Hurricane Sandy survivor Sonia Castillo broke down into tears of happiness as her 2-year-old son Caleb giggled and played with toy cars in their new apartment in Garnerville Friday afternoon, amid a litter of bags and boxes from donated Christmas gifts.
Castillo's old apartment, a first-floor flat on North Street in Stony Point, was ravaged on Oct. 29 when the 15-foot storm surge from superstorm Sandy spewed five feet of water and raw sewage over her every last belonging.
The two spent a month living at the Stony Point Conference Center -- a temporary housing shelter set up through FEMA -- before moving into the two-bedroom place at Tor View Village Apartments.
"Sunday at 8 p.m. before the storm, the cops came knocking on the door telling us there was a mandatory evacuation," Castillo recalled, through the tears. "It happened a year before with Irene and it was just a lot of rain. This time we were just expecting a lot of wind."
Castillo grabbed two days' worth of clothing for her and her son and went to stay with a relative. The next day, she returned to her apartment to grab vital medication.
"It was pitch dark. Trees were all over the streets. It was a maze," she said.
"When I got to my apartment, it was just this awful, awful smell. When I went in, I saw all the devastation. I had over five feet of water in the apartment. Oil and fecal matter were everywhere, all over everything."
Gone were her clothes, furniture, pots and pans, everyday necessities.
"I didn't know what to do after that," Castillo said. "I didn't know what to do with my little one. I was lost."
The month spent in the shelter took a toll on Caleb.
"He wouldn't go to sleep. He wasn't listening," his mother said. "Sandy was really hard on him. His teachers all noticed a drastic change."
Then Turner Public Relations, based in Manhattan, read about Castillo's situation in a Newsday article and wanted to help. On Friday, Mariana DiMartino, senior vice president at Turner PR, smiled as she played with Caleb and showed him his new toys, including a pop-up Thomas the Tank Engine tent, electronic educational games, coloring books and crayons.
The public relations company came up with a long list of gifts for Castillo, as well, including many of life's necessities. She was offered new down winter coats for her and her son. She can now also serve her Christmas turkey -- donated from Catholic Charities -- on the 12-place set of china DiMartino brought along.
"As the days go by, I can see that there's always a rainbow at the end of the storm. I know there's better days to come," Castillo said. "We're starting to get back to normal now. Two months ago, I had nothing, and now I'm beginning to build something again."