We first met Turner in the People’s Pantry, a community relief center in Toms River, New Jersey. Housed in a cavernous 20,000 square-foot storefront in a suburban shopping plaza on Fischer Boulevard, the Pantry has become a permanent fixture of the community. Like many other middle-class residents in limbo, Turner first came to the Pantry in January seeking aid. She ended up volunteering when she realized that they needed help distributing donations to the more than 5,000 families registered to get weekly supplies. She’s since come on board the tiny staff as the Donations Coordinator.
During our conversation, Turner and a younger staff member played with her infant son, Carson “Hurricane” Turner, who was born less than two months after the storm. Turner explained that she and her husband, a retired police officer, have gutted the house to remove the moldy flooring and sheetrock down to the studs. But they are waiting for the funding to rebuild so they can move back in.
A few weeks later, we visited the Turners at their home in Brick, New Jersey—the house that her newborn son has never lived in. Their neighborhood is made up of a network of narrow streets, alternating between paved roadways and Venetian-style canals that residents call lagoons. The backyard of each house borders neat lanes of water leading to the bay. Groups of kids run in and out of each other’s homes. And even though only a handful of residents have returned, during our afternoon visit a couple of boats drifted down the waterway like it was an ordinary summer day on the Jersey Shore.
Unfortunately, Turner’s ordeal—in which she, her husband, young daughter and dogs had to flee to a nearby house and later be evacuated as the water rose around them—has put a stain on their view of their bucolic neighborhood. Like tens of thousands of homeowners across New York and New Jersey, Turner is struggling to stay afloat in the midst of a mountain of paperwork, changing rules and mortgage payments that make it impossible for her to either rebuild or walk away.
She would walk away from the property—if not for the mortgage and equity loan she still owes on the house.
“The only thing they haven’t asked for is a DNA sample,” she said, describing the endless applications for rebuilding assistance. “They need to know everything. I couldn’t put one grant in because I couldn’t find my one month-old son’s social security number. I asked, ‘Why do you need his social security number? He’s a baby.’ They said, ‘We need it all.’ And I was like, ‘Do you think I’m making him up? He’s sitting right here!’”
Twice now FEMA has lost the paperwork Turner has submitted. And even though she’s received flood insurance, it’s not enough to rebuild and raise the house. She’s so frustrated that she would walk away from the property—if not for the mortgage and equity loan she still owes on the house.
Last November, many banks promised to give homeowners affected by Sandy a 90-day grace period on their mortgage payments, while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac floated a soon-to-expire yearlong grace period. But many said they were offered a mere two-week grace period, if any at all.
Turner and her family are living in a house in the nearby town of Tom’s River with the help of the FEMA rental assistance program as they wait. They are still living near the water, which is unnerving, she says, but she sees many people at the People’s Pantry that haven’t been able to find rental housing and are living in much more precarious situations. And working there offers an important way for her to stay busy and focused on moving forward.
“It helps me through the day, so I’m not home thinking about how bad everything is, or when I’m going to get back into my house,” she explained. “I think it has made me a better mother to my children, because I’m not moping. . . . The more you are with people and the less you feel alone, the better you feel, because you are not the only one going through this.”