TOM: It’s October 29, 2012 and Hurricane Sandy has her sights set squarely on the Jersey Shore. In Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Carlos Santos thinks he can outwit the storm. Armed with a few sump pumps, he sets up for the night in his home, located along one of the town’s man-made canals. The plan? Using sump pumps, Carlos hopes to stay one step ahead of the surging water and save his house from any major damage.
And as he sends his wife, Maria, and two children to a nearby shelter, he begins what becomes the longest night of his life. And it’s a decision Carlos quickly realized was both completely pointless and extremely dangerous.
CARLOS: It looked like a waterfall coming into the crawlspace and it was just – couldn’t keep up. As a matter of fact, I had that large pump, about a 3-inch hose and had two smaller sump pumps. So I had all three working at the same time and I wasn’t make a dent at all. And they got to one point – they were totally submerged and I just decided to power everything down, cut all the electricity to the house and I gave up at that point.
TOM: And that was the least of his worries. As thoughts of saving his home soon turned to thoughts of saving his own life, Carlos started planning for every contingency. He tied a rope from his home to his boat docked just behind the house. He brought a kayak up to the second floor and he hunkered down for the long night ahead.
Meanwhile, in the shelter, Carlos’ wife, Maria, had lost touch with him and became more panicked with every passing moment. And as the night went on, waves of rescued residents were brought to the shelter but Carlos was not among them.
MARIA: It got worse and worse as the night progressed because I’d lost total contact with him. And as the night progressed and the early hours of the morning came in, the rescuers were bringing people into that shelter constantly. There were dozens and dozens of rescues that day, that night, and each story was somewhat worse than the other. There were people that came into the shelter with – saying that they had water up to their necks. They had to climb up to their attics. The dogs and children – I mean I saw couples coming in just with the children in their laps. It was very, very nerve-wracking, very bad.
TOM: When rescuers finally did reach Carlos, he surprisingly refused to leave. The storm had passed and after a long wait, he had finally made contact with his insurance company. And thinking that filing his claim would be the first step to get his life back on track, Carlos was determined not to leave until that was done. Instead, he stayed behind and later kayaked out of his house to higher ground where he had parked the family car.
CARLOS: I don’t think I had a sense of fear. It was more just a draining sense of trying to keep thinking of all the scenarios possible. So as I kayaked down the street, I was thinking, "Are there power lines in the water? Do I – my oars are metallic. Am I going to get electrocuted?" So, there were a lot of things going through my mind as to what to do and being very careful, looking at the telephone poles and making sure there were no lines down and things like that.
So, it was more of a – I went into a survival mode, I think, at that point, more so than anything else. I wasn’t thinking about any kind of rebuilding at that point. I was just getting out and seeing my wife and kids and getting that claim in to start that recovery process eventually.
TOM: It turns out that getting that claim in quickly wasn’t all that necessary because insurance covered very little of Carlos and Maria’s rebuild. They, like so many other victims that could, paid for much of the rebuilding themselves. But one positive that came from the need to rebuild was an opportunity to work with This Old House, the team of experts he’d watched build homes for as many years as he could remember.
Like most of the other homes flooded by Sandy, Carlos and Maria needed to raise their home to meet the new FEMA guidelines. The plan? Construct a support system under the existing structure using helical piles. These piles could then be extended to lift the home in place. And thinking this approach might be of interest to This Old House, Carlos contacted the program.
CARLOS: I’ve always been a huge fan. And one night, I was just sitting on the couch and I just – surfing the internet. And I just decided, "Hey, why not? Just send them an e-mail, tell them about what we’re doing." It seemed kind of novel, to me, at least. I hadn’t heard of helical piles and this type of system going in. So I told them about it and it was a short e-mail and kind of briefly described what we wanted to do. Attached a very early draft of our plans from our architect and here we are. They’re here with us now.
Working with This Old House is fantastic. Watching the show all those years, never imagined that I’d be on it. And it’s just been a fantastic experience for me. Almost a dream come true for us. And they’re just fantastic people to work with.
TOM: So with that, the cast and the crew of This Old House got to call New Jersey home this past summer while documenting Carlos and Maria’s project, along with two other rebuilds at the Jersey Shore in an area that, previous to Sandy, was perhaps most well known as the scene of a wildly different MTV television program, a point well made by Roger Cook, the team’s landscaping contractor.
ROGER: This isn’t the Jersey Shore I saw on TV. You know, this is far and away different from what was portrayed on TV. This is a beautiful community with beautiful beaches and just miles and miles of beaches and families and everyone enjoying them. This is a whole different area than we saw on MTV.
TOM: To Roger’s experienced eye, seeing the shore’s landscape destroyed by saltwater told a story, as well. Trees and shrubs by the shore are used to the salt spray and survive quite well in the seaside environment. But being inundated with seawater down to the roots was a different story. And Roger observed how the native species survived, while those that were transplanted may never come back.
ROGER: There are a lot of perennials that do pretty well. A lot of the grasses do really well with the saltwater that’s gone through. We found out that arborvitae and Leyland cypress do not. They were one of the mass casualties down here because people had long, long borders, greenings of arborvitae and Leyland cypress. And they’re just cooked; they’re done. They’ll never come back.
So, some of the native junipers have done fine. Evergreens, American holly lost its leaves but they’ve fully leafed out, most of them, this year. So they’re a plant that you could plant again, too.
TOM: And so, as the saying goes, you just can’t fool Mother Nature. And as the rebuilding continues, making sure the landscape stays truly natural means it’s likely to live on far beyond any future storms.