By John Burton
Temporary residents feel ‘lucky’ to be living in former Army housing
FORT MONMOUTH – Despite what they’ve been through since Super Storm Sandy, Leonore McGee and Karen Connolly are very grateful for their current situation.
After their homes were damaged during the storm, the women were relocated in late December to apartments on the former Fort Monmouth property.
“When I go to sleep at night I think about how lucky I’ve been,” McGee said.
While Connolly acknowledged she had been pretty down about things, “I think the disaster brought the best out in people,” she now believes.
The two women, who sat down this week away from the former fort site to discuss their housing situation, told how grateful they were for the housing and how helpful state and federal representatives have been in assisting them in their plight.
“What I’m taking away from this is the kindness they’ve showed,” McGee said.
McGee’s home is in Highlands and Connolly was living in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown when Sandy hit.
The first floor of McGee’s home, which she shares with her 11-year-old mixed breed dog, was flooded and will need extensive repairs and renovations before it will be ready for them to return.
Connolly and her husband’s home, where they live with a 5-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, is situated near Pew’s Creek. The storm’s surge caused the creek to spill over and destroy an adjacent dam, flooding their house. “The surge hit the dam and that’s it,” Connolly said.
The flooding caused extensive damage. Some of Connolly’s neighbors told her the water was 8 feet high at high tide, she said.
Immediately after the storm, Connolly and her husband and dog went to live in the Comfort Inn on Route 35 in Middletown.
McGee said she has moved five times since the storm, staying with family members and then in a hotel in Lancaster, Penn. Her sixth move brought her to Fort Monmouth.
The apartment on the former army installation has been a financial lifesaver, Connolly said.
The tenants live there rent free.
“If I didn’t get this, I’d have to rent somewhere and I have a pretty hefty mortgage,” she said. “I couldn’t have been able to survive.”
“I’m a pretty positive person,” McGee said, “and I try to look at the bright side of everything but each day I wondered where I would go, what I would do.” That was before she was contacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and notified that she would be able to move into one of the available apartments.
Following the storm, Gov. Chris Christie announced plans for the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and Department of Human Services to work with FEMA, which would renovate some of the closed fort’s housing units to make them available for families displaced by the storm.
According to DCA spokesperson Lisa Ryan there are 115 available housing units in three buildings on Fort Monmouth property; 111 are occupied.
State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon Jr., R-13, said this week another 16 units could easily be made available, if there are requests for them.
“I was floored when I opened the door and saw it was furnished,” Connolly said, remembering her initial reaction to the apartment. “Refrigerator, stove – all brand-new.”
McGee added, “It seemed like they thought of every detail,” including sheets, towels, paper plates and plastic utensils.
After weeks of living on microwavable meals and takeout, Connolly said, “it was so nice to cook something.” She said it was small, everyday occurrences like that that made the difference between hope and despair.
The buildings and their occupants have developed a sense of a small community on its own. Residents – “a mix of young and old,” Connolly said – are taking their dogs (of which there are many, McGee noted) to the designated dog park and children are using the basketball and tennis courts, and taking buses and vans to school on the weekdays.
Some of the residents are going to ask if they can use charcoal grills for group cookouts for those still living there when the warm weather arrives, Connolly said.
Recently one of her new neighbors traveled to his church in Union Beach and told the pastor and members about his new neighbors. Church members filled up the man’s van with food they had collected and asked him to distribute it to those living in Fort Monmouth, which he did, Connolly said.
“Everyone is always helping everyone,” Connolly said.
Those living in these apartments can stay for up to 18 months from when the state of emergency was declared, O’Scanlon said.
“This is temporary housing and I think everyone realizes that.” Many, if not most, will likely have returned home long before then, he said.
O’Scanlon has visited the site and said those residents he spoke to seem happy and content in their temporary homes.
Overall, it has been a success. “It’s worked as well as government can,” he said.
For Connolly and McGee, the plan is to try to get their homes repaired and their lives back on track.
Connolly said her husband is apprehensive about returning to their Port Monmouth home. It was damaged in Hurricane Irene in 2011 and the couple was defrauded by a general contractor after that storm, she said.
“You’ve got to pick up and keep going,” McGee said about her plans for the future. She suspects her home will take a long time to be repaired.
People who are still looking for assistance in obtaining temporary housing as they recover from Sandy may call O’Scanlon’s office in Red Bank at 732-933-1591.