WARETOWN – The burden of rebuilding after Super Hurricane Sandy was nothing Tony Caira expected to do on his own. After all, his wife was a well-respected activist for Sandy’s victims – and someone Tony relied on as the “mastermind of the operation”.
Ten years after the unprecedented storm caused the waters to rise in their home, Tony now expects to finally be back home in the coming weeks. Yet there is something very empty about his return.
On November 30, 2020, Nancy Caira died from complications associated with a congenital heart condition. Months before his death, Nancy and Tony found the financial means to demolish and replace their damaged home. It was a momentous occasion that became worthy of social media.
“It has been 2,642 days since we lost our home to Sandy,” Nancy wrote on Jan. 23, 2020. “Seven years, two months, three weeks, and two days. It has been a long time. A long period of living in suspended animation with more struggles, challenges, frustrations and tears than I can ever count.
Nancy insisted she was a survivor of Sandy rather than a victim. His fight for other survivors brought help to those who had lost just about everything. She boldly interacted with state and federal legislators, who were won over by her passion and emotional response.
Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rdlisten)) was among those who attended Nancy’s memorial service after her death and spoke of her dedication. He said she was a person who always fought for something bigger than herself, rather than just self-interest.
“Ironically, the expansion of mortgage forbearance wouldn’t have happened without Nancy Caira,” said Jody Stewart, who worked with Nancy as a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project. “Nancy has given Sandy’s families a two-year extension. She and I were running around the halls of the house trying to get lawmakers to vote yes on the bill until the day before it expires.
When Tony and Nancy bought their ranch-style home, they chose something affordable that was exactly 125 paces from the edge of Barnegat Bay. The couple certainly never imagined that Sandy’s colossal strength would give them a home by the water – in the worst possible way.
“I was listening to the radio as the storm approached,” Tony said. “Commentators were making a joke and saying a ‘Frankenstorm’ was coming.”
Tony said he feared his wife’s condition would limit his mobility. He feared he would have problems helping him if things went wrong, especially because their puppy, Gloria, would need help. He recalled how awful it was when Katrina took the lives of people’s pets.
Friends who lived further inland agreed to take the family of three into their home. Nobody knew that what was initially planned as a short stay turned into months.
“It looked like a lake when I came back a few days later to check it all out,” Tony explained. “I was waist deep in water with nine foot waves from the bay.”
Besides the images captured in the photographs, a grim reminder stands as a recording of the water outside the Caira residence. Tony pointed to a green mark in the fence that separates his new house from the one next door.
“The water came this far at about two and a half feet,” Tony said. “I marked it with green spray paint.”
Nancy, who loved concerts and good music, tried to play down the devastation. She even joked about a bizarre discovery that hit the couple’s lawn.
“Craziest thing of all,” Nancy shared, “A single copy of ‘Greetings From Asbury Park’ found sitting on a pile of wood and pallets that had washed up in our yard. Just sitting there, right at the above all the debris.
While Nancy downplayed the amount of material possessions lost in the storm, she went to work filing a claim with her insurance company. She couldn’t believe that she and her husband would only have $30,000 to completely gut their house and clean it.
It turned into a bad nightmare with no hope of recovery. With little money, the next part made things even worse. The couple returned to their damaged home and tried to fend for themselves. They then learned that their home address was now considered a wetland.
Not only did the Caira residence suffer significant structural damage, but its proximity to the water also required it to be raised on stilts. The biggest problem seemed insurmountable – where to find the funds.
Between pleas for Sandy’s other survivors, Nancy’s health continued to decline. She spent months in the hospital. The couple, who were in their early 50s, were shocked when Tony suffered a heart attack. It was like they just couldn’t win.
The series of bad news finally broke with a discovery of the New Jersey organizing project.
“NJOP discovered that there were funds left over from Sandy’s recovery,” Stewart explained. “We went to the governor’s office and asked about Sandy’s extra money. The state has created $50 million in additional funding programs to fill the gaps.
A light bulb apparently went on in Nancy’s head when she decided she and her husband might qualify for the money to get them out of a bad place. It turned out that his intuition was right – all that time spent helping others ended in an unexpected reward.
The new funding has enabled the husband and wife to sign the contract for the house Tony and Gloria will be moving into very soon. High on stilts, a view of Old Barney can be seen from the porch, the house looks nothing like the one Sandy ripped apart.
A lift from the storage under the house leads upstairs. It’s a grim reminder that Nancy’s condition meant she would struggle to climb steps she could never have climbed.
Tony had to pay the money himself for various things that he changed from the original floor plan, including a second bathroom and a granite countertop instead of a Formica one. All of his retirement benefits have ended up in the project, as material costs have increased over the past two years.
As part of the additional funding deal, Tony must stay in the newly built house for five years before selling it.
“Nancy was the numbers person,” Tony said, nodding. “I can still hear his voice.”