WILDWOOD, N.J. — This boardwalk beach town, packed in summer and ghostly in winter, has become the last refuge for several hundred homeless survivors of Superstorm Sandy. Many place their hope in Lisa Brocco-Collia.
At 41, she seems as much a force of nature as the storm itself. Her home was partially condemned after floodwater surged through the first floor. But she's been far too busy as a volunteer relief coordinator to move — setting up a donation center at the VFW post, arranging free dinners at a downtown restaurant, visiting families with her clipboard, keeping tabs on state and federal agencies, pestering politicians.
On a recent morning, Brocco-Collia was meeting displaced families housed at the Blue Palms Resort, one of a string of retro doo-wop motels that reopened off season to serve storm victims.
Kathleen Clancy, 51, told Brocco-Collia that she was trying to care for a schizophrenic niece, repair her flooded home, find a place to stay and hold onto her job as a data entry clerk — all while dealing with a chronic illness, Crohn's disease.
"I'm mentally and physically exhausted," Clancy said. "I know I need help."
Six weeks after Sandy's furious winds and deadly storm surge ripped apart homes, families and communities in a dozen states, many on the devastated Jersey Shore are struggling anew as their homes are condemned, emergency shelters close and federal housing assistance tapers off.
That's where Brocco-Collia comes in.
She describes herself as "a real Jersey girl," a solidly built Italian American tomboy who grew up hunting, fishing, skateboarding and riding motorcycles. But her life changed when she suffered a head injury in a car accident when she was 17; she says that trauma and a second accident with a tractor-trailer four years later paralyzed the left side of her face and made it difficult to stand or sit for more than half an hour.
Brocco-Collia, who grew up inland in rural western New Jersey, came to Wildwood to escape the snow in the winter of 1996. She found more snow instead, saw a need, started a snow-plowing business and bought a house here soon after. She is unemployed now, but still favors sweat shirts and steel-toed boots, ties back her long, curly brown hair in a small bun and talks like a Teamster, bold and brash.
"People are getting dumped here," Brocco-Collia said as she met storm victims on a wind-swept balcony at the Blue Palms.
Finding new housing is nearly impossible on the Jersey Shore these days, particularly for low-income seasonal workers with poor credit. Many don't have cars or passes for local buses. In some towns, door after door is taped with red stickers, designating homes unsafe.
About 25,000 New Jersey families need housing because of Sandy, according to a state disaster task force. At least 22,000 homes or apartments are uninhabitable, and more than 324,000 suffered significant storm damage. The demand far outstrips supply: About 6,100 rentals are available statewide.
Many have moved in with relatives or gone elsewhere. But 2,663 displaced people were staying in 293 motels with Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, according to FEMA, which is scrambling to renovate parts of Ft. Monmouth, a closed Army base, to house others.
Most of those housed in the motels pay with checks from FEMA. The assistance had been set to expire this week but was extended late Tuesday for two more weeks. New Jersey officials have requested another extension until mid-January, but it's not clear what will happen, or when the motels will start to close for the winter.
Bill Vogel, FEMA's deputy federal coordinating officer for recovery, said the agency tries to help families find housing within 50 miles of their storm-damaged homes.
"We do our level best to find them something that's reasonable," he said.
The emergency crews that flocked to help after the storm have begun to go home. The American Red Cross says it has raised $172 million for Sandy relief, but it has cut its staff and volunteers by more than half and begun closing temporary shelters and other programs in recent weeks.
"I know people are frustrated," said Russ Paulsen, who heads Red Cross community preparedness and resilience. "In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, we wanted to make sure people had a warm, safe place to go with their family, and enough to eat, and we did that. Those needs are starting to fade."
Tell that to Tamara Santana, who came to one of Brocco-Collia's free dinners. After Sandy destroyed her home, the 47-year-old housekeeper stayed in a temporary Red Cross shelter in Toms River, then was sent to the Esplanade Suites hotel in Wildwood. She has yet to find a new place to live.
"We're stuck — we don't know where to go from here," Santana said, wondering aloud why the Red Cross volunteers who initially helped her had disappeared. "They came to the hotel and interviewed us and then … nothing."
Brocco-Collia took down her details and those of more than 150 other people who came for the free pasta and meatloaf at Gioia Ristorante, an Italian restaurant down the street from her house.
Early the next day, Brocco-Collia checked in on Dawn Righter, 77, who had lived in the same small two-story house on Juniper Avenue for 56 years. Sandy flooded it a few months after her husband died. That left Righter alone to clean out the debris while caring for her developmentally disabled daughter.
Inside, furniture gathered mold on the damp linoleum and buckled hardwood floors. Brocco-Collia promised to return with a volunteer crew to help finish cleaning and packing.
"I will be back in contact with you tomorrow," she said, giving Righter a hug.
It was a gray day, the sky spitting rain. After she returned to her van, Brocco-Collia glanced back at the elderly woman in a powder-blue winter coat and plastic rain bonnet. She was sorting through waterlogged belongings.
"She's so overwhelmed," Brocco-Collia murmured. She later returned with two volunteers from Ohio to help Righter empty the house.
Brocco-Collia's situation isn't much better. Two days after Thanksgiving, FEMA notified her that her house was uninhabitable. A single mother with a 15-year-old son away at school on scholarship in Pennsylvania, she had no flood insurance for the two-story building on Pacific Avenue, and no one seemed to want to help.
"I went looking for other people in the same situation as I was. I ended up finding out there were hundreds of people here and they were so worse off than I was. I still had four walls and was able to put a key in a door," she said. "I started helping out those people because they were hungry. They had no idea where they were, and every week they were on the verge of being thrown out."
She has done some work on her house — ripped out fixtures from a bathroom, torn up six layers of linoleum before she discovered the wooden joists underneath rested on sand, not concrete.
The job is daunting. Black and white mold has invaded the first floor and appears to have crept up the damp walls to the exposed planks of the ceilings. She feels better when she's outside, on the move.
"You can go and you can work for so many hours, and then it becomes overwhelming," she said. "It's tedious. You're unwrapping every little Christmas item because it's soaking wet. Sometimes the paper sticks. But you can't throw memories out."
Back on the road, Brocco-Collia drove to Cresse Avenue to see Bill and Jessica Kobin, a young couple from Seaside Heights with two toddlers and a third child on the way. They were flooded out by Sandy, and initially took refuge with their mutt Jersey and cat Oreo at a Red Cross shelter about 50 miles away and then in a motel in Wildwood. With FEMA assistance, they recently moved to an $895-a-month, two-bedroom rental.
Kobin, who was eight months pregnant, hadn't seen a doctor in a month. She wanted to return to work as a home health aide and find work for her husband as a pharmacy technician. They needed to see a doctor, refill prescriptions and buy groceries.
Brocco-Collia promised to find food and a ride to the doctor, and to ask about construction jobs.
Back out on the street, she saw something encouraging: a red Salvation Army truck parked by the Bolero Resort hotel. Volunteers had come from Minnesota.
Brocco-Collia pulled over. She was expecting a shipment from a nearby food pantry, she told them. She was also planning a Christmas party, complete with toys and donated food. More storm victims were still arriving at the Bolero, joining those at the Blue Palms, Esplanade, Days Inn and Starlux Hotel. Her own house could wait.
She had other priorities: "I just don't want these people to be forgotten."