BRIGANTINE, N.J. - Bill Haeser and Bob Huff were neighbors before Sandy, but the storm has chased Haeser and his wife, Laurel, off their block, at least for now.
Still, their dark-humored buddy routine has held, even as the short-term rebuilding on Cummings Place has stalled, and the long-term future of people like them along the Jersey Shore gets murkier.
Both big guys in their own way, they were happy to see each other again last week in the back of the Brigantine North Elementary School auditorium, where at a FEMA town-hall meeting, their mayor had speculated that requirements from proposed flood-map elevations would "decimate" the island.
Haeser: "I see you filling up that Dumpster."
Huff: "Do you see me limping out there? My knees are shot. I go to the porch at 1, 2 in the morning, look down the block, and it's me, Helen, Tony, that's it."
Haeser: "What are they going to steal, my insulation?"
And really, what can you do if you're Haeser and Huff, at home and in exile, except laugh, cry, lie awake at night, laugh about your Charlie Brown Christmas trees, your six vinegar-sprayed Christmas balls. You vow to stay put in Brigantine one minute, contemplate walking away the next.
Last year at this time, Cummings Place was lit up with the happy surprise of Christmas lights in a beach town, the residents tucked into their horseshoe-shaped street by ocean and bay, their modest yet quirky lifestyle more or less settled.
Settled is the last thing they are now, eight weeks after Hurricane Sandy. Hardly anyone's rebuilding, because insurance payments have not been issued. And there are new wrinkles.
FEMA and town representatives acknowledged last week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's proposed flood and velocity zones mean steep insurance hikes and the costly if not impossible task of lifting thousands of old homes on pilings.
Someone like Joe Fumo on nearby Lafayette Boulevard - who is preemptively lifting his home 10 feet in the air like futuristic transformer toys - risks not meeting FEMA's final standards and having to do it all again.
At Brigantine North school last week, the question hung in the air like Fumo's cranked-up Cape Cod: Would FEMA finish the job that Sandy started?
"We'll have to walk away from our homes," said Patty Magee. "I'm not sure people can take a $1,000-a-month rate increase."
Standing over to the side, Huff said quietly: "All my savings will be wiped away for flood insurance." (He was laid off a year ago from his job as a Casino Control Commission inspector.)
The future painted by FEMA representatives and by Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther was very bleak, uncertain at best.
"I know many of you are tired and weary about the cleanup - and now the anxiety about what the future holds as far as the cost of living on a barrier island," he said. "If the changes are implemented, it could have the effect of decimating the community in Brigantine and hurting the investment all of you have worked so hard to secure."
Guenther said the town would not adopt FEMA's recommendations, estimating that as many as 3,000 homes might be affected by proposed new flood-zone designations (from Coastal A to V Zones) that take into account vulnerability to wind velocity as well as flooding and that set requirements to qualify for flood insurance. The golf-course area - where many families live - was rezoned to the V, the most vulnerable.
FEMA's Kingsley Johnson said his agency projected three-foot waves along the golf course, but suggested that residents "wait six months" for the final flood-zone designations. There were groans. These are people out of their homes, not hanging in front of the fireplace. Money is running out. "We'll turn into Greece," said one woman.
Intrepid rebuilders like Robert Solari, whose ex-wife lives on Cummings Place, expressed frustration that the work he was doing might fall short. Others saw no future at all. "I really felt like I was going to get a slap on the wrist," said Stan Cwiklinski, the town's former fire chief, "not a shot in the head."
FEMA already estimates a 25 percent flood-insurance rate hike for each of the next four years.
With the new flood zones mandating that houses be raised to 12 to 15 feet above the "mean high-low water level" (most are at 8 to 10 feet to meet current city codes), residents could face rates of $1,000 a month if they are out of compliance.
To comply, even if they were eligible for the $30,000 FEMA ICC (increased cost of compliance) grants, raising homes onto pilings would likely cost twice that, if it was even doable. And would leave retired people with 14 steps up to their front door.
Raising a home with layers of concrete blocks, as Fumo has been doing, was not what FEMA was calling for.
The whole situation seemed preposterously unsolvable last week in Brigantine. Investments and lifestyles seemed to be dissolving in front of their eyes.
"How would I lift my house up, on a balloon?" said Bill Haeser. "I have no place to put my house. Something's got to be done. It's completely untenable. I'm not raising it. If you put a gun on me, maybe I'll think about it."
A future where Brigantine, and places like it, might be a place only the wealthy could afford seemed possible. "The beach," Haeser said, "is no longer the hot spot to live."
It's pitch black on Cummings Place at night, and around the Links public golf course neighborhood, nights are nearly all pitch black. Many residents have left damaged homes; others have shied away from big holiday displays.
"I didn't want to rub it in," said Joanne Uhling, whose house was spared enough to allow her to remain.
Some have made progress in some areas. Shelly Hewitt finally got her flooded salon open last week in Ventnor - and was double-booked into the evening. She and her husband, Brian, continue to live in her father's trailer out in front of their home and are contemplating raising their house - or rebuilding from scratch.
Tony and Ina Molinari's house is decorated with a creche, some lights, and a hand-painted sign: "To our brave neighbors: You-r-in our (Heart)s and Prayers. The Molinari's."
"It's very sad," Ina Molinari said. "My husband's, like, paranoid. He doesn't see any cars in the street. He's locking the door, looking outside. It's so dark. We've had looters."
Her neighbor Sarah Huff is living with daughter Haley in a house a block from the inlet, arranged by their church. But her husband stays behind in their home at Cummings and Sheridan, the better to keep working on the place, sometimes in the middle of the night.
Hearing of the new requirements, her husband said he might choose to demolish his house and try to sell the lot. Others predicted many sellers, few buyers.
Laurel Haeser says she and husband Bill split their time between a hotel and their daughter's house in Somers Point. Her nerves are shot. The insurance company is still processing their claims. Their home is still gutted. Christmas feels like an afterthought. "It's really difficult," she said. "There's no semblance of our life and no semblance of Christmas, which is painful."
at 609-823-0453 or email@example.com, or
follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.
For FEMA's advisory base flood-elevations map, go to www.philly.com/floodmap.