Sandy first responder gets the help he's given to others

(CBS News) Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy's assault on the Northeast. But in addition to heartbreak, every catastrophe produces an opportunity -- a chance for real heroes to emerge. In New Jersey, one person who gave help getting some a year later.

John Gelalia and a few other volunteer firefighters stayed behind to defend a firehouse when Hurricane Sandy came ashore.

N.J. volunteer firefighter John Gelalia CBS News

"Between 12 and 1," he said, "the water broke through. We heard crashing and banging. The ocean came through the firehouse and took out the fencing and all that."

Coverage of Superstorm Sandy: One year later
Superstorm Sandy: How storm morphed from "boring" to killer superstorm

The 46-year-old lives just blocks away, but getting to his home to check on it proved to be quite a challenge.

"I went from ankle deep, knee deep, chest deep," he said, "'til I got to my street. When I got to my street there was only one way down here, and I just swam all the way down."

Initially, FEMA paid for a hotel room, but the funding ran out in March. Gelalia had no choice but to sleep on a cot at his home without any walls, running water or electricity.

"Everything I do -- I shower, I go to the bathroom at the firehouse, watch TV. That's the only existence that I have is that."

Without flood insurance, Gelalia said he couldn't afford the necessary repairs on the home he bought with his mother in 1991.

Last year, John Gelalia stayed behind to defend a firehouse when the storm came; now people are repaying him back in kind CBS News

"We've been calling our program 'Help the Helpers,'" said Jon Rose of the non-profit Waves for Water. He heard about Gelalia's situation and stepped up with a grant to rebuild Gelalia's home.

"You're talking a year later to a guy who's probably just been going out their continuously," said Rose, "and helping other people and probably just hasn't said, 'Hey I need help.'"

Six weeks ago they started to demolish what Sandy had destroyed in Gelalia's home and begin to rebuild it. Volunteers added the finishing touches on Friday.

And after staying away during the six weeks of construction, Gelalia finally returned home. "Wow!" he said when he entered inside.

The helper overwhelmed by being on the other end of help -- and thinking of his mom, who died in 2001.

"She'd be impressed," said Gelalia, wiping a tear from his eye. "Definitely."

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.