PATERSON, NJ - Nicholas Robinson’s life changed forever when Hurricane Irene hit Paterson in late August. He and his family live a block away from the Passaic River and the floodwaters gushed straight into their home, sweeping away everything in sight.
Almost three months later, the Robinsons live a life of instability. With two kids and a baby on the way, he struggles to provide food and adequate shelter for his growing family.
“I don’t know where I’m going to get my next meal,” Robinson said. “But I have to make sure my kids eat, that’s the only thing I care about.”
Robinson is one of hundreds of Patersonians who still suffer in the aftermath of the flooding, long after the television news cameras and political spotlight have moved on. The aid provided by government agencies and charities has helped, but not enough to restore normalcy for many of the flood victims as the winter months approach.
The floods rendered more than 150 city houses uninhabitable, officials said. Folks who have been fortunate enough to return to their homes must fend with lingering problems like mold, ruined heating systems and damaged possessions. When asked what they lost, just about every flood victim interviewed for this story replied with one word: “Everything.’’
Mark Miller and his wife had to be rescued by boat because they were trapped inside their house. Along with hundreds of other Patersonians, the Millers sought refuge in temporary shelters. For about a week, they stayed at the Eastside High gymnasium.
“It was so packed and people were crowded on top of each other,” Miller recalled. “It was so hot and people were fighting over fans.”
Morningstar Santana had to move out of her apartment because of problems with mold, which she says her landlady failed to address. Santana now has bronchitis and a big rash on her arm that she attributes to the mold.
Other residents, like Jerome Anthony, are in the difficult process of rebuilding their homes. Anthony said his house had at least four feet of water in it, destroying most of what he owned. He is struggling to pay for the many needed repairs and is still in the process of getting a heating system. As the days have become colder, Anthony has resorted to using the oven to heat the house.
“You have to make do with what you got,” Anthony said. “And pray you don’t get sick.”
Many Paterson residents continue to seek assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yvonne Zuidema, the president and chief executive officer of United Way of Passaic County, said nearly 8,000 families have registered with FEMA in Passaic County alone. She estimated that around 300 to 400 of the households have long term needs. A larhe portion of them come from Paterson.
Countless victims remain in limbo as they wait to hear back from FEMA. Because there are so many applications, it is taking FEMA a long time to complete all the assessments, officials said. This has put people’s lives at a standstill, leaving them unable to begin repairs or obtain supplies.
Rita Kelly, the director of Disaster Response for Catholic Charities, still encourages residents to apply for FEMA until the Nov. 30 deadline. “I strongly advise people to apply to FEMA because trying to find those resources somewhere else will be hard,” Kelly said.
Some flood victims who have received assistance from FEMA say they money was not enough to cover a substantial amount of the damage. They say it barely made a dent in the costly repairs that need to be finished. “I could use another $10,000,” Anthony said.
For others, like Rickey Chandler, the FEMA aid has made a difference. He used to live in a small apartment on the first floor. After that flooded out, Chandler eventually received aid that enabled him to move to a nicer apartment on the third floor. He said they sent a check within seven days.
“FEMA came through for me,” Chandler said. “I was one of the fortunate ones.”
Besides FEMA, many residents continue to seek help through Catholic Charities, churches and other non profit organizations based in Paterson. The Rev. Pat Bruger, the director of CUMAC-ECHO, said that the agencies continue to see a regular flow of victims. People come daily because they have no place to store food and they don’t have the resources to quickly recover. She predicted families will still be struggling by winter.
“The flood took an already bad situation and made it worse,” Bruger said. She suggested that Paterson should improve communication methods so citizens know what’s going on and where to get resources in case another disaster occurs.
The Father English Community Center (FECC) food pantry has seen a 500-person increase since the flood. The center currently sees up to 140 people on a daily basis. Carlos Roldan, the director of Emergency Food Pantry and Referral Services for FECC, is concerned about people who too afraid to step forward and ask for help.
“A lot of people are illegal immigrants. They stay in a hole and are afraid to seek help,” Roldan said. “If they let us help them, we can help them a lot.”
Some victims feel that Paterson isn’t doing enough to help them recover. Santana complained that the charities give her a hard time about paperwork and that the lines are too long. She feels the people who need the most aid are being forgotten.
But as the holidays approach, Paterson is making an effort to show its appreciation and compassion for the flood victims. Donna Nelson-Ivy, the director of Health and Human Services, said the city is distributing $50 supermarket gift cards on Tuesday to help victims with their Thanksgiving meals. “I like to see them smile because I see the bad a lot,” Nelson-Ivy said.
Also, the Grandparent Relatives Care Resource Center Inc. and Christ Temple Baptist Church on Hopper Street will be providing needy families and flood victims with a free hot home cooked pre-Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday.
Despite their trials and tribulations, the flood victims strive to keep moving forward. They say their Paterson spirit can’t be broken.
“I’m still going to strive to be a provider and a husband,” Robinson said. “I can’t just lay on my back and do nothing.”