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New Jersey family continues recovery from Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy damaged the first floor of Peter and Stephanie Zelinskie’s Union Beach home. Stephanie and their children, Colin and baby Larissa, had to live with her parents for five months while Peter worked to repair the home.Hurricane Sandy damaged the first floor of Peter and Stephanie Zelinskie’s Union Beach home. Stephanie and their children, Colin and baby Larissa, had to live with her parents for five months while Peter worked to repair the home. All photos by Christopher John Sztybel

By Soyia Ellison 

UNION BEACH, New Jersey — With Hurricane Sandy hurtling toward their home on the Jersey shore, Peter and Stephanie Zelinskie packed up their son and their cat and drove inland to seek shelter with Stephanie’s parents. 

Throughout that long October night, they kept in touch via text with friends who had stayed behind. 

The news got progressively worse, Peter said: “I got a text at, like, 12:30 that just said, ‘Total devastation.’ ” 

Neither of the Zelinskies got much sleep that night. The next day, Peter’s uncle drove by the couple’s house in Union Beach. There was a boat in their yard, he told them, and a chunk of the town’s roller rink. The house looked OK, though. But when Peter and his dad drove down later and opened the front door, they saw mud. The water had risen about 6 inches in the living room and kitchen, a little less in the rest of the first floor. 

“Two or three days after the storm, I got some friends and family, and we started coming down and taking everything out,” Peter said. 

So many things had to go: the furniture, the cabinets, the floor, the insulation, the bottom 2 feet of sheetrock. 

“We built our garbage pile,” he said, “and the real work started.” 

Stephanie, who was seven months pregnant, stayed at her parents’ house with 4-year-old Colin and commuted to her job as an ICU nurse. Peter, who works as a plumber and has a more flexible schedule, moved into the upstairs of their house to oversee repairs. 

Sometimes he got a little help from volunteers or friends, but mostly he worked on his own. 

Habitat for Humanity of Monmouth County will send a team of volunteers to gut and repair the Zelinskies’ garage during the 2013 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.Habitat for Humanity of Monmouth County will send a team of volunteers to gut and repair the Zelinskies’ garage during the 2013 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

‘I just really hope the town comes back’

In December, Stephanie heard that Habitat for Humanity of Monmouth County was helping residents with repairs. She applied for assistance hanging sheetrock, and just before New Year’s, a group of Habitat volunteers put in a day replacing the missing sheetrock downstairs. 

“It would have taken Peter at least two or three days, maybe a week, to do the work that everybody did in one day,” Stephanie said. 

There was still more work to do, of course. And the Zelinskies lost several weeks in January and February when Larissa was born and they embarked on what Peter jokingly calls “The Larissa Tour” — showing off their new daughter to relatives and friends. The family wasn’t reunited under one roof until March. 

Still, they were back home sooner than many of their neighbors. Peter estimates that as many as half of the town’s 6,000 residents are still living elsewhere. The neighborhood doesn’t even sound the same. 

“On a regular weekday, we’ve gotten used to the sound of construction,” Stephanie said. “There are always construction vans, construction trucks, dump trucks, bulldozers, whereas it used to be kids riding around on their bikes, and soccer games. It used to be more family-oriented.” 

Stephanie said she appreciates the role Habitat played in helping her family return home. 

“I think the fact that Habitat is available is just huge,” she said. “Sometimes you just feel so overwhelmed and exhausted at the thought of everything you have to do.” 

One project the Zelinskies haven’t been able to complete is the gutting and rehabbing of their garage, and so, during the 2013 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in October, Habitat volunteers are coming back to help with that. 

Habitat crews will repair about a dozen other homes during the project, and will start work on at least one new home on the Zelinskies’ street. 

Stephanie is happy to see others helping bring her battered community back to life. She looks forward to the day Union Beach once again feels like the place she and Peter moved to in 2008. 

“I still love the house,” she said. “I just really hope the town comes back.”