For Sandy survivors, home's not the same

Kathy and Joe Missilli outside their home on Kathy and Joe Missilli outside their home on Cleveland Place in Massapequa. (Oct. 20, 2013). Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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A house is made of bricks and mortar. A home is more.

It is a shelter and a memory box. A cafeteria, a movie house and a weekend bar for the playoffs. And, whether a humble shack or a turreted castle, it is ours.

No one appreciates this more than the victims of superstorm Sandy, both those who have moved back and those still making that transition.

But for some, the familiar has become unfamiliar, the secure terrain unsteady.

"It's the same structure," says June Goldhamer, a retiree who returned to her Freeport duplex four months ago, "but it's not the same."

This elusive anxiety is not unusual, says David Hymowitz, Nassau County coordinator for Project Hope, a FEMA-funded crisis counseling program created last year by the New York State Office of Mental Health.

"The carpet is not the same. The paint is different. The furniture is different," he says. "It's not their old home."

Exactly how many Sandy victims are in this category is hard to figure because of privacy issues, but it's definitely a problem, says Lisa Tasso, a Project Hope crisis counselor. She says she sometimes has seen a half-dozen new clients a day who report such feelings.

One reason might be the upcoming one-year anniversary of Sandy, a time that can dredge up old feelings of loss.

"I have a picture on my wall of a wedding photo floating in the water," says Karen Martin, Suffolk County coordinator for the organization. "What if that was your photo?"

Despite this, those struggling with such feelings are quick to say they realize they are lucky despite their distress.

"It was a terrible night," says Kathy Missilli, who lives with her husband, Joe, in Massapequa. "But we survived, and that's what's important."

Here are examples of three homeowners in this predicament.

A RESIDUE OF ANGST AND DEPRESSION

Never in the three decades they lived in their two-story Massapequa Cape did Joe Missilli and his wife, Kathy, both in their 60s, worry about a storm. After all, they had survived other onslaughts. And the shore was 15 blocks away.

Then Sandy pushed three feet of water into their lives.

"It was shocking," says Joe, a retired postal worker. "And the aftermath was overwhelming."

Ironically, his wife, 66, had lobbied him for years to redo the bathroom and kitchen countertops and perhaps change the rugs. Now, the renovation work they began in the wake of the storm is nearly done, including Kathy's suggested upgrades. "We got that changed," Missilli says, laughing. "And all at one time."

But the conversion was more stressful than fun because the decisions had to be made quickly and included things they may have done differently, Kathy says. What's left has been a residue of angst and depression. "You walk into a bare house and say to yourself, 'This is not my home,' " he says. "We're just not comfortable."

It's not so much what's there. It is what's not there. When water began filling their downstairs, the couple started hefting everything they could to the upper floor. Now, they are trying to find missing items -- everything from family pictures to nail clippers.

"It's the little things," Missilli says. "All the things you kept by the side of the bed. All the things you've accumulated over 30 years and didn't realize it. That's why it doesn't feel like home. Because there's no connection to what we had."

They have considered moving to Virginia to be close to relatives. But they would be leaving friends made over three decades. And, despite its vicious wallop, Joe says he still loves the beach. Two weeks ago, he finally put a picture on the living room wall -- a collage of family photos. But what from there?

"Do we want to put up the old stuff or all-new stuff?" he asks. "I think that's why we're in a quandary."

IT'S NOT THE PLACE SHE LEFT

When a fast rainstorm blew up one day this summer, June Goldhamer watched as water crept toward the new car in her driveway. It receded, but she realized that the feelings of insecurity that took root with the arrival of Sandy had never left.

"I got this ice cold spot in the pit of my stomach," she says.

The owner of a Freeport duplex near a canal for 28 years, Goldhamer says she didn't believe the dire forecasts about the superstorm at first. After all, the neighborhood had emerged unscathed from both Hurricane Gloria and Irene. Then, she noticed water seeping in the front door and her cat backing up the stairs.

She grabbed her pillow, some clothing, a guitar and medications and fled to the second level. Later, she realized one medication was missing. She made one last trip downstairs and nearly tripped headfirst on her wall-to-wall carpeting floating in the water.

The scene the next day left her stunned and disgusted.

"The marsh grass was ankle deep on the lawn," says Goldhamer, 65, a retired Verizon worker.

As her home was being reconstructed, she told members of a support group that, like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," she kept clicking her heels to get back home, but nothing was happening.

The magic happened last May when she moved back, but it isn't the home she left. Pictures and important papers associated with the residence are missing. She has new furniture. The walls are painted bright colors. She hasn't hung up a single picture or sorted through the boxes in her garage. Then there's the neighborhood.

Some residents have their homes up for sale. Others have moved away, fearful of what the weather could bring again. Goldhamer knows the feeling.

"Now," she says, "I want to hang everything from the ceiling."

THE CHANGED CHARACTER OF LONG BEACH

Anna Ervolina isn't back in her residence yet. But when that happens, she realizes she will not be returning to the Long Beach she once knew.

Take, for example, the cherished ritual she and her then-4-year-old daughter observed once a week. First, they would visit the tiny West End library near their home to pick out a movie and a book. Then, they would walk down the street to have their nails done together. Afterward, they would stop at a local deli to buy a snack. Then, it was home for a movie night.

Now, the library is closed because of storm damage. Several of the businesses in her end of the community are gone, replaced by franchise stores. "It changes the character -- the spirit of the place," says the 42-year-old attorney.

The anniversary of Sandy is like opening an old wound, she says. The water that filled the home where she lives with her husband, Mike Young, 43, and her two children smelled like a sewer. Then, the ocean rolled down the street, whitecaps and all, topping off at 5 feet. She lost pictures, a figurine collection, cherished letters, nearly everything.

She not only fears that her former bungalow, still gutted and boarded up, will not be the same, neither will the environment that brought her here nine years ago.

According to building restrictions, she and her husband must raise their ruined home 8 feet when they rebuild. She wonders how her older parents are going to navigate the stairs when they visit.

"I've had back surgery. How am I going to get up and down with a 2- and a 5-year-old? People used to sit on their porches and talk to neighbors. How can you have those casual interactions with someone when you're talking 8 feet above their head?"

Long Beach has always been special, she says, a place of funky bicycle tours and polar bear swims and charity benefits. But she knows of at least eight neighbors who are not returning. "We chose to live there because of the community and the people," she says. "And I'm afraid that's not going to be there anymore."

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ADVICE ON HOW TO GET RELIEF

Here is a brief compilation of advice from relief officials on how to deal with uneasy feelings about settling back into a home that has been repaired after being damaged in superstorm Sandy:

MAKE A CALL

For free and private counseling, call 800-543-3638, a 24-hour referral agency that can connect you with a Project Hope crisis counseling program in your community. "We're a confidential sounding board," says one team leader, Diane Hand. "We hear out the survivor and give them an opportunity to speak."

KEEP IN TOUCH

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Family and friends provide stability and support on a day-to-day basis and in crisis, counselors says. Maintain a social network for your mental health. Eat dinner with your family when possible or host a barbecue with friends. Also, observe familiar routines and holidays to stay emotionally grounded.

DON'T FEEL ALONE

Many who survived Sandy are still grieving, whether over lost friends or loved ones or a home and possessions. Don't feel like something is wrong if you are still in a dark place. "Most people in a disaster get through it just fine," says Karen Martin, Suffolk County coordinator for Project Hope. "Some take longer than others." If your stress level is such that your emotional reactions are interfering with your daily functioning, Project Hope counselors can help you determine if more intensive services are needed, she says.

CAREFUL ABOUT THAT DRINK

A crisis may bring back pre-existing conditions, says David Hymowitz, Nassau County coordinator for Project Hope. Those with former mental health or substance abuse problems need to guard against a relapse. "We expect extreme emotions in extreme circumstances," he says.

HEAD FOR THE WATER

Surviving a crisis can turn a cherished environment into a threatening one. "One woman said her dream was to live by the water," says Project Hope director Kenneth Gnirke. "She spent her life savings to get there, and it made her feel peaceful. Now it has a different connotation. It's important to emphasize positive things like taking strolls on the beach or boardwalk with friends to get back that appreciative feeling," he says.

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

Don't use the anniversary of Sandy to dwell on your losses, says Hymowitz. Think about how much you've accomplished in a year. He says he knows of some victims, for example, who are creating a mural to commemorate their comeback. "Take a look at how far you've come and everything you've done," he says.

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