To drive down low-lying streets in Sayreville is to witness a seasonal time-warp.
A week before Christmas, scattered front yards displayed the usual Nativity scenes and blow-up Santas. But others set a spooky scene as gauzy ghosts, paper skeletons and signs bearing foreboding messages like “RIP” and “help” – decorative remnants left by homeowners hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy two days before Halloween –hovered above basements torn agape and haunted lawns cluttered with detritus from former lives.
It’s the holidays in Sayreville, a Raritan River town where 235 families remain displaced because of flooding – and where almost nobody can talk about it without crying.
“I miss them,” says Monica Bonkowski, through tears, of her live-in adult sons, who are staying with friends and relatives while she and her husband wait out the residential rebuilding phase with friends who will host her sons for Christmas.
As much as Bonkowski appreciates the hospitality, she dearly misses her own family’s holiday traditions.
“On Thanksgiving the four of us usually have dinner then put our tree up,” said the out-of-work mother whose home’s foundation crumbled from the force of the water, leaving gaps between it and the ground.
“Usually Christmas Eve we have an open house, then on Christmas Day we just hang out together and watch Christmas movies. This brings a whole new meaning to ‘open house.’”
The president of the New Jersey Emergency Management Association says that although he believes Sayreville to be the most devastated of the state’s inland communities, it provides a good measure of how flooded inland and Shore towns across the state are coping with the trifecta of Thanksgiving, Hannukah or Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
“People are going to remember this Christmas for the rest of their lives,” said Barry Eck, the emergency management coordinator in Sayreville. “They have no place to put up a tree or celebrate some traditions. And they have to explain to kids that it’s not going to be the same for a while.”
Eight thousand households in Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties are eligible for FEMA temporary housing assistance, compelling Gov. Chris Christie to add more than 300 permanent housing units to the 45 already under renovation at Fort Monmouth and extend the expiration date for FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program by at least a month.
To the best of their ability, religious and social service organizations, as well as more fortunate members of the community, are doing what they can to ease the trauma. While they can’t necessarily offer the warmth of familiar shelter, they are providing food, gifts and counseling to as many adults and children as possible.
In Sayreville, a mostly working- and middle-class town of 45,000 that is the boyhood home of Jon Bon Jovi, the Rev. Thomas Ryan of Our Lady of Victories Church, in conjunction with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen, has taken a lead role in providing solace and goods to parishioners of the town’s Catholic churches.
In addition to arranging for Catholic Charities USA to conduct a needs assessment to guide Sandy response efforts in the municipality and across the state, Ryan hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and worked with the local Catholic Charities branch to distribute donated Christmas gifts to about 60 families from Sayreville, South River and South Amboy who called in requests or were identified by their pastors or anonymous donors who designated their recipients.
Other than the gift collection, however, he says it’s mainly post-Sandy work as usual.
“Had this been in August we would have done much of the same work, though naturally the holidays are always a challenging time,” Ryan said. “And of course because of our recent experience it’s even more trying.”
Sarah Levine, executive director of Jewish Family & Vocational Service of Middlesex County, echoed that sentiment. She says that though her organization, together with several other Jewish groups, received more calls than usual about their Hannukah and Christmas gift collection and distribution program, the most monumental need is elsewhere. In her case, it’s food.
“People have to replace what they’ve lost so if we can give them pasta, sauce, tuna, canned fruit (and other staples), their dollars can go further,” she said, adding that the organization’s two kosher food pantries have supplied a far greater number of people – both Jews and non-Jews -- than normal this holiday season.
“We did give out extra food for Thanksgiving,” she said.
Other groups, such as the American Legion post on ravaged MacArthur Avenue, served Thanksgiving meals to veterans and others and will do so again on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The quasi-public Sayreville Storm Relief agency, founded by the town council president with the mayor’s blessing, continues to distribute clothes, blankets and othergoods.
Some organizations and individuals, like the Sayreville Athletic Association, which runs youth sports programs, and the owner of the Angles and Tangles hair salon on Main Street, are choosing to focus on collecting gifts for kids.
In addition, FEMA disaster recovery centers served as collection points for the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program.
“When I heard that those kids (whose houses flooded) had lost all their toys, it broke my heart,” said Angles and Tangles’ Denna Fuentes, apologizing to a client for crying over her partially dyed head. Fuentes has spent more than two weeks accepting piles of donated dolls, puzzles and army figures for distribution through Sayreville Storm Relief.
Ironically, just as she added that she’d spent the previous weekend crying over the Newtown, CT, killings of 20 children, her husband wheeled in another Christmas present -- the shiny pink two-wheeler he’d just finished putting together for their 4-year-old daughter.
While a 4-year-old might not understand why Santa didn’t drop through the fireplace this year, anecdotal evidence shows that six weeks after the storm, older children, in general, can put the sacrifice in perspective. NJ Spotlight spoke with a few children and found that more than the gifts they give or receive, they feel the greatest sense of loss over the places where they usually spend their holidays.
“We won’t be in our house,” said a displaced 16-year-old, unsuccessfully fighting tears while a group of children whose father lost his restaurant but not their home nodded sympathetically and said they can appreciate why they won’t find mountains of gifts or a coveted iPhone under their tree.
“At least we have our house,” whispered the 8-year-old son of Camillo Iaccarino, whose Camillo’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, which didn’t carry flood insurance, sustained between $500,000 and $700,000 in damage. After getting 5 feet of water in the 30-year-old local landmark, Iaccarino and his partner are rebuilding, but they’ll never recoup the profits they gave up by closing during their busiest season and cancelling 30 scheduled holiday parties.
“Our Christmas is not going to be anywhere close to what it normally is. As for that iPhone she wants,” said Iaccarino of his daughter, “I already told her it’s not going to happen.”
The nonprofit Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ) received a 60-day FEMA grant to partner with the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Disaster and Terrorism Branch, to launch the New Jersey Hope and Healing initiative to staff a helpline and put 80 crisis counselors on the ground in affected counties. Executives report its helpline staffers have taken several calls relating to post-Sandy stress and depression made more acute by the holidays.
“It is often especially hard for people who may feel set back when they realize that they can’t celebrate their holiday traditions such as decorating and baking … perhaps having forever lost cherished holiday possessions that were an integral part of their celebrations. The difficulties of displacement become even more painful when a family does not have a place to host a holiday family gathering,” said Renee Burawski, crisis counseling program project manager for MHANJ.
A listening ear could be all some Sandy survivors need to get through a season that under normal circumstances causes suicides to spike and depression to weigh especially heavy. Hope and Healing counselors, whose tagline is “Your Calm after the Storm,” are just some of many who are extending or preparing to extend their services to disconcerted communities.
They may prove especially valuable to clients like Brian Kemp, who hasn’t been able to secure a job since a stroke last year left his speech almost unintelligible. Stopping by his uninhabitable home on the way to meet with a Hope and Healing counselor positioned outside the FEMA disaster assistance center at Sayreville’s daytime senior center, Kemp wept as he tried to explain the circumstances life had recently hurled his way.
But exemplifying the brave spirit Sayreville’s leaders and residents insist will keep them going, Kemp allowed one ray of optimism to shine through his darkness.
Hoping that he can “make a few bucks” by doing some work for an acquaintance who hired him once before, Kemp plans to buy 3-year-old and 13-year-old daughters a small Christmas gift with the money he might make. “They need it more than me,” he said. “I’m going to try my best.”