BELMAR, N.J. — Just before the floodwaters of Superstorm Sandy inundated Krista Sperber's home, she had her two children grab what they could from their rooms and hop in the car for a ride to a relative's home away from the coast. She figured they'd be gone for a few days.
That was nearly 2 ½ years ago.
Belmar had about 2,000 families displaced by the Oct. 29, 2012, storm; all but two have been able to return to their homes, Mayor Matt Doherty said.
Now the town has launched an "It's A Wonderful Life"-type effort to raise the $200,000 needed to get them back in their homes by the start of the third summer after the storm.
"They didn't know when I took them out of the house that night that they wouldn't be back for years," Sperber said of her children, Jack Held, 14, and Maisie Held, 12. "We're out of time, out of money and out of options. We did everything right. We went through all the proper channels, and the proper channels failed us."
Sperber and her husband, Mike Irwin, are battling with their flood insurance carrier, which wanted to pay them 10 percent of the actual amount of damage to the home, and are wrangling with the state government over a rebuilding grant program that has been plagued by delays. They got some money from homeowners' insurance but still need $100,000 to fix the cracked foundation of their home and elevate it by at least 2 feet.
They have moved five times since the storm, now paying $3,000 a month to rent a house around the corner from their own home — on which they're still making mortgage payments.
"We cannot move one more time to a home that's not ours," she said. "Four people will come unglued. This is like Groundhog Day: Every day is Oct. 30, 2012, for us. We're stuck where we were the day after the storm."
Teresa Keefe lives with relatives in Lakewood, about 30 minutes inland. She makes two hourlong roundtrips each day to drive her kids Shayla, 14, Shaun, 10, and Alyssa, 9, to school in Belmar so they can maintain links to their friends and teachers as the family struggles to rebuild their home, which had to be torn down. They, too, are about $100,000 short, and their new home is only a foundation and bare wood frames right now.
"Our family life together is now 90 percent in the car," she said. "School is the only normalcy for them now. I didn't want to take them out of school because they've lost everything else."
It was that contact that led to the aid program: Doherty's 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, is a fifth-grade classmate of Shaun Keefe. One day she told her father, "Daddy, Shaun's family is still not home."
Doherty replied, "Yes, they are going through the process."
"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Hannah asked her father.
He thought about it, and decided someone needed to do something to help the families.
"These families have missed three Thanksgivings, three Christmases, three New Years, birthdays and two summers because of Sandy," Doherty said. "We are committed to ending this cycle and getting them back home. There is no Plan B; there's just us. And so we will not fail."
Belmar launched the fundraising drive, called "Home By Summer," on Thursday with a news conference held in front of Keefe's unfinished house. Partnered with The Saint Vincent De Paul Society of St. Rose, a Roman Catholic church in town, they have set up a bank account to receive tax-deductible donations. They can be made online through PayPal by going to www.belmar.com or by sending checks made out to "Home by Summer" to: Borough of Belmar, Attn: Home by Summer, PO Box A, Belmar, NJ, 07719.
Local businesses have already donated $15,000, and others have committed an additional $20,000, Doherty said.
"Thank you doesn't even begin to cut it," Teresa Keefe said. "People have no idea how grateful and appreciative we are of their help."
Sperber added, "This is the first light at the end of the tunnel that hasn't been an oncoming train."