As water poured in through the windows of his basement on the night of Sept. 1, Christopher Santa Barbara and his family stood close together and watched the impending disaster.
Linda, Chris’s mother, had rushed her three sons and husband down to the basement when a tornado warning from the governor of New Jersey came across their screens around 9:30 p.m. that night. The family was prepared for a storm from Hurricane Ida, but they were unable to predict just how catastrophic the water and winds would be to their small New Jersey home.
Within two minutes of being in the basement, the water levels outside rose and pressed into the windows. Mud and debris overflowed and spilled inside while the Santa Barbaras helplessly watched their home fall apart.
“The house was built sixty years ago, and the foundation was made out of cinder block,” said Chris, a senior on the men’s lacrosse team at Springfield College.
“The cinder block started cracking down — the joints of the cinder block broke, and the water started coming through, and then the entire foundation started to fall out. We were seeing it start to fall, and we finally just watched it fall over and cave in,” he recalled.
After the foundation of their house collapsed in mere minutes, the Santa Barbaras knew their lives were in serious danger. Chris and his brother picked up their 90 lb. yellow labs that had been hiding from the storm with the family in the basement and made a break for the driveway.
The rest of the family followed, wading through the standing water in front of their house to their cars. Chris and his youngest brother put their dogs into their dad’s truck, and the family abandoned their home to head for higher ground. They formed a line in their cars, staying close to one another and following each other to safety.
“They just — they panicked, it was a panic situation, because nobody expected it,” said close family friend Jennifer Dinardi. “We all knew the hurricane was coming through, but nobody expected flooding.”
After evacuating to a safe area to park for about 45 minutes and communicating through their cell phones, Chris and his dad chose to head back to the house and gather what clothes and essentials they could before deciding where to spend the night.
Their house was clearly not an option.
When the pair returned, the water in their basement was up to the ceiling and an inch was spread across the first floor.
“At that point, we knew the basement was completely flooded, but we didn’t know the severity of what it actually was,” said Chris.
The family began calling friends and loved ones to find a place to stay for the night. Dinardi remembered her call with Linda, pleading with her to find a way to get to Dinardi’s home.
“All I kept saying to his mom was, ‘Get to us,’ but she couldn’t,” said Dinardi.
With all surrounding roads in the area under inches of water, the Santa Barbara family was unable to drive to any of the loved ones or friends who had promised safety for the family in their own homes. Every turn they took through their town of Hillsborough was a dead end.
Finally, Linda called the dental office she works for as a hygienist to ask for help. The owners, who live in an attached home to the office, readily opened their basement to the Santa Barbara family. It was the only place they could get to, and that was where they slept the first night.
Dinardi was in contact with the Santa Barbaras throughout it all, and drove to the dental office in the morning on Sept. 2 to ensure they had a clear path back to her home where they have been staying for the past three weeks. Before going back to her house, though, the group returned to the Santa Barbara home to assess damages.
“In the moment, we were expecting to come back to the house just being gone, that was just our expectation of what was going to happen,” said Chris.
The reality was not that the house was gone, but it was destroyed to the point of no structural integrity. Chris’s father, a carpenter, immediately began pumping the water out of the basement with the help of uncles, friends, teammates, neighbors and other members of the Hillsborough community.
However, as the water seeped away from the basement, the family was left with an even bigger issue: the missing foundation wall.
“As the water went down [from draining], the water pressure that was holding the wall up, you could see the house start to sag, and our kitchen started becoming out of level,” remembered Chris.
Linda’s brother, a hotel contractor, came over the following day with house jacks to keep the family home from completely collapsing. With the wall being held up by jacks, they were able to remove the mud and ruined family possessions that had collected on the floor of the now-empty basement.
The family has lost countless important belongings, including baby pictures and clothing, Linda’s entire winter wardrobe, expensive skiing, mini-biking, hunting, and fishing equipment, bicycles, and their dad’s carpenter tools.
Their sewer system was left unusable after the flood, and the electric panels were completely wrecked. They lost the large back porch their dad had built for the family, fencing in their backyard, their storage shed, their heating and air conditioning units, and their water heater.
With the loss of everything that makes their house a home, the Santa Barbaras filed for insurance coverage to rebuild. The insurance company denied them any money due to the family not having flood insurance, even though their property is surrounded by bodies of water.
“There’s a two-acre pond behind our house, and then there’s a pond across the street, and the two connected [during the storm],” said Chris.
“We don’t technically have flood insurance; even with both the ponds across the street and behind the house, we’re not technically in a flood zone, so we weren’t required to have flood insurance. Any way you word your claim, the only word it comes back to is ‘water,’” he added.
Fortunately, though the family is struggling financially, they have had an outpouring of support from their community, family, and friends. Volunteers, along with the family themselves, have been working around the clock alongside contractors and masons to cut costs and give the family financial assistance however possible.
Dinardi, who has been best friends with Linda since the third grade, has been housing the Santa Barbara family in her home since that terrible Sept. 1 evening. She said she would do anything to help her friends.
“I just want them to be safe and comfortable,” Dinardi said through tears.
“Linda Santa Barbara has been my safety my whole life, she has stood up for me. She’s my very best friend, my family that I chose, so having them at the house feels very natural.”
Now, the family has their basement cleared and are waiting for the mason to finish reconstructing the foundation wall. They’re hoping FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will give them the full award of $35,000 to cover rebuilding expenses, but Dinardi said the damages they have will cost them well over $100,000.
Dinardi started a GoFundMe campaign with a $50,000 goal because she knew the humble family would not have done it themselves. Currently, $15,010 has been raised, but it’s nowhere near the amount of money the family will need to rebuild and replace all they have lost.
“They’re such good people; kind, hard working, lovely people,” said Dinardi.
“Just a small donation, anything would be appreciated, and if they can’t make a donation they could share it on social media. The more that word gets out there, the better we’ll be,” she added.
If anyone is interested in donating to the Santa Barbaras, click their GoFundMe link here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-santabarbaras-rebuild-their-home.