JERSEY SHORE -- Michele Pitzer realizes her family's newly elevated house looks awkward in the context of her Port Monmouth neighborhood.
But being without a permanent home since Oct. 29 has taken too high a toll on her family. She is determined to bring her two young children back to the only home they have ever known -- back to a more stable environment -- and is not willing to wait months or even years to get a financial contribution from the government to do so.
"Everybody has comments and opinions about what I'm doing," she said, referring to things she's heard about on Facebook. "Other survivors have asked me in the FEMA office, 'Why did you move forward on this?' My answer to them is, 'I'm just trying to do the right thing by my family.' They just want to go home. If lifting my house means my kids can go home faster, then that's what I'm going to do to get them home faster."
By lifting the substantially damaged house now, the Pitzers knew they would become ineligible for the federal Hazard Mitigation grants, which could be disbursed in 12-18 months. They weren't willing to wait that long.
Michele and Dan Pitzer's Monmouth Avenue house was swamped by the tidal surge and the swollen Compton and Pew's creeks during Hurricane Sandy. The house, which was already 12.6 feet above base flood elevation, took in 1 foot of water. Now they are sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Red Bank with another family. The family is crammed into one of the bedrooms, with two young children, two dogs, and a growing pile of unpaid bills.
"People in Port Monmouth need help. Three months later, everyone says the money is available and help is here, but I've yet to see it materialize," she said, echoing the experience of many waiting on flood insurance claim checks. "Blankets I've got. Food I've got. Clothing I've got, no problem," she said. "People have been very generous and I'm grateful for that. But we need money. The insurance is not forthcoming."
It took two months for the Pitzers to receive their first insurance check for $21,000. Then, when they tried to cash it, it bounced. The state Dept. of Banking and Insurance said they could not help because they did not have jurisdiction over that insurance company. So the Pitzers were forced to borrow $20,000 from family and friends to pay the engineer, the remodeling contractor, and the house lifter to raise the structure 8 feet off the ground, or 16 feet above base flood elevation. A month later, a replacement check was sent, and she is holding her breath this week to see if it will clear.
Meanwhile, there is $75,000 worth of damage to the inside of the house to replace the plumbing, electric, heating, floors, subfloors, cabinets, doors and remediate the mold. Another $20,000 is needed to rebuild the foundation.
Before all that, she paid an architect $5,000 for two sets of architectural drawings. The first ones, drawn to the more stringent Zone V specs, were thrown out after Middletown Township incorporated the state-recommended FEMA Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) standards, which put her neighborhood in Zone A. "We need guidance. We need expert advice on the right way to proceed with this whole process," she said. "It seems nothing really official is being issued, so we're just grasping at straws."
Her husband, a social worker, is working three jobs to keep the family afloat. He spends his days, weeknights and weekends trying to help disabled veterans and counseling families. Michele had to give up her job as a social worker. She now has to provide transportation for 7-year old Daniel to continue at Port Monmouth Elementary because the family is temporarily living out of town, and care for 3-year old Madeline. Besides, the children need her now, more than ever "They are traumatized and they don't want to be away from me," she said.
On a day that's not so windy, Michele Pitzer can climb up a ladder and return to her house for a moment. The sun rises over the wetlands where osprey and herons have been spotted, and sets over Pew's Creek. She can see the fishing piers where the family loved to walk the dogs, Linus and Sally.
Friends from Brooklyn have asked her why she just doesn't move away, and start fresh somewhere else. She tells them, "This is the most amazing neighborhood."
"I love these people. My kids love their kids. I couldn't imagine living anywhere else," said Pitzer.