I knew even before I called my next door neighbor the news was probably bad.
"How is it?" I asked.
"You don't know?" he replied. My heart sank.
We had fled our sweet little Bayville home near the Toms River at noon on Monday, the deadline for the mandatory evacuation order. We headed for my son and daughter-in-law's house in Toms River.
A Bayville fireman knocked on our front door about 9 p.m the Friday night before Hurricane Sandy. He smiled, then stepped into our cozy living room lit with harvest lights. We had to sign a paper acknowledging that we understood if we stayed and got into trouble, no one would be able to help us at the height of the storm.
And so began preparations for the exodus.
I filled zippered plastic bags with water and put them in the freezer. We cleaned the gutters, put anything that could morph into a projectile away. I even washed the kitchen floor, so it would be clean when we returned. The efforts were laughably futile, an attempt to maintain control over something that couldn't be controlled.
That Monday we packed clothes, cans of soup, medications and wrestled three terrified kitties into their carriers. The wind coming off the river was ferocious. The trip through Pine Beach to Toms River was terrifying. Trees and live wires already littered the streets.
So I knew it would be bad when I called my neighbor, a Berkeley Township police officer, to see how our neighborhood had fared.
Flooded street, flooded houses
It was worse, much, much worse, than I had feared.
A neighbor rowing down the street gave me a ride to the house. He stroked the oars through more than a foot of dank, dark flood water. We opened the front door. At least five inches of cold water had poured into each room of the house. The garage had taken a bigger hit. The small freezer was floating in at least a foot of water. Papers and tools were soaked.
We came back the following day, when the flood waters had receded. My son started the ShopVac, so we could pull moisture out of the soaked carpets before ripping them out and throwing them away.
We heard a strange crackling sound. The power surge protector plugged into the wall outlet began to smoke. So did another outlet in the garage. My son turned off the electricity and we called the Bayville Fire Department. The men came over, checked everything thoroughly, then said to keep the electricity and gas off until we could have them checked out.
So now we have a new normal. We cannot live in our house. Every day we head out for the daily slog to save as much as possible and throw out the rest. One day blends into the next. I don't know what day it is.
An electrician managed to turn on a few breakers so the contractors could begin the process of remediation.
A partial demo
We have become all too familiar with hurricane aftermath lexicon, like "partial demo." Our home is a partial demo. At least it's not a "complete demo."
Giant dehumidifiers hum in the living room and hallway. Workers are tearing out the hardwood floors and subfloors. Sheetrock has been cut out up to four feet from the floors. The walls and studs will have to be dried out and treated for mold.
Soggy, muddy insulation is piled up in the backyard, near another giant pine that fell. The men working on the crawl space wear Haz-Mat suits. Any wiring that got wet and the breaker box will have to be replaced.
Possessions beyond saving are dumped in contractor bags and thrown to the curb. There are a lot of bags. A giant pine tree rests against the shed, where our furniture is stored.
The little bit of remaining carpet still squishes when we walk on it, nearly two weeks after Sandy. Sometimes I stand in the middle of a room, paralyzed by indecision. I don't know where to start. I don't know when it will end.
I just know I want to go home. And I can't.
Our once-beautiful view of the Toms River will return, with cobalt waters and sailboats under a sunny summer sky. But I also know I will never look at the river again without some fear and trepidation, no matter how sunny it is.
I also know many of our neighbors in Glen Cove, Pelican Island, South Seaside Park and central Ocean County were hit far worse. Many of them will never be able to go home again.
We are lucky to live in Berkeley Township.
Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr., Police Chief Karin T. DiMichele and Township Council President James J. Byrnes have done a superb job getting the information out to residents.
Our fire companies in Bayville and other sections of the township were clobbered with calls, but rose again and again to answer them. Police officers and public works employees are putting in 14-hour days.
The kindness of a stranger
I had a car accident two days after the storm, on my way to take pictures for flood insurance claims. My car was totaled. It was towed to E & L Extreme Automotive on Route 9 in Bayville.
We went to see the owner on Monday, to find out how much it would cost to store my car until it could be removed.
The owner looked at me. He told me his brother and father had lost their homes in Glen Cove. He had spent the previous week helping them gut the houses.
"I couldn't possibly charge you," he said quietly.