Melissa Heugle is packing her bags. Again. The Sandy displaced wife and mother of two young sons has made three moves since the storm pushed in the foundation of her Union Beach home. She’s been to the in-laws in Holmdel, an aunt’s in Brielle, then up to her parents in North Jersey. Each time loading her preschoolers and their gear into boxes and bags, logging hundreds of miles on her car as she drives across Ocean and Monmouth counties to preschool and Little Gym. In her mind, keeping those little kid appointments were non-negotiable, no matter the distance. “It’s so important to me to make sure my kids get to keep some normalcy, some stability and that things are familiar to them,” she said.
Though grateful for the family members who invited them into their home, for Heugle each move has been laden with stress. “I was afraid to unpack my stuff wherever we went,” she said, not knowing when she and her husband Chris would have to move again. Even the fridge was prepped for quick flight, as she bought just what they needed to get through a week.
But all that changes today with keys to an apartment at Fort Monmouth. “I can breathe now,” she said. “I feel relieved, safe, taken care of.
“My husband said to me, ‘This is the happiest I’ve heard you in months.’”
That happiness comes right from a three bedroom, three bathroom apartment on the fort’s Suneagles Golf Course, complete with furnishings and a new washer and dryer. The apartment is part of a temporary housing program provided to displaced residents through FEMA. The estimated 70 families housed at the fort in the Oceanport section and on the golf course will have 18 months to stay. Melissa and Chris are hoping their stay will be just seven. The couple demolished their home that was declared uninhabitable, in January. Now with a check in hand from their insurance company, they plan to rebuild on their property with a modular home, above the base flood elevation.
For now though, Melissa said she is focusing on her new temporary home, relishing the FEMA provided amenities like sheets, towels and toiletries, that saved her from digging through her storage unit. Tonight the couple’s sons will sleep in their own bedrooms.
Now Heugle is looking forward to cleaning her new place and unpacking those boxes and bags she has been living out of. “Hopefully my mind will let me do that.”
In her words, the apartment is “nothing fancy, very simple.” But she said, ”It’s more than I could have imagined or asked for. They went above and beyond to make it comfortable for us to feel like it’s a home.”
Just across the street from their new space is a little playground that FEMA officials told her they plan to fix up for the resident children. When she heard this, Melissa thought, “This is the best thing on earth. I can walk across the street and take my children to play. We don’t have to get in the car.”
Gone from her voice are the traces of anxiety that followed the storm and the loss of her home. There were frustrating months when call after call to FEMA and FEMA sponsored apartments yielded no leads. It was when she contacted Rep. Declan O’Scanlon’s office, Melissa said, that things started to move along. His staff worked with her to make sure she was on the list for fort housing.
Aware of all the talk in the news about FEMA’s shortfalls in its storm response, Melissa said she sees it from a different angle. Now she points to the FEMA reps who graciously welcomed her family into the temporary housing, promising to check on them monthly and inspect their rebuilt home before they move out.
“It wasn’t the government’s fault that there was a hurricane. Could they do more? I don’t know,” she said. “They did good for us and hopefully they can help other families.”