How I Lost My Car, And a Bit Of Income, To Superstorm Sandy

<b class="credit">Jack Silbert </b>Jack Silbert and his beloved Corolla
Jack Silbert Jack Silbert and his beloved Corolla

Parked 11 blocks from the Hudson River, I figured my beloved 1991 Corolla would be more than safe. I didn't count on a few feet of water and other fluids rising up from the sewers. So two days after Sandy hit Hoboken, N.J., when it was finally safe to emerge from my apartment building, I discovered condensation-coated interior windows, sopping wet seats, dried salt deposits, and a dead engine. It wanted to turn over, it really did. But it just couldn't.

The Corolla had been my first and only car, driving me from my passionate and confused early 20s to my passionate and confused early 40s. And as a journalist, I needed the car to, you know, get places. Sandy had effectively shut down my then-nearly-year-old freelance career. Landlines were down. Internet access and especially battery power were at a premium; for seven days I limited contact with the outside world to just telling people I was okay. Cold, powerless, and unshowered, but okay. (Because I couldn't promptly respond to an e-mail, I missed out on a regular writing assignment and it would take five months to reconnect.) When I'd held an office job, I still would've been paid during this stretch. It gave me a little pause for thought regarding my life choices.

The second half of the week I turned my attention to volunteer efforts in town: cleaning a park, delivering prescription meds to seniors, and managing a "point of distribution" for non-perishables, toiletries, blankets, and the like. It felt good to help; I felt useful. Reporting -- earning a living -- it was the farthest thing from my mind. (I did take a lot of notes on my phone, just out of habit.)

When life began to return to "normal," it was time to deal with my Corolla. Though gently driven (fewer than 100,000 miles!) and very well maintained, it was really old, and I'd dropped comprehensive insurance coverage years earlier. I summoned AAA, deciding to make every effort to resurrect my old buddy. My local mechanic was pessimistic, but $1,200 (and no guarantees) later, I semi-miraculously had a working vehicle on the day before Thanksgiving. With a garbage bag covering the still-damp driver's seat, I made it to my folks' place in Maryland, and back.

<b class="credit">Jack Silbert</b>Drying out money from the ashtray for the tolls to Maryland
Jack SilbertDrying out money from the ashtray for the tolls to Maryland

The car only survived another week and a half before the insurmountable flood damage conked it out for good. With a heavy heart, I donated my dear, loyal friend to New York Public Radio. It was rough watching the tow-company truck haul the Corolla down the street and out of my life. Well, except for one more glimpse, on the website of a Philadelphia auto auction firm. I hoped no one would unwittingly purchase what I'd clearly marked as a flood car. At the same time, I kind of wanted to put in a bid myself. That's my car, you know?

I had applied to FEMA, like the city kept urging everyone to do. FEMA turned me over to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). I certainly don't feel like a small business, but I suppose that technically I am. When the SBA sent me a loan application, I called and explained that I did not want to take out a loan and end up in debt. The rep pointed out that I had to be turned down for a loan to get any other sort of financial assistance. OK, I'd play the game.

After months of phone calls, letters, scanned documents, e-mails, online forms, and even an in-person visit, I was finally informed that my loan application had indeed been denied. Everything had been totally in order except... I wasn't earning enough money. "So because I need the money, I don't get the money?" I asked Kraig, my SBA point person. Yes, that was basically how the SBA worked, he sympathetically explained.

So my case was kicked back to FEMA. Where maybe, possibly, perhaps, I can get some kind of grant with no strings attached. Which would be sweet, as I'm apparently not earning enough money. And the money I did have went toward a newer used Corolla (purchased just in time to interview two young filmmakers in Bayonne for a local publication). More letters, e-mails, scans, and phone calls later, my FEMA application was officially submitted. And so now I wait. And wait. And listen to the weather forecasts. Because at the first sign of trouble, the new car and I are headed to higher ground.

More on Sandy from Jack Silbert

More Coverage of Sandy: One Year Later

Originally published