar, there were a lot of things that made it obvious. Big sand dunes in the middle of residential streets where the ocean had just come up and deposited a ridiculous amount of sand or businesses where you could kind of see in where all the goods were scattered across the floor. So as I drove, it became clearer and clearer that what I was going to find might be shocking.
So, I got to the house and I parked, and I could see the line going across about five feet up on the house where the high water mark for the ocean. So I was like, “Wow. This is serious.” There were also some children's like a slide and some other children's play structure things that were in our front yard that didn't belong to us and some big tree planters. I learned later or figured out later that they had just been picked up by the ocean and happened to be deposited in our front yard.
When I opened the door, it was actually strange because everything was familiar. It was all our stuff as we had left it, and it wasn't until I really started looking around that it started to strike me that all of these things were soaked with ocean water. Some of the furniture had floated up, it was overturned, but there were a lot of things that looked like “Oh! this is okay,” but then when you reached out and you touched it or you examined it more carefully, you realized that things were in really bad shape.
I remember I went to the fridge, and I opened the fridge, and the drawers at the bottom of the fridge that are used for produce were filled still with ocean water and the stove when I opened it was filled with water. So yeah it quickly became clear that there was a lot that was going to have to be done before we could even dream about our lives going back to normal. Just the scope of what we needed to do or what needed to be done before we would be able to call this house home again was incredible. Yeah.
Melissa: Yeah, I think I remember when Pete came back that morning, it was very weird the thing, I noticed on his car tires that they were very muddy, and I was like “Oh no! what is he going to say? What is he going to say? What did he see? What happened?” And he ended up taking pictures so at least I got to see pictures first before actually going into the house and seeing it in real life.
Pete: Yeah I remember coming back and feeling like a sledgehammer had hit me.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah.
Pete: I didn't have, until I saw with my own eyes, I really didn't have a sense of the destruction that something like this would leave in its wake.
Melissa: You were very quiet too. I was trying to be like “So what was it like? What happened?” And you didn't say all that much, and it was like okay this is not good.
Karen: You mentioned that the National Guard was there. Were there other groups that were there helping or how long did it take for there to be support or aid effort from the outside that came in?
Pete: A lot quicker than we're seeing in Puerto Rico. It was the South Shore of a major metropolitan area so I think they were able to mobilize resources fairly quickly. The National Guard was there to prevent looting, and I never heard of any instances of looting afterwards. Then within a few days they were giving out bottled water because the water supply was contaminated so there was a station when you drove into town where you could pick up a 24 pack of bottled water as well as MREs which are Meals Ready to Eat that are often used in the armed services, but it's basically a packet that you can open and prepare yourself a hot meal with nothing other than adding a little bit of water which is kind of neat.
But I would say one of the things that was most touching is how much of support just came from either local people or people from the surrounding area who wanted to be helpful so people would just for example just make a big pot of stew and then drive around the neighborhood or walk around the neighborhood giving to anybody who was at their house cleaning up, giving them a warm meal or-
Melissa: Or coffee. Remember? They would drive down the block and we were like, "They're bringing coffee," and it was cold so it was a lifesaver to be able to have that warm cup of coffee when you're trying to clean out the house and everything.
Karen: For many of us, we're probably not familiar with the area you're talking about, what was your community like? How many people lived there? Just so we can have some context.
Pete: Sure so Long Beach, Long Island is right outside of the Rockaways on the South Shore of Nassau County. It's basically when you see old pictures, it is a community that was based on a sand bar. SO back in the 1930s they started putting beach bungalows, little houses where people would go to spend the weekend, on this sandbar and it became more and more developed, and then as real estate prices went up in New York, people started converting their little summer homes to year-round homes and then apartment buildings were built so over the years this little stretch of sand bar became a pretty big town where there was about 30,000 people living there, and sometimes, it was very popular beach destination, so sometimes in the summer they would say that there were 100,000 people in the town at one time when people were at the beach and there was a strip with bars and restaurants-
Melissa: And a board walk, very popular too.
Pete: Mm-hmm (affirmative) so it was a very unique place in that most of the people who lived there commuted between 45 minutes to an hour to New York City and yet it was a walk-around beach community right there on Long Island.
Karen: How many of those people came back after the hurricane?
Pete: I don't know the number. There were people that we knew through the kids' schools who left and never ended up coming back. I would say the vast majority ended up eventually coming back, but some people their homes were destroyed to the point where it took years before they were able to do anything or if people were inadequately insured, it made the process of rebuilding very complicated. A lot of people ended up raising their houses in accordance with FEMA regulations so the house would literally be lifted up and a concrete structure of like eight to ten to 12 feet would be built underneath the house to support it. So houses that had been on street level are now towering 10 feet off the ground which is very different.
Melissa: We never went thought that process, but talking with neighbors about the process of raising their house ... Like I said we personally don't have the experience of what that was like with the red tape and dealing with FEMA, but a lot of neighbors, one of our neighbors I think within the last year finally had her house demolished, and the storm was almost five years ago. I guess her story was a little bit more extreme in that we have other neighbors who have raised their houses, and we have other neighbors who decided not to raise their house even though FEMA did give those new regulations so the community is kind of some people stayed, some people left, but it's kind of all over the board.
Karen: In the bio Pete mentioned when you were going back to your house, the two of you were sort of laughing and joking while many of your neighbors were much more somber. What were some of the reactions that you or your neighbors had returning to the community?
Melissa: People were really upset. They were really sad, and it's not that we weren't sad. I think initially when we didn't have a plan or we didn't know what we were doing, it was kind of like “Whoa, life is not going to return to normal for a long time” like that normal is no longer normal. Or I mean yeah the normal is no longer available. We have to create a new normal.
So for us once we were able to understand that the life the way it was was never going to be back to that, we were able to adjust what we were thinking, and for some people that's really hard. For some people it was really hard to think about the change that was going to be and the fact that neighbors weren't going to live there anymore, and the stores that they loved to go to weren't going to be open for a long time and when they did open, it would be different. So a lot of people were really ... I mean I feel like some of the work that I did after coming back was a lot of listening just like you'd go back to the house and pull up carpet, and you'd see a neighbor that you didn't know that well, but they would just start talking and sharing about their story of whether they evacuated, if they stayed, how they felt, tears possibly, and these were neighbors that I kind of knew. So a lot of people were really feeling the emotion strongly, especially the days right after like the first two weeks.
Karen: So you mentioned being able to listen. That sounds like a positive approach, being able to share and to listen. Are there other positive coping mechanisms or things that you think helped you get through that time?
Pete: I think people who were able to shift their focus from the big picture which was completely unmanageable and instead focusing on the next step ended up coping a little bit better than others. For example, how I'm going to get my house habitable again is too big for me to think about, but this rug is wet and ruined. I need to cut it out of the, cut it off the floor and throw it out into the streets so it can be collected with the rest of the garbage. That's manageable. I can do that.
So every day you couldn't stay in the house, but for the first week or two you would go to the house and you would just keep yourself busy doing some of the things that clearly needed to be done, and step by step what needed to be done next revealed itself so that kind of made it a little bit more manageable.
Melissa: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I agree.
Karen: A couple of times you mentioned a couple of times going back and forth to the house. How did you do that while still having your jobs, and your kids? How did you manage?
Melissa: Well I think, like I was saying before, the power was out for the first at least eight or nine days after so nobody was really working. Everybody was waiting in line for gas or just trying to keep warm. So that was one thing. The city was kind of crippled in that way. Well I shouldn't say the whole city. I know that there were parts that were largely affected without power.
Then I was working with a high school at the time, and I had talked to friends and the principal, and he basically just said, "You know take as much time as you need. Do what you have to do," and I think I finally ... I don't remember. Do you remember when I went back to work Pete? It was like maybe before Thanksgiving.
Pete: Yeah a few, couple weeks.
Melissa: Because I do remember commuting from your mom's house to go to work for a bit of time, maybe a week or two, and then I remember after Thanksgiving we definitely moved in to the second floor of the house so my job was super understanding, and I kind of needed that because I think I also needed to adjust my own mind that things were different, and I was just sort of letting go of the life that was before because it had all changed in an instant so it was really helpful for me to be able to have that space to, like Pete said, do one thing at a time with the house and move along in the process one piece at a time without having to go to work and explain it to everybody and talk about it. It was almost like I got to work and I was like, "Yep this happened. I'm not sure I really want to talk about it. I want to distract a little bit from this disaster that is my house right now," and that was good for me. That was therapeutic to be able to go to work and do something a little bit different a little bit later on after we had the first pieces sort of done with the house.
Karen: You moved into the second floor of your house. How did that work? How did you manage that?
Pete: So yeah as I said before, the first floor of the house was totally devastated so we spent that month ripping down all the sheet rock, pulling up all of the carpet, pretty much throwing away all the furniture so the house was down to the studs basically on the first floor.
We had like commercial drying units like dehumidifiers to pull the moisture out of the air, and we had a kerosene heater to keep the temperature up because it had gotten cold, also to help dry out the house. So after about a month, we determined that the house was sufficiently dry that it wouldn't pose a major health risk to return. So what we had upstairs was we had three very small bedrooms and a bathroom. Our oldest child Marianna was away at college, and so we turned her room which was probably about 12 feet by eight feet, it wasn't a very big room, but we began to call it the everything room because it's where all of our waking time was spent.
Pete: There was a bed in there that we could sit on as if it were a couch, and we brought the coffee pot, and a microwave oven, and a George Foreman grill up there. One of my family members had the kind of fridge you'd find in a college dorm room, and so we brought that up there, and so that was the room in which we prepared our meals, where the kids did homework, where we would-
Melissa: Play games.
Pete: Play games.
Melissa: Read books.
Pete: Do puzzles.
Pete: Yeah, and then the other two bedrooms were very small, so there was really just room for a bed and a dresser in them, so we used them to sleep. Then the bathroom, luckily the one bathroom that was in the house was on the second floor, so we continued to have that, although we had to use it for everything, and so it became common to do the dishes in the bathtub, because there was really no other place to do them. For the next nine or ten months we just lived on the second floor of the house. All through the winter, the boiler was damaged, and so we would run a kerosene heater or two kerosene heaters on the empty first floor, and the heat would rise, and that along with a some electric heaters were enough to get us through the winter, but it wasn't easy.
Melissa: We had, I mean, and speaking of people helping and mobilizing, people were very, like Pete said, a family member offered us the micro-fridge, and then somebody else said, "I have this George Foreman grill I never use. Do you want it?" So people really came together in various different ways to sort of just help us in our time of need, which was really great, too.
Pete: And Melissa became a world-class George Foreman grill chef over those 10 months, preparing things that one could never imagine would be able to be prepared on the George Foreman grill.
Karen : How did you figure out that that was what you were going to do?
Melissa: How did we figure it out? Well, we kind of, I don't know. How did we figure it out, Pete?
Pete: As crazy as it was to live on the second floor with so little, at least it was our own space, and we didn't feel like we were imposing, and we felt like we were home, even though the house itself was a shell of what it had been. It was still where we had lived, where our lives were, and so.
When we moved back, there was only maybe one or two other people living on our block of maybe 60 or 70 homes. The standard house on our block was only one story, and so for those people the whole house was wet, and so there was no thought of returning until major work had been done. Our house was one of the few houses that had a second floor, with the bedrooms upstairs, and so that allowed us to move back more quickly than a lot of other folks. I remember looking out at block where it was always difficult to find a parking space, and just having our car in front of the house and the rest of the block empty like a ghost town.
Melissa: Yeah, it was a little weird.
Karen : What was it like going through that with your kids?
Pete: You know kids are amazingly versatile, and so as long as we could put on a good front, they weren't very affected. It became the new normal, and so they really didn't miss a beat. Evey was very little still, and so yeah, it was really easy just to keep her focused on the positive, and Eli ended up going back to his school, or going back to his class. His school had been totally wiped out by the hurricane, and so he ended up going to another local school where the building was in better shape. But they had two kindergarten classes now sharing a classroom that was really built for one class. I give the teacher he had, his kindergarten teacher a lot of credit, because knowing how crazy things were in everybody's home life, she really worked hard to make the school day a normal one and make it an enjoyable learning experience for the kids. I think that was really helpful for him, as well.
Melissa: Yeah, and one thing about the kids later on down the line when it was time for him to go to first grade, he went to first grade in a different part of New York in Ossining before we were headed off to El Salvador to live. He spent the first semester in this school, and the teacher, during the first parent-teacher, she's like, "You know, I'm just not really sure. He's not really reading." And she was like, "He's a smart kid. I don't understand why." Eli had never explained the hurricane and we never did either, because it was the first month or whatever in his school, and when we finally explained the reason why he's not able to read is we went through a hurricane, and basically during that school year in kindergarten, as Pete said, the teachers really did the best that they could, and when you think about it, most of the children in the school, at that time, they didn't have a room with like a table. We didn't have a kitchen table even to think about doing homework, so how hard a teacher must have to think about teaching kids to learn to read, and the library also was flooded. So how do you make those things happen when so many of your resources were literally flooded out?
Switching back to the first grade teacher, when I explained what happened and how he ... wasn't his fault, and so the great thing was the teacher was able to spend some extra time with Eli basically getting him up to speed with the rest of the first graders. But it really, this kind of natural disaster, when it wipes out a community, it can really ... it has influences that you kind of don't really think about, but they're definitely consequences that can be difficult for people later on down the line.
Karen : Are there other things like the schools that are maybe infrastructure related or daily life related that were impacted by the storm that you wouldn't necessarily have thought of prior to the storm and those of us that have never experienced a storm like that probably have never thought of?
Pete: We had a local hospital-
Melissa: Oh, that's right.
Pete: ... and it was substantially damaged, and they ended up not rebuilding it, and so whereas we had had an emergency room right in the community for as long as anybody remembered, now all of a sudden the nearest emergency room or the nearest hospital was a half hour away instead of being five or six minutes away, which upset a lot of people in the community.
Then just things like not being able to shop. I mean, anything that you wanted to do, you needed to leave the community because businesses were slow to reopen, and they were going through the same thing that everybody else was, and so for whatever you needed it meant getting in your car and going to a different part of Long Island or the city to get what you needed, because there just weren't stores functioning in Long Beach.
Melissa: And, a lot of the small businesses left and never returned, too.
Karen : So I'm going to jump back a little bit to something you said at the beginning. You mentioned insurance, and there's a couple times you've mentioned resources that you had or family support you had. How do you think that your situation might be different than someone else's situation who didn't have the proper insurance or didn't have those family resources?
Pete: Yeah, I mean I think that being well insured was a blessing. I happened ... one of my close childhood friends became an insurance agent, and I think I bought the insurance more to be a good friend than I did because I had any fear of natural disasters, but when the natural disaster did hit, we found ourselves adequately insured, which was fortunate for us, but it certainly wasn't the case for everyone in the community.
FEMA has programs that help for people who don't have insurance, but the amount of help that's given through the FEMA program is not enough that would allow someone to rebuild their house. I remember someone saying early on, "Oh, FEMA's gonna build us all new houses." The truth is that's not FEMA's mandate. That's not what they're supposed to do, and it's not what they do. They give some money to help people get back on their feet. They give, for example, a living allowance, so that people could rent a house, or an apartment, or a hotel room while their house was uninhabitable, so they provided that resource. Low interest loans were made available to people who might need them to recover from the hurricane.
So there were some resources available. Unfortunately though, there were cases of people who were renters, and so they had all of their possessions destroyed. Most of them didn't have renters insurance, and the way the programs are set up, those people are not necessarily at the center of what the programs are designed for. Not that there was no assistance, but to see someone who, you know, everything they own is destroyed in a natural disaster, and there's really no blueprint for them, clawing back to normalcy is a really tough thing to see, and something that was experienced by too many people.
Karen : At the very beginning, as well, I think Melissa mentioned something about photos. One of the listeners, actually, had asked specifically how do you go forward without many of your important or needed items if you lost things like birth certificates, social security cards, old family photos, important information that was on computers, or those sorts of things?
Melissa: I mean in terms of photos, there were a couple baby albums that we had lost from... a couple scrapbook kinds of things that couldn't really be duplicated and somebody had a nice camera, and so we had them take pictures so we'd have pictures from the pictures, so we still have those, but in terms of the documents being lost, birth certificates are pretty easy to get. Ours were not ... actually all of our important documents just so happen to be in a desk that was higher, an old secretary desk that had a higher shelf, so none of our documents were destroyed, so we kind of got lucky with that. But I know birth certificates are easy to get. I don't know about the other things.
Pete: I think it can be particularly hard for someone how has a lot of sentimental attachments to things to go through an experience like a natural disaster, because you lose a ton of that type of stuff. Luckily, we're not people who had a strong sentimental attachment to a lot of the things that were in the house. I mean, there are still things that it's sad to lose, but for someone else it could be really devastating. And we saw people who were just devastated by things that might not of had value to an insurance company, but were things that were very important to them, like photo albums, or things that they'd collected, or a grown child's toys, or other things that just carried a lot of memory and significance for people, and they had no choice but to put it out the trash like so many of their other belongings.
Melissa: Something that had for us, it did have sentimental value that we were told we would have to get rid of and it wasn't going to work, but we decided we didn't really care. We were going to keep it anyway, was Peter's grandfather's piano. It was something that we wanted to try to save, and everyone said, "Oh, once that salt water gets in it, it's just going to one day break." We just saw the piano and played it about a week ago, and it's almost five years later, and it sounds great, so we are actually ... I'm really glad that we didn't follow everybody else's advice and say, "Oh, no. You have to get rid of it." They didn't say you had to get rid of it, but it was like "It's not gonna work." But we can say, for now, almost five years later, it's still working. So, I'm really happy that we were able ... that we just decided to roll the dice and keep that piano.
Karen : One person asked, "What do you think people who want to help misunderstand most about your situation and need?"
Melissa: I think the days right after, for me, when people would say, "Oh, everything's gonna be fine." It was when I personally was in the midst of like "Oh my gosh. Everything is upside down. I don't really know like how this is all gonna turn out." So I didn't have that positive outlook that I usually do, and so when people would say like, "Oh, everything's gonna be fine." I wanted to just look at them and say, "How do you know everything's gonna be fine?" So that phrase actually for me was kind of like, especially the first like 10 to 15 days coming from people who had no idea what I was going through, to have them say, "Oh, everything's going to be fine", to me, was insulting at the time.
Pete: One piece of advice I would have for people is to offer specific ways that you might be able to help. A lot of people after a natural disaster will say, "If there's anything I can do, please let me know." But there's so much that needs to be done, and so it can be overwhelming trying to figure out how well-intentioned person X is going to be able to plug into situation Y that we found it much more helpful when either people just chose a way to help, like coming over with a tray of food, or bringing over some warm drinks, or just coming over and saying, "Hey, I'm here to work. What can I do to help out?" Than people who just kind of made vague offers as to the fact that they were willing to help. I think they were well-intentioned, and I think those people probably would've been more than happy to actually help, but it was always easier when people found a way to help, or asked specific questions. "Hey, would it be helpful if we took the kids to school for you today?" Or, "Is there anything for your kitchen that you could use?" Or "Is there any food you're having a hard time getting?" Those things, the more specific people were in their offers of help, the more we could take advantage of it and use that help.
Karen : Another listener was very curious as to your thoughts as to what laws and policies do you hope will change to help keep people your situation to stay safe in the future, or in future storms, or to help people In your situation to better recover from those storms?
Pete: It's really hard, because as human beings, we've populated a lot of areas that shouldn't be populated. One only needs to look at a picture of Long Beach, Long Island that was taken in the 1920s to realize that it should've never been a thriving community of full-time homeowners. It's not a question of if the ocean at some point was going to reclaim Long Beach. It was a question of when, and so that's a very difficult and delicate policy, from a policy standpoint, because what you'd be talking about is taking areas where people live and putting them off-limits.
But I do think as new communities are developed, I think it's really important to look at how prone those communities would be to a natural disaster and to really discourage construction and development of areas that would be at high risk.
Melissa: Yeah, I agree with Pete. I think that ... I heard a rumor, and I actually don't know what, if anything ever became of it, but there was a rumor that the governor of New York was going to take ... to begin to buy ... the state of New York was going to buy certain properties, for example, in a place like Staten Island, which had also had some extremely bad flooding, and they would return those properties to some sort of wetlands to protect against hurricanes in the future. I honestly don't know whatever became of that, but I agree with Pete that it's such a difficult and delicate subject, but how much easier life would be if we just simply didn't build those houses in that area and left it to nature as it should be, and how much easier life would've been had nobody lived in Long Beach, and nobody had had to have their house flooded out.
But it is very complicated, as FEMA now comes in and has the regulation that you have to raise your house, and if you don't raise your house, then you can't get flood insurance, so there are policies being put in place, but they're expensive polices, too, for people that live there. So, yeah, I don't know what the answer is to that, because, yeah, it's very delicate.
Karen : Are those regulations put in with sort of financial support, or is all on the homeowner to cover the cost for that?
Pete: There are programs that help cover the cost. They don't cover everything, but there were programs developed that made that kind of renovation possible for people who might not of otherwise had the financial means to do what they needed to do to be in compliance with the regulations.
Karen : I know for a lot of us when we see on these news these stories of storms it seems all negative, and there's a lot of bad that comes out of that, and obviously a lot of devastation, and trauma, and those sorts of things. Did you see any blessings that came out of this storm? Or blessings that came out for your family?
Pete: Oh, absolutely. I mean I think it really brought neighbors together. People who were people you half-heartedly waved and said hello to, you ended up building really strong relationships with, and shared this common experience. People would just show up spontaneously to help if I was clearing or doing something, and you needed more people to carry something heavy or bring a piece of equipment into the house. People would just show up. I think just the generosity of the people who, as we described before, walked through our neighborhood bringing hot meals, bringing hot coffee, bringing blankets, and all the other things that made life a little bit easier was really a blessing.
Then for me, and I think for Melissa as well, realizing how much more we had than what we actually needed. It sounds tough to live in the upstairs of the house in three really tiny rooms and a bathroom, but once we got used to it, we were as happy as we had ever been. Sure we had less stuff and less distractions, but I think we were surprised at how much life went on even in a kind of bizarre environment compared to how we had lived before.
Melissa: Yeah, and I think a positive lesson that I learned from the experience and sort of a blessing was to kind of take things as they come, and be okay with how things are in the moment. I'm a planner. I like to organize things in advance, things like that, and I think the hurricane really pushed me to realize that things are not going to always fit the way that I want them to fit, and I don't have the control, and I can let go of that, and be more flexible, and take things as they come, one thing at a time, because I just simply couldn't solve all the problems that happened to our house right away in one moment. Things had to reveal themselves in order for us to figure out what do we want to do with this house? What is our plan? We didn't know all at once. We had to go step-by-step, and kind of rip out the carpet and say, "Oh, we need to redo the wires. All right." Everything just sort of happened step-by-step.
I think I personally learned that, and I think just to echo what Pete said about the ... I think that I got a chance to see the goodness in people that I always knew was there, but it was really evident those days when we were mucking out the house. About the goodness of people and how people truly did want to help, and they did. The simple things like a hot meal really did mean a lot, and it taught me a lot about being able to accept other people's help, because I've always been used to being the one who's involved in helping other people that I actually had to realize that I needed to accept help from others and people were there to offer that help. That was a huge blessing for me.
It also gave me a lot of empathy when, not that I was ever harsh like, "Oh, those people went through a hurricane or a tsunami. Like okay, moving right on." But I think I'm able to, when I hear that someone has experienced a natural disaster, I feel like from my own experience I can offer a listening ear and be able to understand a little bit more about what they might be going through, because I've gone through it, too.
Karen : You've mentioned a lot of great things that people did to help. Most of them were people who were in your area and were close by. The most common question from all of the listeners that sent in questions was how can I help or how do I help, and most of those were from people who were not in the areas where the hurricane happened. So what advice would you have for those folks, especially people who maybe don't have a family member in that area, so there's not a direct tie that they have? But, they still want to do something to help.
Melissa: I think I recently with Hurricane Harvey in Houston, I think finding a connection of an organization, or a community group, or a church, if you can find a group that you trust that you know will get into the hands of the people that will help, that is a wonderful way to help, is, you know, people had gathered money and bought us gift cards for Home Depot. All those things, all the things really do help, and for people who are further away, it was an opportunity for us to receive, and cash. Cash is always helpful. If people who are far away can find an organization that they trust to give money or goods to, we found that those goods reached us. We definitely received a lot of those things.
Pete: I would also warn people to beware of some of the big name relief organizations that tend to take advantage of the publicity generated by these disaster to go into fundraising mode, but our experience is that most of the aid, and help, and assistance that reached us and our neighbors was from smaller organizations or individuals who were looking to help out more than the Red Crosses of the world.
Melissa: Red Cross came by I think maybe once and gave us like a cleaning supply, literally bucket, broom, and a blanket. And that was it. There wasn't much going on. I did see a group called Samaritan's Purse, which I think is like an evangelical kind of disaster relief, and they were everywhere. They had a trailer, and I had heard neighbors that they came in and treated the houses with bleach for free, volunteers, so there were some groups that were smaller church that really did a lot of good things for people in the community, and not so much the Red Crosses of the world.
Karen : So since you have been through this experience, if you had a message to share with those who are just now experiencing it or may experience it in the future, what would you want to say to those folks having lost their homes or belonging to a hurricane or natural disaster?
Pete: I would say you just have to take it day by day, and wake up and do what you need to do today, and tomorrow will present a whole nother set of challenges and opportunities that you'll be ready to deal with tomorrow. But don't try to look too far into the future, because the future is very, especially in situations like this, it's very hazy and undefined. If you can find a personal resources to wait, clear answers will present themselves, but it's going to take some patience, because those clear answers will be frustratingly elusive if you try to find them before it's time.
Melissa: Yes. I agree. That's very well said. The only other thing that I would add is sort of dig deep and be stronger than you think you are, because you might want to just sort of wither away and just give up because there's just too much on that list. There's too many challenges. But know that you can get through it, you will get through it, and you'll learn a lot along the way, and there will be challenges, and there will be ups and downs, but be stronger than you think you are in the moment.
Karen : Those are such great words. The last question that I have, and then I'll wrap up and let you guys get on with your lives. The name of the podcast is Wish You Knew, so what would be three things that you wish we knew, we being those of us who haven't lived through this experience and see it on the news and aren't necessarily sure what to do with that?
Melissa: I wish you knew that it is possible to live on the top floor of a flooded out house.
Pete: I wish you knew how many delicacies can be prepared using nothing other than a 12" George Foreman grill.
Melissa: I wish you knew how difficult it is to live without a washer and a dryer, and have two kids for eight months.
Pete: I wish you knew how trying circumstances can bring neighbors together and bring out the best in people.
Melissa: Wish you knew that even though all of your earthly possessions have been wiped away by the ocean, you can still be happy.
Karen : With those wishes, I just want to thank you for taking the time to share, you've had many great insights and I think those listening will learn a lot from what you had to say, so thank you very much for taking the time out of your day.
Melissa: Thank you for having us.
Pete: Yeah, it's our pleasure, Karen. Thank you.
Karen: Again, a huge thank you to Melissa and Pete for taking the time to share waith us this event from their live and how they got through it. I hope this helps all of us listening to have a better understanding and a more personal way to process what we are seeing on the news. If you do feel moved to support those who are currently struggling with loss due to the recent hurricanes or natural disasters, there are a number of organizations listed in the show notes. Or, places you can look to make a donation that will hopefully get to those most in need. There's also some information in the show notes about being preapred for disaster so you and your family can ensure you are ready if some kind of natural or man-made disaster strikes in your area.
As always we appreciate all of your likes, and shares, and reviews. Anything you can do to help get the word out. I also very much appreciate all of you who take the time to send in questions for our upcoming interviews. As always, you can find a list of upcoming interviews on our website. There are forms there where you can submit questions so we can ask people the questions that you have. Until next time, remember, people are people are people. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep loving.
We have a special addition at the end of this episode, just so you all don't think it is all serious on these interviews. Here is a brief outtake from the interview with Pete and Melissa that I thought was important to share with you. Have a great week.
Pete: For those of you listening, I wish you knew how handsome I am in person.
Karen: That one is definitely staying.
Melissa: Oh Man! For those of you listening, I wish you knew how full of himself my husband is.