Though most of the homes in Seaside Heights were seasonal residences, Lambros Vlachakis and his wife Rita lived there year-round, for the past two decades. At 800 square feet, their house was only slightly larger than a bungalow, but they loved it, and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. Sandy flooded their entire neighborhood, damaging the home more than 50 percent, so they would have been required to rebuild it to comply with current FEMA flood map elevations and building codes. That was impossible, given the tiny size of the lot, so in mid-September, their house was demolished.
Vlachakis is now living in a rental, across the bridge in Toms River. He’s gotten some money from insurance, but didn’t qualify for government assistance, since his income was above the threshold, so he’s had to use up much of his retirement savings. He’s hoping to get a modular house to put on the property in time for Christmas. Though all that’s now left of the house is a vacant lot, his mailbox still stands in front of the property, and Vlachakis drives there every night to pick up his mail, just to feel like he’s going home.
His wife, meanwhile, has had several seizures since the storm, and now requires fulltime care. Though he can’t prove it, Vlachakis suspects the seizures were caused by all the stress. Looking back at the past year, he says things have been pretty rough. “Every time someone says it’s going to get better, it gets worse,” he says.
We first met Laura and Stan Lech a week and a half after Sandy, when they and other Seaside Heights residents were allowed back into town for the first time after the storm to assess the damage and retrieve whatever personal belongings they could fit in two suitcases. For many residents, that choice of items was intensely personal. Laura took her mother-in-law’s guitar, her father-in-law’s ashes, and her kids’ bicycle helmets.
The Lechs had moved to town two years before the storm, drawn by the idea of living near the water, but that plan backfired when their first floor rental flooded, and they lost everything they owned. FEMA put them up in a hotel for a few months, but then that aid ran out, so they’ve spent the past year bouncing around between several relatives. They’re tried applying for other relief aid, but were unable to provide the necessary documentation, since all their paperwork including their lease and paystubs were destroyed in the flood.
Currently, they’re staying with Stan’s mother in Western New Jersey, along the Delaware River, where they say no one seems to understand how bad things still are along parts of the Jersey Shore. Their friends who have returned to Seaside Heights tell them much of the neighborhood still feels like a ghost town. Laura and Stan’s two, teenage sons miss their friends and their school. Though they now live far away, they’re still involved in the local scout troop. Stan says it’s the only thing they have to hold onto and one of the few things that’s normal in their lives.
Despite all they’ve been through, Sandy hasn’t deterred the family’s desire to return to living near the ocean, but they’re not sure when or how that might become a reality. In the short term, Stan says they’re running out of money and running out of options.