By KATIE ZEZIMA, MEGHAN BARR and HELEN O'NEILL
The Associated Press
It's been more than a month since Sandy, the superstorm combining a hurricane, a nor'easter and surging full-moon tides, tore through the Northeast, leaving billions of dollars in damage in the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut corridor.
Now as survivors dig out and try to regroup from the Oct. 29 storm even as wintry weather moves in, some are coping better than others.
There are those who can look ahead hopefully, even defiantly, vowing to "start fresh." Having lost everything, others see a grim future and brace for a long struggle back. "It's hard," many say, shorthand that understates their turmoil.
After Sandy hit and berms holding back the Hackensack River failed, sending a torrent into Little Ferry, N.J., Mayor Mauro Raguseo had a singular goal: to get his town back to normal, and his family.
He faced rebuilding a town that was 80 percent flooded and his own home, which was severely damaged.
After the river receded and residents started assessing the damage, heaping their mattresses, couches, children's toys and china cabinets on the sidewalks, Raguseo just wanted to move on from the storm as quickly as possible.
"I didn't want people feeling like they were living in a war zone," he said.
So, he and the borough council got debris removal companies in to quickly haul away destroyed belongings, he said. He let residents know of a FEMA recovery center and food and clothing distribution center in town.
And Raguseo insisted that a time-honored Little Ferry tradition go on: the annual Veteran's Day ceremony.
"I didn't want that day to go by without placing wreaths at the monument as I had done and previous mayors had done for over 100 years," he said. "And there is the sense that things are getting back to normal, and our town functions are the way they used to be."
For similar reasons, he insisted two weeks later that the town's holiday lights be hung.
Raguseo returned to his day job at the Bergen County Improvement Authority two weeks after the storm. He and his wife, Valerie, who moved into their home in April, are heading back next week, as soon as the sheetrock is hung for their new walls. They have been staying with Raguseo's parents in Little Ferry.
Now, when Raguseo finishes work and borough business, he heads to furniture stores with his wife. They've decided to purchase slightly different pieces than the sofas and chairs that were ruined.
"We wanted to start fresh," he said. They bought a black, bonded leather sectional sofa and plan to paint the new living room walls gray and the dining room walls tan.
One late night's errand: They ran out to pick up a vacuum cleaner, forgetting theirs was destroyed.
Finding a warm place to lay their heads at night has become a full-time occupation for the Alhadad family, who swam to their SUV in waist-deep water as the ocean roared down their block on New York's Staten Island during the storm.
They slept in the car at first, running the engine to keep warm. But soon the family of six resumed sleeping in their tiny two-room rental home, which was reduced to a soggy, mildewed mess after the water rose nearly to the ceiling on the first floor.
The wreckage of their belongings was thrown out, replaced by donated furniture covered in Red Cross blankets and towels.
Piled under layers of blankets and sleeping bags on the floor, the family ran a generator for a few hours at night to drift off into a warm sleep. But when morning came, they were chilled to the bone.
"All of us have really bad colds," said Rachael Alhadad, who has a hacking cough. "We just take it day by day, that's all."
Last week, FEMA finally put the Alhadads up in two rooms at a nearby Holiday Inn, where they'll stay until the federal money runs out on Dec. 15. After that, if their home is still uninhabitable, the family might be eligible for a two-month rental assistance grant from FEMA. But they haven't made plans and aren't sure what's next.
Rachael and her husband, Amin, spend their days shuttling back and forth between the hotel and the house, cleaning the house and cooking meals on the gas stove, which is one of the only things in the house that still works.
Now they must wait as their landlord negotiates with his insurance company. As the days grow shorter, the place has become a damp breeding ground for mold.
"They have to bleach the walls. They have to redo all the floors," Rachael said. "The whole thing. The bathroom, the kitchen cupboards, the fridge."
Amin, who emigrated to the U.S. years ago from Dubai, lost his job as a truck driver because he missed so much work after the storm.
The stress of the past few weeks has taken its toll on 14-year-old Ameer and 15-year-old Ayman, who lost all of their school books and supplies in the flood.
"They just got their report cards, and they're not doing very good at all," Rachael said. "It's hard to study. Because then you gotta think about, 'Oh no, I gotta go home to the same thing again."'
Ever since Tommy Cramer's home was destroyed more than a month ago, it has been hard to move forward.
Cramer and his wife, Irene, live in Lavallette, N.J. The island where the town sits only recently allowed residents full access.
While staying with his sister in Toms River, N.J., the Cramers looked and looked for a rental apartment. It has been incredibly difficult amid immense competition, but they knew it would bring a return to some type of normalcy. "If anything it's going to be a mental thing to help us move on," Tommy said as the search dragged on.
Adding to the sense of dislocation, the Cramers have been separated from their dog, Opus, who has been staying with friends.
"We used to do certain things like our walks in the morning, and he hasn't walked since it happened," Tommy said. "That's the big thing. Get him back to not waking up in a stranger's house."
He and his wife were able to clean out their house, which had five feet of water in it, a few weeks ago. They disinfected it, but didn't feel they were making significant progress because for weeks the town only allowed residents in on designated days. Tommy is disabled and can't lift more than 30 pounds; Irene helps with heavier lifting on weekends.
"Every week is better, but every week you end up with different problems," he said. "We do the best we can."