Hundreds of Miles From Home, NJ Mom Tries to Get Back to Her Life After Ida

Hundreds of Miles From Home, NJ Mom Tries to Get Back to Her Life After Ida
Hundreds of Miles From Home, NJ Mom Tries to Get Back to Her Life After Ida

When I last spoke with Hurricane Ida survivor Karismah Tucker, she looked and rang. She was seven months pregnant, her toddler was in a stroller, and she was holding her five-year-old in her arms. That was nearly a year ago and at the time, 24-year-old Tucker was not in a great place, physically, mentally or emotionally.

And that’s understandable. Weeks prior, Tucker and her husband tied beach floats to their young daughters and were forced to wade through freezing cold water to escape their flooded apartment in Oakwood Plaza, a public housing complex in Elizabeth. They were right next to where their neighbors, Jose Torres, his wife Rosa Espinal, their son Jose “Blady” Torres and Shakia Garrett, were later found dead.

“If one little thing had gone differently, it could have been us,” she said. “We could all have died.”

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case exactly a year ago on September 1, 2021, when the remnants of the hurricane dropped 10 inches of rain in just a few hours in parts of Essex, Hunterdon, Middlesex and Union, resulting in a severe flash. flooding, damage to homes statewide and 30 deaths.

Despite the undeniable trauma of that night, she and her loved ones made it out unharmed. But it turned their lives upside down, first crammed into a hotel room for a few months after the storm. Now they and many of the 600 people who live there have been moved to remote corners of the state that are very different from home. There’s a promise that they could return by the end of the year, but at this point Tucker doesn’t want to do it again – again. She tries to rebuild a better life for her family.

The Oaks at Weatherby apartments in Woolwich Township on Wednesday August 31, 2022.Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media

“We live in a town that I didn’t even know existed before the flood,” said Tucker, who says she was born and raised in Elizabeth. “In Swedenboro. The people here are nice. It’s not a bad place to live, it’s not that at all. But it’s just a big adjustment when you come from North Jersey. Yeah…life is a little different here.

“City” is an exaggeration. Gloucester County’s small historic borough of 2,500 is less than a square mile nestled in the middle of Woolwich Township, a sprawling rural town where $500,000 homes have sprung up from agricultural fields.

Tucker said life is much “slower” in the municipality which is more than 90 miles and nearly two hours from his former home. She remembers being stopped and given a speeding ticket in her husband’s car for going two miles over the speed limit. Yes, two miserable miles.

But what about the biggest and perhaps most important difference? “There aren’t a lot of colored people here,” says Tucker, who is black.

“Most of the people of color who live here literally live in this compound. Most of the people outside are not minorities…like in my daughter’s school, I can count the number of minorities there on one hand.

That’s likely because the lack of diversity in Swedesboro and Woolwich — which share a school district — is glaring: About 72% of the population is white. In contrast, in Elizabeth, New Jersey’s fourth largest city, only 13% of the population is white.

But despite all the changes, it’s hard not to notice the cheerfulness and positivity in Tucker’s voice. She’s not just in a different place geographically, I can tell she’s also in a different place mentally and emotionally. I mention it and she agrees.

The storm, she says, was an eye opener for her. It made her realize that she had to take charge of her life.

Soon after, she started going to therapy. She then decided to go back to school and is now studying nursing at Rowan University in Glassboro. She says she is smart with her money and saves. She would like to have her own car again – Ida also destroyed it and she hasn’t replaced it yet. Ultimately, his plan is to finish school and save up to buy his own house.

For months now, Tucker and her three daughters have lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a complex in Woolwich Township, managed by Community Investment Strategies Inc., the same private company that owns and operates the Oakwood Plaza apartment complex where they were living. Elizabeth. “But,” she reminds me, “we only live here temporarily.”

According to a CIS spokesperson, displaced residents like her have had a few options: apply for Section 8 vouchers to move into private apartments, find new permanent housing themselves – something Tucker hopes to do one day. — or, essentially, get by until they can settle down again.

“We don’t have a lease here,” she said. “Our lease still has our address in Elizabeth. In fact, all of our important documents still have our address in Elizabeth. She tells me that CIS pays for her utilities because without a lease it would be impossible for her to have utilities in her name. She then reimburses the company for what she paid for the family’s services. CIS told me that residents are encouraged to change addresses now.

The temporary status of her living situation a year after the storm doesn’t really surprise her. She says that about a month after Ida, a CIS representative informed her that returning to her Oakwood Plaza home could take between a year and three years.

“Now it has been a year already and we are there. So it could take another year or two…and then what?!” she said. “We’re supposed to start completely new lives here and then three years later come back and start all over again?”

No, she said. She is why. Why she tries hard not to be so dependent on CIS, social housing, the city of Elizabeth. She wants to have more control over her destiny. For the sake of his daughters.

“[Oakwood Plaza tenants] were placed in apartments all over New Jersey,” she says. One of his old neighbors is in Toms River. Another in Atlantic City.

“We weren’t placed in houses that were around the corner from where we lived or even from each other…but again, we weren’t really in a position to turn down those apartments,” she says. “When you’re in social housing, you feel like you have to accept how little help you get.”

I contacted Community Investment Strategies to request an update on the Oakwood Plaza apartments and received an emailed statement that reads in part: ‘As we come to the one year anniversary of the Ida, we are delighted that 90% of the environmental rehabilitation has been completed on site, and we continue to aim for the return for some families by the end of the year.

Some residents, like Tucker, who were eligible were able to receive funding from FEMA, CIS said.

The statement also said the company salutes “the resilience of our tenant families in the face of losing their belongings and leaving their homes.” Resilience is right.

I really can’t think of a better descriptor for Tucker and the hundreds of others in New Jersey, many of them people of color, who were displaced by Ida and now, a year later, are still rebuilding their lives, are always healing.

“Yeah, we’re still getting by, but we’re getting by,” Tucker says.

You can reach Daysi Calavia-Robertson at [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram at @presspassdaysi or Twitter @presspassdaysi.

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