New Milford — For the past week, Robert Rassi has had the luxury of clean clothes, a bedroom for him and his wife, and a bathtub.
“This is really moving up in the world, you know, to have a place to sit down and everything,” said Rassi, perched on a bench in his new mobile home.
After two months of being shuttled from one evacuation spot to the next, the Rassis now have a place to call home — at least for a bit. It’s far from the old one, which was in Staten Island, N.Y., and which flooded from floor to ceiling during Hurricane Sandy. And it’s tiny, but cozy, one of 20 mobile homes tucked into the hills of New Milford. Families from New York are applying to live here, rent-free, for a year. Thirteen have moved in so far.
“The whole idea came together in about 20 minutes,” said John Hodge, first selectman of nearby New Fairfield. “Actually making it happen is another whole story.”
He was talking about the plan that he and others hatched to provide housing to New York families who desperately needed it. After Sandy, Hodge was helping to funnel donations into the city through Faith Church, a New Milford megachurch, and a New York foundation called Tunnel to Towers. The foundation was started in memory of Hodge’s cousin, Steven Siller, a fireman who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
As he visited emergency shelters in New York, he realized “the next step is housing. And Staten Island is a good-sized island, but there isn’t a lot of buildable land.”
Tunnel to Towers was willing to put up the money for mobile homes, and hundreds more individuals were willing to donate time and funds to get them ready before Christmas. But there was no place to put them.
The epiphany came during a conversation between Hodge and Frank Santora, Faith Church’s pastor.
“He said, right away, well, ‘Why don’t you put them up here?’ ” Hodge said, referring to 4 empty acres near the church.
After a few quick adjustments — New Milford had to change its zoning temporarily to allow mobile homes, for instance — and a month of furious work, utility lines were put in, kitchen cupboards were stocked with food, and wreaths were hung on the doors. Volunteers have donated food, clothes and linens.
Families will be able to live here for one year. After that, the land will return to the church, and Hodge says the families will have a chance to buy the mobile homes.
For the Rassis, that means a good night’s sleep after two months of bouncing among various schools and hospitals.
“We’re very lucky, because there are neighbors of ours who are still sleeping in their moldy houses, and in their cars overnight,” said Leila Rassi, Robert Rassi’s daughter. “So we recognize that this is truly a blessing.”
It also means they can finally unpack — although they weren’t sure exactly what they were unpacking.
“Let’s take a look,” said Rassi, starting to rummage through a pile of trash bags. They were full of donated shirts, pants, sweatshirts, many of them new. But new or old, anything is better than nothing.
When the Rassis learned before the storm that their Staten Island home, where they had lived for six years, was supposed to be evacuated, Leila and her mother Deborah left for Manhattan. Robert stayed. The night of the storm, he ended up clinging to a ledge outside the house in his pajamas, one hand on a lamp, the other on the top of the family’s screen door. He was rescued 13 hours later.
“Our house was flooded, and we lost everything in it, except for me,” he said with a wry smile.
Rassi was hospitalized for two days, while his wife and daughter searched frantically for him. Once the family was reunited, they began to absorb their losses: Photographs from the Rassis’ marriage, coin collections, a piano. Leila Rassi had just moved back in with her parents, and now her possessions were gone.
“I have the pieces — well most of the pieces — from my viola,” she said, her eyes glistening. “Which, you know, I bought when I was in music school and was made in Boston in 1905.” When her mother brought out the broken viola, covered in a piece of heavy blue cloth, she averted her eyes. “I don’t want to see it right now because I can’t deal with it,” she told Deborah Rassi.
A few other things survived the storm — an old, yellow ceramic recipe box passed down from Deborah Rassi’s mother. A few coats. A box of files, still soaked. And, of course, memories.
“It was very quiet, very peaceful,” Deborah Rassi remembered of their old home. “In the morning, like on a Saturday, I would take my coffee, sit on the patio, and the birds would come.
Her husband chimed in: “Nature was really wild over there. Every kind of bird you could think of.”
Starting over won’t be easy. Unlike in Staten Island, nothing is within driving distance in New Milford. The Rassis have one car, and may need another. Still, some things are comfortable and familiar — like their neighbors from New York. And New Milford’s hills are visible from their new home.
“I love nature,” Deborah Rassi said. “That’s why being here, looking at the Berkshires, I’m very happy.”
Deborah Rassi works in nursing administration. She’d just started to look for a job when the storm hit, and once she touches up her resume, she’ll start looking again in the New Milford area. But first she wants to finish unpacking.
The Rassis know this won’t be a home forever. But with a place to get a good night’s sleep, friendly neighbors and a closet of their own for what little they’ve salvaged, they can start to rebuild.
Deborah Rassi doesn’t know where she’ll move after this year. But one thing’s for sure, she said: “I’ll never go back to Staten Island.”