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Storms also take toll on the emotions

October 31, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY — Jim Epstein can tell a lot of stories – some tragic, many emotional, and some even entertaining – about life in the wake of a hurricane.

The hardest part about his job as a damage assessor for FEMA is having to deal with the “people who have just lost everything,” he said.

Prior to Hurricane Michael, residents of Lynn Haven, Florida, were told to evacuate. FEMA also told people to file for damage before the storm, so they would already be in the queue for assessment.

“So they drive to Alabama or Georgia, then they get a call from me to come back so we can assess,” Epstein said from Destin, Florida, his post-Michael base of operations. “Many have not yet been back to their homes, so the first time they see the damage is when they walk in with me. That’s when they realize they’ve lost everything.

“Some people flip out; some cry; and some are angry. There is a lot of emotion involved. We aren’t trained in counseling at all, but you get to be good at it.”

At one of the apartments in Lynn Haven, “this couple comes back from Georgia with three kids in a small car. The place is all but destroyed; the ceiling is caved in – so they look to me to be Superman, to give them some sense of hope.”

He said people who live in apartments get a raw deal.

“The apartment complex will just close the building and toss people out,” he said. “They get 72 hours to get all their stuff out. But what can a family of five in a small car move in a couple of days? There are no U-Hauls available, no storage units within 1,000 miles. That’s the sad part.”

He said companies like U-Haul or PODS “could be heroes” if they brought in trailers or storage units to storm-ravaged cities.

Epstein says while many people have trouble coping, the assessors can also have a hard time mentally.

In 2017, after Hurricane Maria hit North Carolina, Epstein had such a moment.

“I showed up at a trailer home on the ocean, and it was ripped wide open. This woman looks down and sees the urn with her dad’s ashes lying on the ground empty, and she goes into an emotional meltdown.

“What do you do? I grabbed her and hugged her. Then I asked her if her dad liked water. She said yes, and I told her, ‘Well, he just rode the biggest wave of his life.’”

He then took her out to his car to look over paperwork.

“But it got me so screwed up I locked my keys in my car, and my phone, so I had to stay there for like three hours. Finally a guy drives by and stops, and I ask to use his phone to call someone. He says, ‘It looks like you have OnStar and they can unlock it.’ So I call them and get it unlocked.”

The next day, he said, he couldn’t find his glasses. So he went back to the home “and I’m crawling around in there looking for my glasses. Then the same guy drives up and says, ‘How’s your vision?’

“He told me I’d left my glasses on the hood of his truck. He’d gone all the way home, like 20 miles, and they were still there.”

Not all of the stories Epstein tells are heartbreaking.

“One time post-Hurricane Sandy, I was working on Long Island. We were working 14-hour days, 7 days a week, and I went to a home where the owner’s name was Mizrahi.

“I asked him if he was any relation to the costume designer Isaac Mizrahi and he said, ‘No. Are you any relation to the football player Evan Epstein?’

“I was shocked. I told him Evan (an offensive lineman for Oklahoma State) is my cousin. So he says, ‘Come on in and sit down, your cousin is playing on TV.’ So I went in and we watched Oklahoma State play football.”

On his current assignment, assessing damage from Hurricane Michael, Epstein found one house visit memorable for a different reason.

“I met a guy who lived across the street from a fire station, but he couldn’t even get to it because visibility was so bad,” he said.

“Next day, two rooms of his home had disappeared. And in one room – it was kind of amazing really – the only thing left was a fish aquarium. It wasn’t even touched.”