By John Burton
SEA BRIGHT – Leslie Johnson will be moving back into her home.
It won’t be today or tomorrow. But Johnson, who was living in a home owned by her family on River Street until it was devastated by Super Storm Sandy, will be returning there thanks to the efforts of Sea Bright Rising and the St. Bernard Project.
“It’s a great project, especially for someone like me who is dealing with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and insurance companies, the bureaucratic red tape,” Johnson said this week as the organizations’ efforts have formally gotten under way to restore what they hope to be 30 homes by the end of this year.
The St. Bernard Project is a not-for-profit founded in 2006 to rebuild homes in the St. Bernard Parish of Louisiana destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The organization has gained a foothold in this area working with Sea Bright Rising – established after Sandy to help homeowners and business owners get back on their feet – with plans to reconstruct and renovate 300 homes in Sea Bright, Highlands and in the West Park section of Rumson still in need of the work.
The organization will rely on the efforts of volunteers, including members of AmeriCorps, the federally sponsored community service organization, paid professionals and the contributions from corporate sponsors and individuals.
Johnson’s 15 River St. home, which overlooks the Shrewsbury River and is located across from St. Bernard Project’s temporary headquarters, is one of the two first homes to have work begin.
The century-old house has been in her family since 1965; Johnson took up full-time residence in 2011. Prior to that it had been home to her maternal grandmother, Mae Hutton, 94, who now lives with Johnson’s parents, who have retired and reside in Virginia.
“In Sea Bright, you’re used to the water rising up and going down” with flooding, a usual occurrence during high tides and severe weather events, Johnson said. But with Sandy, “the water rushed in and swirled around like a washing machine.” Five feet of water threw large appliances and furniture around and wrecked everything in the building, she said.
Since the storm, Johnson has been doing the round-robin route of staying with family members and friends, first at her sister’s home in Rumson, then relocating to Oceanport, Long Branch, West Long Branch and then Ocean Grove. At one point, her father Tommy Johnson – a retired Sea Bright police chief – brought his camping trailer to the River Street site. Leslie used it occasionally for some alone time during the summer months.
“I had everything I owned in the car” as she moved from location to location.
Johnson found herself at odds with FEMA because the home was in her grandmother’s name, and the federal agency determined it wasn’t Hutton’s primary residence, preventing her from receiving assistance through most programs.
“It got to the point I didn’t want to deal with it” and gave thought to selling the property.
But Mayor Dina Long suggested Johnson look into the help being offered by St. Bernard Project and Sea Bright Rising. Her paperwork was quickly accepted by Sea Bright Rising, she said.
The work is moving at a brisk pace with the interior gutted and cleaned out and ready to move forward, Johnson said.
AmeriCorps member Jessie Lee and others were continuing the demolition work earlier this week, hauling out damaged portions to be carted away.
If things proceed at this rate, Johnson said, with luck, she could imagine being in her home by the end of summer.
Johnson, who has lived in the borough for her whole life, except during college, said she remembers her grandmother sitting on the porch, looking at the Shrewsbury River on warm summer nights, telling everyone, “Aren’t we lucky to live here.”
“My main goal is to get the house fixed and the porch fixed,” and hopefully have her grandmother visit to once again say how lucky they are, Johnson said.
AmeriCorps workers have been in Sea Bright for two weeks. It’s been two weeks of hard but rewarding work, said Lee, a native of Saginaw, Mich.
“We’ve been digging right in,” Lee said. “Let’s just say we sleep well at night” after a day’s work, when the volunteers return to the parsonage at First United Methodist Church in Keansburg, where they are staying.
“After each day I feel satisfied with the work I’m doing,” added Gilbert McKenna, an AmeriCorps member from Santa Cruz, Calif.
Additional information is available by visiting www.sandy.stbernardproject.org.