Ashley and Hector Avila

Ashley’s Hurricane Ida story (May 2023)

Our home in Highland Park was a beautiful home – but now it’s completely destroyed and covered in mold. We got 18 feet of water, flooding the entire basement with another 4 feet on the first floor and our basketball hoop and car completely submerged outside. 

We never lived through something like that before. My family had just moved from Arizona, and there’s rain there, but nothing like Ida. We had only owned our house for 2 months at that point. The property had flooded before we lived there, but when we bought the house we didn’t realize it had had several expensive floods with payouts from National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) over 12 times. Just in the short time we were there, it flooded from Hurricane Ida and then at the end of October we got heavy rains and it flooded again. 

Since then, we’ve had several rentals. We’re a blended family with 6 children in all. Finding a rental that worked for my family size was very hard. First we were in several hotels, trying to keep kids in the Highland Park school district. 

The first hotel was in Edison. At first the district said they’d help transport my kids to and from the hotel and school – then they called and said there was nobody to operate the bus for them. So I was driving from there to school every day to get them there on time. 

Then there was a nonprofit / veteran program that reached out to my husband to help us pay for hotels, but in order to qualify we had to switch to another hotel with all the kids. The same day we checked in we got a call from our hotel asking us when we were leaving – the program ended up getting back to us and said that due to our income we didn’t qualify after all, after we had already been moved in and settled for several hours. At this point I’m alone with my kids after 8 pm being told we need to wake up, pack up, and leave. 

That night my teenager and I had to load the truck back up with everything we brought to the hotel. We left that morning and drove around in the car the whole day while waiting for approval for a rental in North Brunswick. We only had one vehicle at this point. We had to move three more times, into one rental in Union then two different rentals in Nutley – we’ve now been where we are since March. 

We filled out tons of documents and felt like we were signing our life away trying to reach out to programs and nonprofits for help. FEMA rental assistance was a joke. Every single representative told us something different about why we were denied – that’s why we went over a year without rental assistance, nobody knew why we were getting denied, or why it was taking so long to process our claim. 

We got some assistance from FEMA for moving and storage. But we’ve had to replace a lot of our belongings out of pocket – right now I have a table from Facebook marketplace, folding chairs, and some other chairs and a couch the landlord provided us. We’re still trying to get out of debt from putting all of this on credit cards. It’s hard for us to buy anything – our kids will come with us to the store and say “mommy, daddy, remember when we used to have this before the flood?” We’re little by little rebuilding or re-buying what we have, but we’re still living in a temporary rental. 

There were so many roadblocks that I just checked out. I just pretend that our house doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t do this on my own. 

Today we’re in a better place, but talking about it again feels like ripping a bandaid off a gushing wound. Every program that was set up to help us told us we don’t qualify – even down to Blue Acres, because they say our mortgage is too high. Even though we’re currently around $90,000 behind on our mortgage. We could’ve put the house on the market – but I couldn’t live with myself if we sold it and something happened to another family. Every day I’m checking for a Blue Acres email to see if we can finally get this mortgage out of our names and buy another house and move on. 

Ours is a VA mortgage so there’s different protections. It’s federally funded and one of the benefits my husband earned by serving our country, but the problem with that is that if our house does foreclose before Blue Acres is able to buy us out, my husband loses his ability to use a VA loan again. 

We’re not defaulting on our mortgage because we don’t want to pay – it’s because we have to pay $4,800 a month on rent. So do we pay for a place to live? Or pay for a mortgage on a home we can’t live in? 

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