By: Portlight , 6:25 PM GMT on January 06, 2014
Portlight, the nonprofit organization, paid for the installation of a ramp for Fred Hildebrandt who uses a wheelchair because he has MS among other conditions. The house had to be elevated thirteen feet, and this special ramp will allow him to ride up to the back door. (Aristide Economopoulos)
By Susan K. Livio/The Star-Ledger
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on January 05, 2014 at 7:45 AM
Hurricane Sandy chased Fred and Cindy Hildebrandt away from their home in Manahawkin 14 months ago. The requirement that they elevate their reconstructed house delayed their homecoming until just before Christmas.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a brain tumor and epilepsy, Fred Hildebrandt, 60, uses a wheelchair, and neither he nor his wife could imagine how he would come and go from a house now 13 feet in the air.
But a grassroots nonprofit group founded by people with disabilities helping other disabled people cope with disaster knew what to do.
Portlight Strategies of South Carolina, which has helped thousands of hurricane, tornado and tsunami victims since 1997, set up shop in New Jersey last spring. The Hildebrandts are among the 130 New Jerseyans with disabilities Portlight has helped return to their homes and resume their lives.
A $3,000 grant from Portlight paid most of the cost of installing a self-operated chair lift that runs up the side of the Hildebrandts’ home and hoists him from the ground to their new deck, his wife said.
After living with relatives in Wharton for 14 months, the homecoming was an exciting moment for the couple, Cindy Hildebrandt said.
"In 14 months, my husband had not been to our house. He was unable to get in," she said. "It works great. … He was in awe."
No government or private agency has kept track of how many Sandy refugees are disabled. Portlight’s founder, Paul Timmons, said he suspects the demand for replacement wheelchairs, walkers, shower seats and other medical equipment is great and wants to get the word out that help is still available. These necessary items are often left behind during an evacuation, insurance companies typically turn down claims to replace them, and community agencies have been calling on Portlight for help, he said.
What was salvaged of the Hildebrandt house in Manahawkin following Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 29, 2012.
Courtesy of Cindy Hildebrandt
"In New Jersey, there has been a tremendous amount of need," said Timmons, who relies on leg braces following a bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an immune system disorder that attacks the nerves.
"Our community is frequently marginalized," Timmons said. "That becomes amplified in a disaster. Most of these things by definition are chaotic. In the chaos, our community’s needs may not be top of mind."
The Hurricane Sandy NJ Relief Fund run by First Lady Mary Pat Christie awarded Portlight $300,000 in grants for being "a tremendous partner" that has "addressed a critical unmet need in communities across the state," fund spokeswoman Eileen Lofrese said.
Portlight’s Sandy activities are also financially backed by the Disability Funders Network, an organization that promotes charitable giving to disability causes. The group’s CEO, Kim Hutchinson, called Portlight "a valuable organization."
Portlight has given 30 people $3,000 grants, and is reviewing applications from another 25 people, said Sue Pniewski, the group’s New Jersey project director. The group replaced an iPad for a child with autism who used the tablet as a communication device. And by working with a medical equipment company in Atlanta willing to provide a hefty discount, Portlight has distributed 20 manual wheelchairs and 15 scooters, she said.
Visitation Church in Brick, where Portlight’s operation is based, is storing donated walkers, wheelchairs and other equipment to help people in the future. "Outside the funding that is available for the storm, there is no funding I am aware of that generally would help people with accessibility," Pniewski said.
She is also encouraging people she meets to plan for disasters.
"If you have an elderly person who uses a walker and a cane and live in small ranch, they are okay until they have to raise their own house, and all of a sudden this is a problem," Pniewski said. "People have told me ‘I don’t know what to do — I can’t afford it.’ I say you can’t afford to live in a home that is not safe."
Cindy Hildebrandt said one of her neighbors who also is disabled did not return, scared off by the costs and hassle of making their house accessible — and was "probably unaware … Portlight was there to help."
It’s been a grueling process, dealing with insurance, contractors and FEMA, while taking care of her husband and working. But Cindy Hildebrandt said she and her husband are happy they were able to stay.
"On New Year’s morning, we sat on our deck. Two swans we had not seen since Sandy came over," she said. "It was a beautiful sign."
• Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund awards $3.1M in grants
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