I remember this same weekend last year like it was yesterday. I woke up early that Saturday morning with an ungodly hangover and suffered through a bus ride to New Jersey for my 10-year high school reunion. A few girls asked what I thought about the impending storm and I shrugged it off with an “Ehhhhh, Irene wasn’t toooooo bad.” The next day, I checked the MegaBus site compulsively for updates about my scheduled departure since it seemed that every other transit line was canceling trips, even though no rain had fallen yet. I met Lauren at the diner because she happened to be home from New Orleans the same weekend. More hurricane talk, more “I mean, it’ll be fiiiiine?”. She offered some encouraging information about the power of mold bombs immediately after flooding.
Despite secretly wishing for my bus to be canceled (I was hoping for an extra day or two at home), it took off, the last bus to make it out of New Jersey in advance of Sandy. Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that, had I not made it to that bus, I would have been stranded for weeks. In the dark, in the cold, with little access to the outside world or any perspective on the carnage up and down my beautiful, beloved Jersey Shore. All the mold bombs in the world couldn’t have helped our charming little bungalow, after the island was off-limits for three weeks.
It seems like this week, every media outlet is offering retrospective stories – about where we are, about what we’ve learned, about what progress there’s been, but mainly about the lack thereof. A majority of our neighborhood’s houses sit vacant and gutted. Whole tracts of land on the Barrier Island where houses once stood have become open space. I hope those cringe-inducing Stronger Than The Storm commercials are played in marketing classes for years to come to highlight glossed-over ineptitude and the woeful decline of jingle writing as an art.
My mom has fought tooth and nail to claw her way through a bureaucratic system whose goal seems to be keeping funding from the people who need it most. A year ago, it warmed your heart to see all the support pouring in as millions of dollars racked up; it seemed implausible that my widowed mother would have to pay out of pocket to fix our only home. In the months that have separated us from the most destructive storm I hope we’ll ever see, she’s gotten a loan and used it to pay for a brand new house, but that’s money that needs to be repaid. The state’s RREM program has yet to disburse any money from what I can tell and they keep moving the goal posts for homeowners who are still waiting a year later.
Don’t let the title of the post fool you – I may have bastardized a line from Katy Perry’s greatest creation, but I’m not entirely underwhelmed by the post-Sandy progress. We’re one of the few success stories of this morbid anniversary and I am so very excited for my mom and AJ to settle into their new digs. We’re in pretty good shape, but most other island-dwellers can’t say the same.
There’s a house at 202 Joseph that, while still uninhabitable, holds the promise of summers and holidays and gatherings and dinners. We visited last week and fake-quibbled over who gets what bedroom and which downstairs room Mom will let us hang out in. We snacked on Wawa pretzels around the new breakfast bar on paper plates and napkins that Mom keeps in a cabinet – just in case we ever want to pick up a pizza to eat in our house that has no chairs, electricity or running water. After it’s furnished and ready and feels like home, I’m sure we’ll throw a raucous party with friends and family and laugh about the year we spent as nomads.
It’s the laughing that’s made all of this bearable. Whenever I don’t quite know how to discuss my family’s situation with someone who’s asking, I awkwardly inject humor (OK, at least I find it funny – I’m usually the only one) to ease the conversation and deflect their pity. I had never quite understood why I do this and have for almost four years now, but one of the APP’s Sandy-versary columns explained it perfectly:
“The locals are able to make light of their plight because the alternative is feeling sorry for themselves, which stopped being an option an awful long time ago.” – A Year After Sandy, Still Riding Out a Storm.
Basically, if I’ve made some terrible joke at my own expense and you don’t know how to respond, it’s not because I’m trying to creep you out. It’s because I’m trying, in my own odd way, to show you that I don’t want to be the victim of my own tragic experiences. Any second you spend wallowing in self-pity is a second you’ve wasted not celebrating your own resolve.