Sandy’s wake: 50 years of living simply washed away

The two-story dwelling at 21 4th Avenue was not just a house to Joseph and Ellin Ward, their 11 children and 24 grandchildren. It was their life. But it was no match for Superstorm Sandy.

TOMS RIVER, N.J. — The two-story dwelling at 21 4th Ave. was not just a house to Joseph and Ellin Ward, their 11 children and 24 grandchildren.

It was an escape from the bustle of daily life in northern New Jersey, a vault for family relics, a matchmaking service and, for 50 years, witness to the big and small moments in the lives of the Wards.

The house that was a hub for the Ward children and their friends, that held up as more than 20 people shared two bathrooms and five bedrooms every summer for five decades and produced upward of 45 meals a day in the tiny kitchen, was no match for Superstorm Sandy.

The storm enveloped the shores of Normandy Beach with 20-foot waves and 80-mph wind gusts that drove oceanfront homes across the street into the Ward house, knocking it off its foundation. The front of the structure collapsed sideways, like a listing boat, while other parts were compacted or buried under other houses and mounds of sand.

For the Ward family, the loss of the ranch-style memory-maker was more than just the loss of brick and mortar. It was the loss of a lifestyle that hearkened to the Jersey Shore of yesteryear. Here, generations of the same families spent every summer in the same Shore town, and the children played every day in the same plot of sand by the water and visited the same ice cream shop every night. It was the loss of family history and memories that felt as though they were a part of the very structure.



For New Jersey couple, Sandy ruined more than just home

Bobby and Pamela Vazquez decided to ride out Superstorm Sandy in their Union Beach home. Their house was leveled, and they barely survived. Nine months later, they’re trying to find a way to move on.


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UNION BEACH, N.J. — The saltwater kept rolling in off Raritan Bay in 20-foot waves, crashing on the street where Bobby and Pamela Vazquez lived, turning it into a churning rapid.

The wind howled with 80-mph gusts, gas lines burst and hissed, electric lines crackled and people trapped in their homes yelled for help.

As water gushed into their house, Bobby and Pamela ran to the apartment over the garage — the highest point they could reach — to ride out the storm. They watched the wind tear the French doors free as water surged through the opening. The walls and roof twisted and crumbled.

Superstorm Sandy had arrived.

Parents move west looking for ‘miracle’ pot for children

Mark Botker plays with daughter Greta, 7, at their new Colorado home. Greta is prescribed cannabis oil for severe seizures. The oil is extracted from a genetically modified strain of marijuana called Charlotte's Web. (Photo: Nathan Armes for USA TODAY)

Mark Botker plays with daughter Greta, 7, at their new Colorado home. Greta is prescribed cannabis oil for severe seizures. The oil is extracted from a genetically modified strain of marijuana called Charlotte’s Web.
(Photo: Nathan Armes for USA TODAY)

Greta Botker has been through more adversity in her short life than most adults. At the age of 7, she’s sampled a host of medications for her epilepsy: Onfi, Depakote, Felbatol, Keppra and Prednisone.

She’s been on strict diets.

She’s had brain surgery.

Nothing reduced the 15 or so seizures she had every day since she was 5 months old that kept her from walking steadily, feeding herself or talking. Her parents, Maria and Mark, had run out of options.

Then they heard about a strain of marijuana grown in Colorado that reduced the number of seizures in children with severe epilepsy.

“We really tried everything with Greta,” says Maria Botker, a nurse. “We put our child through brain surgery, so a plant like marijuana was not going to scare me.”

In November, Maria and Greta headed west to find a miracle. Mark and the couple’s two other daughters, 13 and 10, stayed on the family’s farm in Minnesota.

Maria and Greta joined a migration of parents who, after trying countless methods to ease their children’s crippling seizures, are packing up their families and moving to Colorado.



Helping parents and children move ahead

For the policy wonks in all of us, I moderated  a lively discussion on July 9 with CLASP, Foundation for Child Development and Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray about successes and challenges in helping parents improve their education and career options while also helping their children’ss early development. New findings by Donald J. Hernandez, sociology professor at Hunter College, show some pretty striking differences in how well children do depending on their mothers’ education.

The other panelists included:

Olivia Golden, Executive Director, CLASP; former Assistant Secretary for Children and Families

Dr. Gail Mellow, President, LaGuardia Community College, Long Island City, NY

Juan Salgado, President and CEO, Instituto Del Progreso Latino, Chicago, IL


For the poor, recovery is a mirage

Damien Hall, 35, stands on the front porch of his home with his wife, Franshel Hall, 25, and their son Damien Jr., 4, while watching Aaniya Hall (left), 8, and Daniel Hall, 3, ride Big Wheels on the sidewalk in front of their house in Piqua, Ohio. (Photo: By Ty Wright for USA TODAY)

TROY, Ohio — ​​​​​​The rise in poverty here is evident in the mass of people who crowd the waiting room of the free health clinic every Thursday night — so many that the volunteer staff turns away about half of them.

It is marked by the bare shelves of the food pantry at Richards Chapel United Methodist Church, a one-story sanctuary where dozens of laid-off factory workers, retirees and young parents with children fill the dining hall daily for a free lunch.

And it is lived by Nancy Scott, a former stay-at-home mom working a temporary minimum-wage job, who says she had to choose between exhausting her paycheck on rent and utilities or living in her 1990 pickup.

She chose the truck.

This rural community, 22 miles north of Dayton, has seen an explosion of poverty in the past four years that is among the highest increases in the nation. Last year, 16,000 people lived in poverty in Miami County — one of every six residents, the Census says. Four years ago, just as the Great Recession was taking its grip on the nation, one in 16, or 6,000 people, suffered in poverty here.

The recession hit the Miami Valley hard, squeezing the lifeblood of the local economy: the auto industry and manufacturers that shed thousands of jobs. Families living on the margins of poverty found themselves catapulted into its misery.

This pain has festered even as the circumstances for many Americans have improved. Although the U.S. poverty rate hovers at a daunting 15%, economists agree a slow recovery is afoot. Housing prices are stabilizing, manufacturing is rebounding and last week’s consumer confidence index reached the highest level in five years.

But for people in Troy — and the tens of millions of Americans like them — the daily hardships of poverty aren’t captured in statistics or healed by political promises. As lawmakers in Washington grapple with the “fiscal cliff” and Americans do their holiday shopping, thousands of people in Miami County are managing on little or no income.


A record number of families are living in poverty

Billy Schlegel plunged from middle class into poverty in the time it took his daughter to play a soccer season.

In January 2010, he was making $50,000 a year as a surveyor, meeting the mortgage payments on his three-bedroom home in the nation’s wealthiest county and paying for his children to play hockey and soccer.

Then came February. Schlegel, 45, was laid off. During the next 18 months, the divorced father of three almost lost his house, had to stop paying child support and turned to the local food bank for basic necessities.

“You’ve got to swallow your pride,” Schlegel says. “Especially around here; people lose their status and they feel they don’t fit in.”This is the face of poverty after the Great Recession. Millions of Americans such as Schlegel now find themselves among the suddenly poor.

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