LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Hurricane Sandy has forced thousands of people in New Jersey out of their homes. That includes residents of the barrier island that lines the Jersey coast. For now at least they're banned from living in their homes.
Over the weekend, NPR's Alix Spiegel visited a shelter set up in a public school gym, where island residents are staying. She has this story about one night there and a few of the people she met.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It's dinnertime at the Red Cross shelter and the volunteers are working hard to keep things reassuring. And so, as the residents lined out in the cafeteria, one of the Red Cross women starts waving her arms for attention.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Excuse me everybody. Is there a Jan and a Manny in the house?
MANNY DINUNZIO: Right here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Right here. OK, everybody. Happy anniversary.
CROWD: Happy anniversary!
SPIEGEL: Jan and Manny DiNunzio have been married for 38 years. They met in the '70s, they tell me, at the bar Manny owned.
JAN DINUNZIO: I saw him - when I saw him, I said, see that man. I'm going to marry him.
M. DINUNZIO: I think ever since, we've been pretty much - we moved in together at the - yeah, at the end of the year, the same year.
SPIEGEL: Manny, a stocky 61-year-old Italian, and Jan, who's tiny and from New Jersey, came to the shelter the night before after they were forced to leave their home in Seaside Heights.
Now, most of the world knows Seaside Heights from the reality show "Jersey Shore." But Jan's relationship with Seaside began decades ago, when she was just a teenager.
J. DINUNZIO: Oh, it was like a must-do as a kid. You worked all fall and winter to save that money for that week in the summer. Seaside Heights was the place to go.
SPIEGEL: Seaside Heights actually occupies a big place in Jan's emotional world. So big that when I tell her that I've never been there, she is genuinely scandalized. She cannot believe it. Just as she cannot believe that her husband actually bought them a house in Seaside five years ago.
J. DINUNZIO: Never in my wildest dreams thought he would buy a place in Seaside Heights.
SPIEGEL: But Manny did, secretly, to please her. He bought the house on the sly, then took her to see it, claiming he'd rented it for just a couple weeks. It was a modest place with a couple apartments out back Manny planned to rent to bring in enough money to pay for everything. He says that she walked in and she loved it.
M. DINUNZIO: She goes, so how long can we have here? How long are we going to stay? So that's when I start telling her, guess what.
SPIEGEL: Now, hearing this story makes it easier to understand why Jan and Manny behaved as they did during the storm. See, Jan and Manny didn't evacuate. They spent a terrifying night riding out the storm in their home. At one point they had to use a picnic table as a boat. Then, even after the storm had clearly destroyed their town, they refused to leave.
M. DINUNZIO: We were there for four days. For four days.
J. DINUNZIO: Four days.
SPIEGEL: The streets of Seaside Heights after the storm were filled with sand, as high as four feet in some places. And everywhere there was the hiss of broken gas pipes. But somehow, Manny and Jan couldn't absorb that. They were in denial.
M. DINUNZIO: I said, you know what, probably tomorrow, A&P is going to open up. Probably the convenience store over there is going to open up. We're going to be OK, I told her.
SPIEGEL: So they started cleaning up. There was no light, there was no heat, but they still had gas for their stove, so Manny was able to make morning coffee for his wife. But then the fire department turned off the gas, which was the breaking point.
J. DINUNZIO: They had cut the gas. Yes, I think when I - I kind of lost it after that.
M. DINUNZIO: Yes, it was the gas.
SPIEGEL: Without a stove, Jan told Manny, they couldn't make it. But even then, he wouldn't agree. He brought the grill out.
M. DINUNZIO: I said, you know, we lost the gas. We lost the heat. I said this is a grill, it's just like a stove. Just like a stove, I said. And we are going to use it to put on the Mr. Coffee to brew it.
J. DINUNZIO: He said, don't worry. Just don't worry because we're going to be all right. So I said that's it. I can't do it anymore.
SPIEGEL: And so they left.
M. DINUNZIO: I cried. I've been crying like a baby. Tears roll down my face. I locked the place up. And then, as I was closing the units up, the apartments, it hit me: When am I going to come back? What is going to happen? Where is everything? Nobody can give you an answer.
SPIEGEL: That is the question. When can people move back? Manny and Jan have been asking everyone and everyone has a different answer. Two months. Six months. Nine months. The problem for Manny and Jan is that financially, they need the apartment rentals in the back of their house to survive. They figure that they can last for a bit. But...
M. DINUNZIO: But if it goes on for four or five months...
J. DINUNZIO: We're done.
M. DINUNZIO: We're done.
J. DINUNZIO: We're done.
M. DINUNZIO: We're done.
SPIEGEL: Can people survive financially, emotionally? That's what everyone at the shelter was asking. And so, to keep the dark thoughts at bay, the Red Cross arranged for a local entertainer to perform in the cafeteria. At 8:00 a very nice woman with very tall hair took the stage. It was a strange scene. She would sing and then do things like invite the shelter children on stage for their own performances.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is Connor Jr., everyone. And he's going to seeing a song for you. You ready? OK, go ahead.
CONNOR JR.: (Singing) Banana phone, banana phone, banana phone.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, all right.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Very nice. Thank you. I know you make people smile with that. Thank you, Connor. All right, this is something from the Commodores.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A little bit older tune.
SPIEGEL: In the hallway outside, a 28-year-old woman named Jennifer Ruiz and her two-year-old daughter were also singing.
JENNIFER RUIZ: (Singing) I love you. You love me. We're a happy family, with a great...
SPIEGEL: At that moment, though, Jennifer was not, in fact, happy. She was sad, but she didn't want to share that with her daughter, who she calls Moo-Moo.
RUIZ: How do you tell a two-year-old we don't have a home to go to, we don't have anything?
SPIEGEL: Jennifer, like the DiNunzios, lived in Seaside Heights, but unlike them, she evacuated during the storm with her fiancee, his parents and Moo-Moo. They went to stay with her brother, but decided to come to the shelter after a few days because things were getting tense. She's upset about this, upset about everything, but doesn't want her daughter to know and so she's pretending that she feels fine.
RUIZ: Just act like it's like a regular day. Like nothing is out of the ordinary with my daughter. I'll still play with her. I'll still feed her. I'll still laugh with her.
SPIEGEL: It's clear that keeping her emotions under control is very important to Jennifer.
RUIZ: 'Cause I don't want to be weak and I don't want to lose it. When you're crying, you think of the worst and you lose hope.
SPIEGEL: And Jennifer can't lose hope because, deep breath, since Sandy hit a week ago, she hasn't been able to get in touch with either her mother or her oldest daughter, an 8-year-old who lives with her ex. She's called and called them both, checked Facebook, contacted family, but...
RUIZ: There's no communication whatsoever and I don't know if they're okay.
SPIEGEL: Well, how are you doing? Are you okay?
RUIZ: It's just sad because I don't have my family.
SPIEGEL: Even before the storm, Jennifer had a difficult life. Though she has a good job, her relationship with her ex has been very difficult, and she recently got into a huge fight with her mom.
RUIZ: It was something so dumb, but she just stopped talking to me, and I stopped talking to her, like both being stubborn, like not wanting to be the bigger person and say sorry, but how are you?
SPIEGEL: And then came the storm, and her older daughter and everything and she says her thoughts have been cycling and cycling.
RUIZ: There's like too much going on. To be honest, like I don't have a main focus or a main thought right now. It's too much. Like, when I start to think about, like, oh my god, are they OK? Are they thinking about me, like, as I'm thinking about them? It's like, emotionally, like I'm a wreck.
SPIEGEL: Still, with Moo-Moo she is her normal self, or something near her normal self. At 9, she tries to put Moo-Moo down to sleep in the gym where close to 100 people are going to be sleeping on narrow green cots.
RUIZ: Come on, you lay your head right here. Good girl.
SPIEGEL: Moo-Moo doesn't seem ready to sleep, but Jennifer still tries.
RUIZ: I love you.
MOO-MOO: I love you.
RUIZ: Give me a kiss. Give mommy kiss.
SPIEGEL: Moo-Moo lies down, but all around her people are moving, so it's hard to sleep. And half an hour later, she's up again. It's past 11 before Jennifer and Moo-Moo actually get to sleep, and even then, like almost everyone else in the room, their sleep is fitful. How can it not be?
Like Manny and Jan, and all the people lying on the narrow green cots around them, their future is so uncertain. They don't know where they will live, or what they will do, or what tomorrow will bring. Alix Spiegel, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.