MARQUETTE - Four small steps were all that separated Northern Michigan University student Georgette Breen's New Jersey home from ground level.
Four small steps that meant practically nothing Oct. 29, when Hurricane Sandy ripped through her island-based hometown of Ocean City and changed her life forever.
"When we walked into our house, you could see lines of how high the water actually was," she says, seated at a table in the community room of her apartment complex in Marquette. "We lived right on the bay. It was a really nice house, three stories."
Central Avenue in Ocean City, N.J. — a street near the beach — was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. The street was covered with sand a few feet deep in some places. (Photo courtesy of David Nahan/Ocean City Sentinel)
Northern Michigan University student Georgette Breen walks to class recently. Breen transferred to NMU after Hurricane Sandy ripped through her hometown of Ocean City, N.J. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
Much of Ocean City's beach front, pictured here, was washed away by Hurricane Sandy, leaving just supporting posts behind. (Photo courtesy of David Nahan/Ocean City Sentinel)
Six months after the hurricane's touchdown, Georgette and her mother, Bonnie, live in Marquette, where Georgette attends Northern, working to earn a degree in communications.
As she and Bonnie sit at the table, the heaviness of the women's loss is almost palpable.
America's Greatest Family Resort
The town of Ocean City, N. J., located on a small island roughly 20 minutes away from Atlantic City, is very much a tourist's town.
Sporting a city-owned golf course, plenty of hotels and restaurants and miles of beautiful shoreline, the city welcomes the sunscreened and sandaled tourists who come every summer for a week or two of fun in the sun.
For the 11,701 year-round residents of Ocean City - according to the 2010 U.S. Census - the 6.33 square-mile seaside community is a special place.
"It was kids and family," Bonnie said.
"In the summertime, we'd walk down the street and be on the beach," Georgette said. "We knew that we'd see people hollering down the street, 'Let's go, come on, we can't miss the rides.'"
Ocean City bills itself as "America's Greatest Family Resort," but the broken-down buildings, trash-strewn streets and devastated shorelines created by Hurricane Sandy left the town - and its residents - reeling.
"After Sandy, anytime there's a bad rain or anything like that, they pretty much tell you just to get out," Georgette said.
Millions of dollars will be needed to clean up the mess Sandy left behind in Ocean City. Roads, buildings and bulkheads need to be repaired or replaced, the beach restored to its former boardwalk glory. The city hall alone will need $305,000 in repairs to fix the ground floor, according to a report posted on the city's website.
Clean-up efforts have begun, but will likely take years to complete.
When Sandy struck
Georgette and Bonnie used the stark white stain clearly visible throughout their home's first floor to estimate the level of water that had rushed inside when Sandy struck - about four feet high.
Their new furniture, bought just before the storm, was completely destroyed by the flooding. The floor sustained heavy water damage as well. Holes developed under the carpeting. Mold found its way into the walls and the women's clothing. The air was heavy with the odor of seawater and rotting garbage.
"It smelled like rotten eggs," Georgette said.
Bonnie, who attempted to return once the storm passed, was removed from her Bay Avenue home because of mold and natural gas leaks that made the air unbreathable.
"You're used to the beach town," Bonnie said, on why she went back. "You're used to your roots."
Bonnie, originally from Germany, moved to the United States when she was 22. That was 40 years ago.
Still wanting to stay in Ocean City after the storm, she began looking for other places to rent. Time after time, she came up empty.
"I couldn't even find a place to go on living," Bonnie said. "I tried to find something. There was nothing, even for rent. It was very difficult."
Living in the
It hasn't been easy for the two women, transitioning from their sunny, seaside dwelling in Ocean City to the cold, bleak winter of Marquette - a town that typically ranks in the top 10 cities for snowfall in the country.
"I like snow," Bonnie said, in her thick German accent. "I'm from Germany originally. I'm used to the snow. I'm used to the cold weather, but here is just a little bit too long. It takes half of your year. I feel very, really sad, totally like I'm in a twilight zone. I still cannot believe what went on."
Neither Bonnie nor Georgette were in Ocean City when the storm hit. Georgette was attending Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa.
Bonnie was visiting a friend in California.
Both were riveted to the television as the hurricane ripped through New Jersey, horrorstruck at the video feeds that showcased the rage of one of the biggest storms ever recorded in American history.
Most people left the town before Sandy hit, but a neighbor of Bonnie and Georgette's decided to ride it out.
Georgette said they called the neighbor, asking if she could go to their house to save some of the priceless items located on the first floor, including a photo of Georgette and her father. He had passed away on Christmas Eve, when Georgette was still only in fifth grade.
"We begged her, please, please try to go save some pictures," Georgette said. "My dad passed away. We had a picture downstairs on the fireplace of me and him when I was a little girl, and she tried to save as much as she could, but not a lot was saved. It's hard. It's hard to face that it happened...
"It's almost as if I don't want to admit it happened," Georgette said. "I don't want to face reality, that this summer is not going to be the same. You can't rebuild what we had. It's never going to be the same. It's memories...
"My main focus right now is to just try to do everything I can to get through school and see that diploma in my hand at the end."
"God has a plan"
Bonnie and Georgette tell just one story, yet it is similar to thousands that emerged after the storm hit.
The stories, to the people who weren't directly affected by Sandy, were often just another item on page three of their local newspapers. But those stories will forever link the people affected by the storm, binding them together in a mutual understanding shared only by the people who can say, "I was there."
The storm wreaked havoc on the east coast, and island nations such as Jamaica and Haiti. According to the Associated Press, a total of 196 people died as a result of Sandy and hundreds more were injured. Millions were left without power for days or weeks at a time.
It was difficult for Georgette to take in.
"Every couple of days, I woke up and I cried," she said.
Though she and her mother are still trying to pick up the pieces of a life long-gone, Georgette said she looks back on the storm and its wreckage as a lesson. She said she's leaned heavily on her faith in God in recent months, and found comfort in prayer.
"I'm looking at it as an experience," Georgette said. "I'm trying my best to look at it as all positive. God has a plan."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.