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First Hurricane Sandy refugees arrive in town

Published 5:19 pm, Wednesday, December 26, 2012

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  • Lynne Romano holds her 21-month-old son, Lorenzo, next to her husband, Michael Romano, as Frank Siller, right, of the Siller Foundation welcomes them into their new home on Faith Church property in New Milford, Dec. 23, 2012. Photo: Michael Duffy
    Lynne Romano holds her 21-month-old son, Lorenzo, next to her husband, Michael Romano, as Frank Siller, right, of the Siller Foundation welcomes them into their new home on Faith Church property in New Milford, Dec. 23, 2012. Photo: Michael Duffy

 

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For nearly two months, they've been living in shelters, sleeping with their few remaining possessions and pondering an uncertain future.

Yet Sunday, the first contingent of families, driven from Staten Island, N.Y., by Hurricane Sandy, moved into the new, temporary homes adjacent to Faith Church at the south end of New Milford.

They were welcomed by church members to the community, where most are expected to spend the next year.

"It gives new meaning to the words `Merry Christmas,' " said Michael Romano, as he looked around the trailer where he and his family will be living.

Fifteen of the 14-by-48-foot mobile homes have been installed so far, and 10 more will soon be set up on a four-acre parcel north of the church, thanks to the combined efforts of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, the church, dozens of area businesses and countless private donations.

From furniture to kitchen items to bedding, "Everything you need is in these homes," said New Fairfield First Selectman John Hodge, a church member, operations director of the foundation, and a force behind the project.

The donations included Christmas gifts for the children who will live there and attend the church school.

"Welcome home, at least for the next year," said Faith Church senior pastor Frank Santora, as he introduced the families to the congregation following Sunday's church service.

Mr. Romano, his wife, Lynn, and their two sons, 21-month-old Lorenzo and 9-month-old Alessandro, had been living in a shelter near Kennedy Airport since they were forced from their home, nearly five blocks from the beach, by the Oct. 29 storm.

"We tried to go back the next day, but we couldn't. It was like a war zone," said Mr. Romano, a veteran.

His wife lost her job when the nonprofit she worked for was washed away by the flooding. He said he'll be looking for a job.

Life in the shelter has been difficult, he said, and he feared for his family's safety.

"There's been a lot of crime," Mr. Romano said. "There was a rape and a stabbing, and the bodega across the street was robbed twice."

The Tower to Tunnel Foundation, established in honor of Mr. Hodge's cousin, a New York City firefighter who was killed on 9/11, is providing funding for the nearly $1 million project, including buying the two-bedroom trailers from a company in Virginia.

The effort wouldn't be possible without donations of material, labor and professional expertise by dozens of area businesses, and contributions of everything from cleaning supplies to tableware by individuals, Mr. Hodge and Pastor Santora said.

The lobby of the massive Route 7 megachurch was filled Saturday with furniture and other items before they were to be moved to the trailers by volunteers.

Pastor Santora praised the cooperation of New Milford officials, including Mayor Pat Murphy, in making the project come to fruition so rapidly.

"Welcome, and thank you for the opportunity to show how great New Milford is," the mayor said.

While they are living in New Milford, the storm victims will receive a box of food every week and have a Sunday meal at the church. There will be family movie nights and open gymnasium hours for children and adults, church officials said.

Mr. Hodge said the church is hoping for donations of several vehicles so the new residents will be able to work.

"I'm kind of overwhelmed," hurricane survivor Robert Rassi, 67, told congregation members before describing how his bungalow suddenly filled with water during the storm.

Mr. Rassi said he "prayed to God" during the 13 hours he spent clinging to a door and a light fixture before he was rescued the next morning.

Hurricane victim Joe Smith described his neighborhood as a war zone when he returned to the family home the next day. The few possessions left in the house that weren't destroyed by floodwaters had been stolen.

"John Hodge came to the shelter we were in and told us what was going on. It sounded too good to be true," said Mr. Smith's mother, Maura Battaglia.

She said the family was overjoyed to learn their application to move to New Milford had been accepted.

"In the shelter, we had to sleep with all our belongings," Mr. Smith said. "It will be nice to sleep with both eyes closed."

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To donate to Faith Church's Hurricane Sandy relief through weekly groceries, meals, paper goods and cutlery for Sundays meals, visit www.faithchurchct.com.

To donate to Hope Foundation for Kids, providing scholarships for children to attend the private K-12 school, visit www.hopefoundationforkids.org.

To donate to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund through turn-key homes and expenses, visit www.tunneltotowersfoundation.org.

For more information and to volunteer, call Pastor Al Coelho at 203-994-8279 or email al.coelho@faithchurchct.com.

jpirro@newstimes.com; 203-731-3342