Jennifer Ruiz and her two year old daughter "moo moo" at a Red Cross shelter in Little Egg Harbor Township, NJ. Ruiz and her daughter evacuated from their home in Seaside heights.
The barrier islands off the coast of New Jersey were hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and for the moment most of the residents are banned from living in their homes because the area is far too damaged.
Which is why this past weekend, in a Red Cross shelter at Pinelands High School in Egg Harbor, N.J., on the mainland, around 100 stranded island residents were lining up for dinner, while Red Cross volunteers worked hard to keep things reassuring.
“Excuse me everybody!” shouted one of the volunteers, waving her arms above her head. ” Is there a Jan and a Manny in the house?”
A stocky 61-year-old man looked up from his tray. “Right here!” he answered, looking wary.
“OK, everybody!” the woman shouted again. And then the whole room, filled with dozens of weary, heartbroken people, suspended its tragedy for a minute.
“Happy Anniversary,” they screamed so loud that it maxed out the levels of my recorder.
The couple started smiling.
It was Saturday, November 3, 2012, six days after their dream had been ruined.
A Picnic Table Becomes A Bridge
Jan and Manny DiNunzio have been married for 38 years. They met, they tell me, in the 1970s, at the bar Manny owned, The Hungry Eye.
“When I saw him I said, ‘See that man? I’m going to marry him,’” Jan says. Then Manny finished her sentence, “And we’ve been together since. We moved in together by the end of that year.”
Manny, who’s from Italy, and Jan, who’s from New Jersey, came to the shelter the night before after they were forced to leave their home in .
Most of the world knows Seaside Heights from the reality show Jersey Shore, but Jan’s relationship with Seaside began decades ago, when she was just a teenager.
“Oh, it was like a must-do as a kid,” she tells me. “You worked all fall and winter to save money for that week in the summer. Seaside Heights was the place to go.”
Seaside Heights clearly occupies a big place in Jan’s emotional world. So big that when I tell her I’ve never been there she is genuinely scandalized. She simply can’t believe it. Just as she can’t believe that her husband — the modest bar owner — actually bought them a house in Seaside five years ago.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would buy a place in Seaside Heights,” she says.
But Manny did buy a place, secretly, just to please her. He bought the house on the sly, then took her to see it, claiming he’d rented it for just a couple weeks.
It was a modest place with a couple apartments out back Manny planned to rent to bring in enough money to pay for everything. He says she walked in, and she loved it.
“She goes, ‘So how long do we have here? How long are we going to stay?’” Manny tells me smiling. “So that’s when I start telling her…. guess what?”
Hearing this story makes it easier to understand why Jan and Manny behaved as they did during the storm. Jan and Manny didn’t evacuate. They spent a terrifying night riding out the storm in their home — at one point they had to use a picnic table as a bridge — and then, after the storm had finished, had clearly destroyed their town, they refused to leave. They remained in their house, by choice, for four days.
This is hard to fathom. The streets of Seaside Heights after the storm were filled with sand - as high as four feet in some places - and everywhere there was the hiss of broken gas pipes, but somehow Manny and Jan couldn’t absorb that. They were in denial.
“I said you know probably tomorrow A & P is going to open up,” Manny says. “Probably that other one is going to open up. We’re going to be ok, I told her.”
So they started cleaning up, putting their lives back together.
There was no light, there was no heat, but they still had gas for their stove so Manny was able to make morning coffee for his wife. But then the Fire Department decided to turn off the gas, which was the breaking point.
“They cut the gas, andthat’s when I kinda lost it,” Jan says.
Without a stove, Jan told Manny, they couldn’t make it, but even then, Manny wouldn’t agree.
“I brought the grill out,” he says crying, “I said, ‘you know we lost the gas, we lost the heat … this is a grill is just like a stove … we are going to use it to make coffee!’”
But Jan told Manny she couldn’t do it anymore. “This isn’t [the TV show] Survivor,” she told him.
And so they left.
“I cried like a baby,” Manny said. “Tears rolled down my fact, I locked up the place, and as I was closing the units up, the apartments, it hit me: When am I going to come back? What is going to happen? No one can give you an answer.”
That is the question: When can people move back? Manny and Jan have been asking everyone that question and everyone has a different answer. Two months. Six months. Nine months.
The problem for Manny and Jan is that financially they need the apartment rentals in the back of their house to survive. They figure they can last for a bit, “but if this goes on starting four or five months we’re done,” they both tell me.
Keeping Emotions Under Control
Can people survive? Financially? Emotionally?
That’s what everyone at the shelter was asking, and so to keep the dark thoughts at bay, the Red Cross had arranged for a local entertainer to perform in the cafeteria. At 8 p.m. a very nice woman with very tall hair took the stage. It was a strange scene. She would sing, and then do things like invite the shelter children on stage for their own performances.
A little boy called Connor junior got up for a bit. “Banana phone, banana phone,” he sang into her microphone.
Meanwhile outside in the hallway a 28-year-old woman named Jennifer Ruiz and her two year old daughter were also singing.
” I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family!” they sang together.
But the truth was that Jennifer Ruiz wasn’t happy. She was sad, but didn’t want to share that with her daughter, who she calls Moo moo.
“How do you tell a two-year-old we don’t have a home to go to?” she asked me.
Ruiz, like the DuNunzios, lived in Seaside Heights, but unlike them she evacuated during the storm with her fiance, his parents, and Moo moo.
They went to stay with her brother but decided to come to the shelter after a few days because things were getting tense.
She is upset about this, upset about everything, but doesn’t want her daughter to know, so she’s pretending that she feels fine.
“I just act like it’s a regular day,” she tells me. “Like nothing is out of the ordinary. I still play with her. I still feed her. I still laugh with her.”
It’s clear that keeping her emotions under control is very important to Jennifer.
“I don’t want to be weak.” she says. “When you’re crying you think of the worst and you lose hope.”
And Jennifer doesn’t want to lost hope because – deep breath - since Sandy hit about a week ago she hasn’t been able to get in touch with either her mother or her oldest daughter, an eight-year-old who lives with her ex. She’s called and called both of them, checked Facebook, contacted family, but nothing.
Even before the storm Jennifer had a difficult life. Though she has a good job, her relationship with her ex has been very difficult, and she recently got into a huge fight with her mom.
“It was something so dumb, but she just stopped talking to me and I stopped talking to her, like both being stubborn, not wanting to be the bigger person and say sorry,” she says.
And then came the storm, and Jennifer says that her thoughts have been cycling and cycling.
“There’s like too much going on to be honest, like I don’t have a main focus or a main thought right now … When I start to think, ‘Oh my god, are they ok? Are they thinking about me as I’m thinking about them?’ It’s like emotionally I’m a wreck.”
Still with Moo moo she is her normal self, or something near her normal self.
At 9 p.m. she tries to put Moo moo down to sleep in the gym where close to 100 people are going to be sleeping on narrow green cots.
“Come on, you lay your head right here,” she coos. “Good girl.”
“I love you,” she tells Moo moo.
“I love you,” Moo moo says.
Moo moo lies there but all around her people are moving, so it’s hard to sleep. About half an hour later she’s up again. It’s past 11 p.m. before Jennifer and Moo moo actually do get to sleep, and even then - like almost everyone else in the room - their sleep is fitful.
How can it not be?
Like Manny and Jan, and all the other people lying on the narrow green cots around them, their future is so uncertain. They don’t know where they will live, or what they will do, or what tomorrow will bring.