It’s not just us. This process is so slow. And sometimes, just not possible. Let me tell you about some of my neighbors.
The woman next door to us was already struggling to maintain her home when it was thoroughly wrecked by Sandy. Our house sat up three feet off the ground, but her front door is flush with her patio. The ocean crashed through a boarded-up window and door on the south wall and poured out the other side into the sinkhole it carved to the north—half on our property. She had inherited the house, with no mortgage, and thus no insurance, from her mother. Her husband had recently died of brain cancer, and even before the storm she’d been unable to keep the home in a livable condition. Now, she will be forced to sell the house of her childhood to a stranger who will raze it to the ground. She is distraught over this; her home is still alive with her family’s ghosts. Her brother drove up from Florida after the storm and took her back home with him. We haven’t seen her since.
Another neighbor is a high school English teacher and newly single mom who had just put all her savings toward starting in a PhD program. Her main floor, five steps up, was spared—but her $12,000 heating system was severely damaged, and on the coldest nights it would sputter out, and she and her five-year-old would go days without heat while she waited for insurance money. Thankfully, the local charity that also helped us (Long Beach Christmas Angel) came through for them and they were warm by late winter. Late winter! It took two whole cold seasons to get heat. People were (understandably) upset over four-day power outages.
Our friends were renting a second floor apartment in a house owned by an out-of-state landlord. The couple on the first floor lost everything and had to leave. Our friend, in construction, did demo and remediation of the abandoned lower floor for his absentee landlord. It was only after the cleanup was complete that the landlord raised the rent–by $1100! This guy thanked his tenant by forcing him out. So our friend, who did not lose his home to the storm, lost his home to selfish greed.
And he had helped folks all over Long Beach and Atlantic Beach. Within an hour of my husband’s text, he stormed in with his brother and fans and heaters and moldicide–all widely unavailable. He left as quickly as he’d come, called to some other heroic task—and then another, around the clock. He is haunted by memories of carrying crying homeowners on his back through their flooded floors. They sobbed into his neck while he waded through, shining a light, hoping to reveal a memory book or wedding portrait in the deep dank.
This friend still had a home to go home to. And then he didn’t.
One house on our street was condemned. It had belonged to a very quiet older couple, for as long as anyone could remember. Another neighbor recalled the woman’s beauty when they bought it, and their long-lasting adoration of each other. She appeared to have developed a severe case of OCD, and would perform her routines in seeming distress while waiting for the bus to come and take her to work. When I saw her re-shelving items at the supermarket, she did not recognize me as her neighbor.
Her husband was quiet but kind. He wore only an undershirt year-round, and at regular intervals, even through the night, he dumped buckets of steaming water in the street. No one knew the reason, but we assumed they couldn’t afford to fix the plumbing.
In the spring before Sandy, she died. One evening soon after when I dropped off some cheesecake squares, he told me how lost he was without his lifelong love, and how she had grown ill on their recent trip to Peru. Peru? I’d assumed he couldn’t afford to fix a leak, much less fly to South America.
On the second floor of their house aspired a door. The hope it must have once held, now unhinged! Someone had dreamed a deck, or a balcony, and built a door. For the eleven years we lived there, it led to nothing. Each of our friends, at some point sitting out on our patio, would suddenly register this strange fact. “Oh, there’s a door there….to nowhere!”
During Sandy, a sinkhole opened below his first floor—another passage to nowhere good. The house jutted out over it as though he had not looked down into enough gaping space over the years. We found him after the storm standing ruefully at the second floor doorway, surveying the street. That door must have seemed somehow even less useful than before. And he couldn’t get downstairs: his refrigerator had overturned in the floodwater and blocked the steps. After his rescue and transport to a shelter, his home was condemned. It should have collapsed in protest into the sinkhole, or sucked itself inside-out through that door to nowhere. No home should see such loss.
Our neighbor died in that shelter. When I imagine he and his beautiful wife together now, they have always just stepped out of a second floor door and onto a cloud that takes them anywhere, even Peru—and handily dumps water, so he doesn’t have to.
His relatives fight over his house, and it sits, rotting away.
A family of four just around the corner had to tear down their house, which was to be replaced with a modular home. I have seen one go up. It takes a day. Except that it is taking a year. Their lot sits, empty as the space beneath the old man’s door—only marked with a hopeful banner.
People come by our house and ask, “Is your house raised yet? Why isn’t it raised? We thought it was being raised!”
There are so many explanations—but no, it is not raised. Suffice it to say that the process is slow. So slow. But that’s why they call it a process.