'It will be beautiful again': Breezy Point couple returns home, and recovers through rebuilding

Christine and George Donley, both 63, are finally moving home after nine months of being displaced by Hurricane Sandy. All of their possesions that they could save are now piled up in one room on the second floor as workers finish repairing their home. John Makely / NBC News

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- Half of their neighbors are gone, piles of sand occupy lots where homes once stood, and they’re living out of one room of the two-story house they’ve owned for 10 years. This is one couple’s life nine months after Hurricane Sandy.

Christine and George Donley, both 63, desperately wanted to get home after Sandy tore through their quiet corner of New York City last Oct. 29. But now that they’ve finally returned, being among familiar things offers just somecomfort.

“Sixty-three years old sleeping on a mattress on the floor is tough,” Christine said as she presented the single habitable room of their Breezy Point home. “He sleeps on the couch, and this is where we live now.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, isn’t it great? You’re back in your house.’ I say no, because, look how I'm living. This isn’t living.”

“Oh, it’s pretty close to it,” countered George. Christine admitted that he was the more optimistic of the two of them.

They have a mini fridge, a TV and a shower that doesn’t stream water at full capacity. Their former bedroom, at the other end of the house and facing the Atlantic Ocean, is what George now calls a storage room: it’s filled with items salvaged from the first floor – a comforter, clothes, little mementos from life before.

Near the window, overlooking the sea, is a white chair with a foot rest.

“This used to be my little corner to sit and read. That was my reading corner and I'd look out onto the ocean, and life was peaceful,” said Christine, a retired school teacher. “This is, this was, our beautiful bedroom.”

George gently told her: “It will be beautiful again.”

Nearly 74,000 homes and apartments in New York and New Jersey, where Sandy made landfall, sustained damage, according to FEMA. Some 450 homes in New York were destroyed by the storm, while approximately 46,000 in New Jersey were destroyed or sustained major damage, the agency said.

The Donleys returned home July 20 after refuging in three different locations: the homes of two relatives (including one in the early days that housed 11 adults, two kids and a baby) and a rental apartment in Brooklyn.

Apart from dealing with the inconvenience of transient existence, the Donleys have spent untold hours wrestling with their insurance company over coverage, forcing them to take money out of their retirement savings for home. (They’re still challenging the firm’s decision not to pay $12,000 for foundation damage.)

They’ve watched their two daughters struggle, too, to get back to their damaged homes, helping them where they could with money, repairs and babysitting.

“It’s a loss of a year of your life, that’s what it’s like,” said George, a CPA who is mostly retired. “It’s the loss of being near your friends and neighbors, and it’s because they’re suffering from the same loss that you don’t have contact with them.”

More than 75 percent of the homes in close-knit Breezy Point were damaged in the storm – including nearly 130 that burned down in a fire triggered by Sandy’s surging waters (it was the largest blaze in New York City’s modern history).

In front of the Donley’s house is an empty lot, and another large one nearby is vacant.

“Four houses there,” George said, gesturing across the street. “They floated up like an entire team, came up, and crashed into some of the houses here. So it was one, two, three, four.”

George said that observing the rebuilding of their house has given them a lift – new appliances are waiting to be installed and they’ve ordered furniture just like their former pieces to make the downstairs feel homey. They’ve also figured out how to carve out a new room for the grandkids – one, a grandson, who was born a little more than a week ago.

But the Donleys are still awaiting final word – like many others across the city and in New Jersey – from the federal government about new building requirements for homes situated in regional flood zones.

New, preliminary federal flood maps for the region mandate that people living in vulnerable areas like the Donleys will have to elevate their homes a certain number of feet – about four in their case – or face steep increases in their insurance. Some homeowners will have to get new kinds of foundations, too, among other adjustments.

Christine and George Donley, both 63, are finally moving home after nine months of being displaced by Hurricane Sandy. John Makely / NBC News

The requirements could go into effect for all homeowners in the Breezy area, though some whose homes were significantly damaged or demolished will have to do the work sooner.

“We were living in the apartment and we’re saying, well, maybe we won’t go back in until we find out how high we have to go,” Christine said. Ultimately, “we don’t have two to three years for them to decide how high we have to go. We can’t afford to pay the rent and pay a mortgage while they’re deciding.”

Elevating is an expense that can range from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000 depending on the type of residence and foundation.

Returning to the Breezy community has made dealing with all of the uncertainty bearable.

“We’re able to see and spend time with our friends and neighbors who are here and we’re sharing (our) struggling stories with them,” he said. “It’s good to see them.”

A neighbor and good friend, Catherine Palummeri, had tidied up the Donley home and put up a big sign reading, “welcome home,” to greet the couple upon their return. “I couldn't wait for them to come back,” she said.

“You need people, that’s it … let’s get back to normal,” said Palummeri, who moved back in late March. “The worst part was having no neighbors … you had no interaction.”

Also giving the Donleys a boost: family time on the beach.

“The water has been beautiful. The beach has been great,” George said.

As she sat in a rocking chair on her new deck, where a city building department flyer was posted listing their home’s condition and new insulation clung to the outside walls, Christine said they would make it through the storm – one that she said she would not “honor” by calling it by its given name.

“We will get through this,” she said. “I am stronger than the storm. I am. It took me a long time to say that, but I said it the other night. I am stronger.”