Drive down Watson Avenue in Woodbridge, and you'll notice an odor.
It's a musty, moldy smell that permeates a street that some say was the hardest hit by the storm surge following Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy.
On a sunny day in January, you hear the sound of workers reroofing a house denuded by the hurricane, or chucking out yet more storm-damaged possessions that are beyond hope.
Every other house, it seems, has a neon-orange tag noting the building is unsafe to enter.
Even among all this leftover misery, Jason Crea's Watson Avenue home stands out. Not just because it's the hardest-hit home on the hardest-hit street in Woodbridge. Or because the basement walls on both sides of the steps were blown out by the storm surge.
It's the big sign that Crea erected right over a bird's eye view into his house's basement where a foot of water still stands:
"Allstate Gave Us $37.74 and All We Got Was This Lousy Sign"
That was the amount Crea has received so far from Allstate, his homeowner's insurance carrier, since his home was destroyed in the storm.
Battling the insurance company
In the interests of full disclosure, Crea said the amount was originally for $1,037.74.
"I got $37.74 after they subtracted my $1,000 deductible," he said.
But this gallows humor is no laughing matter. He's been battling the insurance company since they sent out an adjuster who "smiled constantly while he told us nothing was covered," Crea said.
Crea's home, and all of Watson Avenue, backs up onto a branch of the Woodbridge River called—appropriately enough—Woodbridge Creek.
It wasn't a creek when Sandy hit. Most of Crea's end of Watson Avenue looked like a lake, which explains why so many homes on the street stand condemned.
Crea, 28, and his wife, Tiffany, had just gotten married and moved into their home in September, 2010—just in time for Hurricane Irene.
"We were fine. We didn't get much water at all," he said.
The fine print
The house sits in a flood plain, and Crea was required to purchase federal flood insurance. He was fine with that. The previous homeowners were also its builders, Crea said, and even with the full basement, they'd never taken on anything more than a few inches of water.
The basement isn't finished for obvious reasons, but Crea, who is a part-time music instructor in his native Staten Island, used the space to store his valuable musical instruments and sound system, as well as a collection of memorabilia and a home gym.
"When I bought the contents policy, I explained to [Allstate] that I have a lot of expensive stuff in the basement. They just smiled and took my money," Crea said.
The thing they didn't bother mentioning is that the basement isn't considered a room in the house.
The upshot? None of Crea's belongings in the basement were covered by the flood insurance or by the Allstate contents policy.
The mud room in the back of the house, though, is above the flood plain, the insurance agent said, so anything in that area would be eligible for reimbursement. Crea said the storm surge caused items he had in that area to upend and fall into the basement.
"The water came within a few inches of the rafters in the basement. All the stuff in the mud room fell into the water," he said.
Crea pointed it all out to the adjuster. "He didn't write down a thing. But he did smile a lot," Crea said with a bemused grin.
Meanwhile, the foundation walls of Crea's home were collapsing.
Swimming to save valuables
Under a mandatory evacuation order, Crea, his wife, and their dog spent the night of the storm in the Woodbridge Community Center, which had been set up as an evacuation center for Middlesex County.
He spent the first day swimming to his house to save his valuables. The next day, he was back at his full-time job: a senior substation operator for ConEd in New York. Crea had to get the lights on for New Yorkers even as his own home was waterlogged.
Crea moved his family back to his mother's home in Staten Island.
"Ironic, isn't it? I moved out two years, and now I'm back," he said. His parents' home is high on a hill and survived Sandy, but his mother lost her job when the retail store she works in perished in the hurricane.
So now Crea is paying his mortgage and his parents' rent, and renting a storage facility to hold the belongings rescued from his Watson Avenue home.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave him some money to replace a washer and dryer, but that's been pretty much it. Crea isn't eligible for much else, not even rental assistance.
"FEMA said I make too much money," he said.
The way things stand now, Crea is hoping that the paperwork is moving through the Woodbridge building department, which he said has been very helpful, to have his home declared unrepairable.
In that case, he'd be eligible for the full amount of insurance—about $200,000, not including the contents of his home—to rebuild.
"The goal is to get a total loss on the house. Allstate would have to give us 100 percent, and then we'd rebuild," he said.
Allstate was contacted for this story, but did not return calls by press time.
Meanwhile, Crea saved the initial $37.74 check he got from Allstate.
"I didn't even cash it. I'm gonna frame it," he said. "It's criminal what they are doing."