After nearly 30 years in Parsippany, including 19 in a tiny, but dearly loved house in lower Lake Hiawatha, Susan Tobjy thought her life was settled.
"The American Dream? Oh, yeah, I believed in it," she said, sitting and appearing exhausted over a table at the Spa Restaurant. "My husband and I worked hard, we raised three kids, sent them to college. I loved my house, my neighbors. Then the flood hit and the nightmare started. What happens next? I have no idea."
Tobjy's exhaustion is well earned. Since Hurricane Irene's devastating visit to Parsippany, she has lost her "structurally unsound" home and most of her possessions.
She has seen her family—and even her two dogs—split up. For months now, she has been driving between her father-in-law's Rockaway home to her job in a Par-Troy corporate café and spending her remaining hours digging through seeming mountains of red tape, trying to find a way to rebuild her family's life.
"I grew up in Wayne and loved it," she recalled. "That had a whole flood area, too. They would get flooded, like, in the streets, but not in the houses. What happened here was a whole other story."
By Tobjy's recollection, the story, prior to "what happened here," was a happy one. She and her husband started their family while living in a Parsippany apartment.
"I don't know what's going to happen for us, I don't know how and I don't know when, but I'm determined we'll get our family back together in our house in this neighborhood. We will get our life back."
They thought their American Dream had come true when they found a house they loved on Cherokee Avenue in lower Lake Hiawatha 19 years ago. She described the dwelling as "a tiny thing," but it was big enough to house, ultimately, her and her spouse and their three children, who grew to adulthood and continued to reside there with their parents.
"There was no reason for them to move out," Tobjy explained. "We were happy having them with us."
She said their family's life was a good one, and their home and community a special place.
"I loved the house," she said. "I loved sitting outside and seeing the kids run up and down the neighborhood and play. I loved my neighbors. I loved my life. Seriously, this was my dream come true."
Then Irene came to call.
When Hurricane Irene hit Parsippany, Tobjy was at her Cherokee Avenue house, which is not far from the Rockaway River retaining wall. It was Aug. 28, her son's birthday, and the family was planning to meet for a celebration at the local Outback restaurant. She recalled that she and her husband took their two dogs for a walk.
"It was about 10 of six, six o'clock. We saw the [retaining] wall, and the water wasn't anywhere near the top of the wall," she said. "It was raining and a little windy, but it wasn't torrential. It never occurred to me that we weren't safe. Hurricane Floyd, Katrina and all, we survived 'em. I didn't have one bit of fear. Our pumping station is so on top of this sort of thing."
The Tobjys returned home to get ready for the birthday dinner.
"A girlfriend of mine from up on Minnehaha called and asked if I had gotten the Reverse 911 phone call. I said no, but I had no power." She said she had gotten a weird call and wondered if Tobjy was all right.
"She said something about flooding, and I told her I was just down there and didn't seen any flooding or anything," Tobjy recalled.
Just 10 minutes later, she walked outside and saw a Parsippany Rescue and Recovery worker running down the street screaming, "Get out! You have to get out!"
Tobjy asked him what he meant, and the rescue worker warned her to get out immediately. He pointed in the direction of the retaining wall.
"It looked like a tidal wave," she said. "I don't know where it came from. It wasn't there 10 minutes before."
All she could do was run. With thoughts of vehicles sure to be lost—her husband's Jeep, her Mustang, their daughter's Nissan Sentra, their son's Mazda Protege—Tobjy grabbed her two dogs, their leashes, some dog food, her spouse and her daughter and headed for the Outback.
Gathering with family members, Tobjy recalled being unable to eat. She finally went back to Cherokee Avenue and saw a nightmare in progress.
"The National Guard was there...helicopters and fire trucks. ... It was like a war zone," she said, "Water filled the street so much it looked live a river. We couldn't get to our house."
Tobjy and her husband headed to his father's home in Rockaway.
"We had no clothes, no nothing," she said.
She stayed in telephone contact with a neighbor, who gave her the awful play-by-play as floodwaters submerged one street after another.
"As she listed off the street names, it hit me: My house was underwater. I couldn't breathe," Tobjy said.
Hours later, her son phoned and said he'd gotten into their home. After his mother scolded him, he explained that he had retrieved his father's heart medication, Tobjy's checkbook, a fireproof box of passports, family photos and ensured their safety.
"Thank goodness for that," Tobjy said. "Otherwise, everything was destroyed. Furniture, clothing, shoes. Nothing left. I left with a pair of flip-flops and rescued a pair of boots."
As time passed, Tobjy said her thoughts were filled with images of homeless people and disaster victims.
"You watch the news and you see the people who get foreclosed. You see the people in shelters and the streets. The whole picture reminded me of [Hurricane] Katrina," she said. "I remember my heart bleeding for those people years ago, seeing them stand on their roofs screariming, 'Help me, help me.' Now, I thought, 'I'm one of those people.'"
Tobjy's normal day consists of a drive from Rockaway to Parsippany to get to work at a local corporate cafe. Throughout the day she makes calls to her insurer and to state and federal agencies to find out when steps can be taken to rebuild her home and get her life going again. She checks in on her children and eventually heads back to her father-in-law's place.
"He has been nothing but kind," she said of her husband's father," but his house is still not our home."
So she prepares for the day when she will be back in her own home. Left without towels, pots and pans or anything, Tobjy said she's getting by with a little help from her friends, who presented her with a small stockpile of department store gift cards she can use to get household items. She also found cleaning supplies and materials from Landmark Floral Shoppe's Flood Donation Store on North Beverwyck Road.
The problem is, she cannot start that new life until she builds a new house.
As it stands, the dwelling is uninhabitable. Tobjy said town engineers deemed the house structurally unsound. The outside of the building does not give away the extent of the damage within. That requires a trip inside, where it appears a bomb has exploded.
The walls and floors are all gone. Only a wooden frame exists now. Walking requires a balancing act along 4-inch wooden beams. Wires and nails are exposed all over. The ceilings even are gone—Tobjy said they had to be ripped out due to excessive mold.
In the end, the entire house will have to be demolished, she said. Before it can be rebuilt, the building will need a new and higher foundation to protect it from future flooding.
That news, Tobjy said, sent her on a stilll-evolving journey through miles of bureaucratic red tape.
"Between dealing with FEMA and my insurance company, I'm going nuts," she explained. "And dealing with all the expense, I'm going broke. We've got all these new car payments, paying for housing, gas bills, plus the old mortgage we're still paying."
She said she counts herself lucky that she, her spouse and their kids are all working. It also helped that FEMA gave her a small advance to help with ancillary expenses soon after Irene.
"I know they're swamped. Hundreds of people are in trouble in Parsippany, and I know other places got hit even worse. But we have to get the rest of it done, and soon," she said, showing a manila folder of all her flood-related documents.
"This phone tag game gets old quick. And it feels like I'm in limbo, like there is no place I belong anymore. I need to get back into my house."
Outside of the Cherokee Avenue structure, Tobjy pointed out plants that survived the Irene misadventure: a fiery red burning bush plant, a grass plant and a new seedling popping out of the ground.
"I love these, especially the grass plant. They give me so much hope," she said. "And look—these tiny green things only started growing after the flood."
Those fragile little plants could be representative of Tobjy herself, petite and stressed but growing and ultimately unbreakable.
"I like that thought," she said. "I don't know what's going to happen for us, I don't know how and I don't know when, but I'm determined we'll get our family back together in our house in this neighborhood. We will get our life back."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.