Was Staying Through Hurricane Sandy the Right Thing to Do?

Six months later, a look back at the perilous decision of one Jersey Shore family.

The day after the storm hit, Sally and Peter Burnett sat on their deck, just watching. Boats. A refrigerator. A PVC bench with a pumpkin and a scarecrow affixed to it. All of it, all day long, calmly floating by. Their daughter Anna, then eight, would hide under a blanket on the couch when she thought she heard National Guard helicopters, afraid the family would get kicked off the island. Once the water receded, Anna and Sally began a ritual that would continue for almost eight days: They dragged a little wagon through an inch or two of thick, gloppy silt down the street to the bay, where they filled buckets with water to flush toilets. Sally’s husband Peter, suffering from primary lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disease that has weakened his muscles, stayed at home.

The Burnetts were among the only ones in Long Beach Island’s Beach Haven Terrace to ignore Chris Christie’s mandatory evacuation order. People like them, Christie said, were “stupid and selfish.”

There were practical reasons they refused to obey. The Burnetts’ downstairs flooded, but their upstairs living quarters remained accessible. But, ultimately, the decision to stay was an emotional one. “This is what we know,” says 50-year-old Sally, who was in the same sixth-grade class as 51-year-old Peter at LBI School in Ship Bottom.

Sally and Peter Burnett with their daughter Anna.

Hurricane Sandy attacked Beach Haven Terrace in a frighteningly ordinary way. It was simply a pair of high tides, one on Monday, one on Tuesday, that swelled the water level, flooding everything under the four-and-a-half-foot mark. There were no upended homes or mountains of debris, as in the Holgate trailer park a few miles south. When you walk into Sally and Peter’s almost perfectly preserved home, which is neither modest nor immodest, the storm feels very far away.

But Sandy took a hidden toll on them. Both their cars were lost. Their house was uninsured, and damage to their ground-floor apartment, which has now been gutted, ran to $25,000. Peter, who has trouble walking, is confined to his home and trying gamely to rehabilitate his garage sanctuary. “I get to go to work,” says Sally, who is a psychiatric social worker. “But Pete lives it. Every single day.”

During a walk around the neighborhood, Sally and I bump into a couple called the Kirschenmanns, outside the house they fled just before the storm. “My rule of thumb,” says Chuck Kirschenmann, “is if you didn’t evacuate when they had a mandatory evacuation, if you lost your car, you should pay for it. The insurance should not pay for it.” Sally received $15,000 for her totaled car; she’s standing right next to Chuck as he delivers the jab.

The Burnetts don’t necessarily disagree. Peter, dependent on the government for his disability checks and his wife for much else, received funds from FEMA for the damage to the downstairs apartment. “I feel bad that I didn’t have insurance,” he says. “And I hate to, you know, rely on assistance when I made a poor decision about insurance.”

Christie (whom Peter still calls a “hero”) criticized people like the Burnetts for needlessly putting themselves at risk and potentially endangering first responders. Sally resents this view. “We didn’t ask for a thing,” she says. “I grew up with boats and clamming and crabbing, and your dad teaching you how to go out on the bay. You want to be by your home and protect it.”

Sally and Peter and Anna, of course, were powerless to do so. And powerless to reject the assistance they wish they didn’t have to accept.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Philadelphia Magazine.