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Waves wash over a roller coaster off New Jersey's barrier islands.
Associated Press/Photo by MIke Groll
Waves wash over a roller coaster off New Jersey's barrier islands.

On the front lines

Superstorm Sandy | Each day brings new struggles for homeless Sandy survivors, even as national attention wanes

NEPTUNE, N.J.—Almost two weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit, Natalie Zozzaro sat in a lobby of the Jersey Shore University Medical Center, where her mother is recovering from heart surgery. The hospital ran off generators after the storm but regained power about a week later. For the time being, her mother is stable.

Zozzaro has spent every day here since her mother was admitted to the hospital several months ago. Now her daily visits include two two-hour drives between the hospital and her brother Jim’s house, where she has lived since the storm damaged her and her mother’s home in Seaside Park on New Jersey’s barrier islands, a thin line of land along the coast that felt the storm’s fullest fury.

On these islands, Sandy ripped homes off their foundations, snatched shorefront boardwalks, and tossed the famous Jersey Shore roller coasters into the ocean. The state sealed off access to the islands for two weeks after the storm, but just last week residents were allowed to return to clean up from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. It may be more than six months before the Zozzaros are allowed to return there to live because of damage to the islands’ infrastructure, including sinkholes and spewing gas lines detached from homes. 

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“By the time they let us back in, we’re not going to be at the forefront anymore,” Zozzaro said. “We’re used to hurricanes, but not this caliber. We’re not used to the devastation that we saw.” 

The Zozzaros’ home, unlike many around them, is still standing, but the floodwaters destroyed most of their belongings. At Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where Jim Zozzaro is the interim pastor, none of its members were able to return to assess the damage those first two weeks.

Sitting in the hospital, Zozzaro’s mind was running, running, running: check on her mother, call the insurance company, call the Federal Emergency Management Agency, attend the town council meeting to see when they could go back to their home, answer calls from parents of students at the school for the disabled where she works. The school was closed for two weeks after the storm and parents were frantic. She also answers multiple text messages and calls she receives from friends across the country every day, asking how she is and what they can do to help her.

Meanwhile, the state was under gas rationing, and yellow caution tape encircled many gas stations that either didn’t have power to pump gas or had run out of gas completely. Providentially, gas was available in Wildwood, N.J., where Zozzaro has been staying with Jim, so on her daily drives she brought cans of gas up to people near the shore who needed it. The U.S. Postal Service isn’t delivering mail on the barrier islands, so Zozzaro has to go to a postal office in a nearby town to pick up her mail. She doesn’t know what she is going to do for Thanksgiving. 

“I just have to pray every day, ‘What do I do?’” she said.

The state government organized a few busloads of supervised “grab and go” trips, where residents can return to their homes for a few hours and bring back whatever they can carry. Zozzaro managed one trip to her house after the storm, when she and her family winterized the house and took ruined belongings to the curb. But they had to leave the wet insulation and sheetrock to mold.

By Christmas, Zozzaro hopes her mom will be home from the hospital—“or wherever we’re calling home at the time,” she said. 

In a follow-up report, WORLD's Emily Belz visits Natalie Zozzaro’s home in Seaside Park, N.J., an area that has been sealed off to all but first responders and residents.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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