Hurricane Sandy hit the coast of New Jersey just over a month ago. Many coastal towns were evacuated, thousands of people lost their homes and even more were without power for weeks. According to one Union Beach resident, “The first five days we were here, it was literally like a war zone. You heard backhoes in the street. you heard helicopters right over your head. And you heard sirens. And every time there was a siren, it was another house collapsing.”
Burners Without Borders was contacted by the Borough of Union Beach to remove large debris from 162 properties, using heavy equipment. Unlike many of the other communities along the New Jersey coast, Union Beach is not a grouping of second homes for summer vacations. The people who live in Union Beach live there all year and work in the stores, restaurants, bars, and other businesses in the area.
We briefly met Gigi, owner of JakeaBob’s Bay Restaurant, right on the coast. JakeaBob’s was the town’s livelihood – not only did everyone hang out there, but Gigi employed dozens of residents. The building is gone, but Gigi’s spirit perseveres. She is working to open another restaurant further inland, with the help of many other local residents. They collected doors from the rubble, and are painting them to make tables for the new restaurant. Sounds like the sort of the thing that BWB would be into, right?
In Union Beach, the roads have been cleared, the houses that are salvageable have been mucked out, and displaced residents are being fed. But what about the houses that aren’t salvageable?
We drove around town with Karen, a local resident. She told us, “The problem is that we’re kind of being forgot about. We don’t have all of those big pretty houses. These are people’s homes all year round. My heart goes out to all of those people with those big beautiful houses. They have memories there. That’s their summer life, but this is people’s every day. I mean, my house has been gutted and everything was out on the curb. But mine compared to the people who don’t even know where their physical house went. It’s somewhere in the bay, somewhere in pieces in other people’s yards.”
FEMA won’t give people their stipends to start rebuilding until the remains of their houses have been removed. Sound like anything BWB has done before?
As we were approaching Karen’s property, Richard asked her how long she’d been in Union Beach. She told us, “8 years, this is my first that I bought by myself. Its mine, all by my big self, my big girl house and it was just about perfect. All I needed to do was the kitchen. Last April got a new roof, hot water heater, and a brand new boiler. But you know, like I said, there are people much worse off than me.” It’s a yellow one story bungalow with an American flag and a torn Yankees flag out front. Then the storm happened. The inside has been completely gutted. Then she found out that the foundation had crumbled. She did her best not to tear up when showing us around.
When asked if she was aware of grief counselors or group meetings, she responded, “Some, some. I don’t think we’ve really crashed and burned to be honest with you. You know, like every one of us has a mini melt down, but I don’t think it’s gotten to that. I don’t think we’re there yet. There’s some people and there’s counseling available, but most people just are still not ready – – It’s the community and it’s the hope that it’s going to get better, so they’re not there yet. I know I’m not. Some are stronger than others, but it’s not time, but it’s going to be. It’s going to be a matter of when, not if.”
Through the use of donated equipment and an all volunteer team, we’ll be able to help Karen and at least 160 other Union Beach residents through this crucial step in the rebuilding process, that is beyond the means of the homeowners and would be a weighty financial burden to the town.
As we got back to the Borough office, Jennifer, the Borough administrator was consoling a woman, who was in tears about coming to a decision that her house had to come down. Jennifer was telling her about the process, and that the city was taking care of all of the paperwork. She introduced Richard and described BWB as an organization that will remove her house for free. “How can you do this?” she asked. After an explanation, she said, “I’m so thankful that you guys can do this. When people come together like this, it makes me feel so gracious, so uplifted. It makes me very emotional that people are coming together to help other people. These people are here to help me regain my life.”
We still have a lot of work ahead of us, which is where you come in. The skills and resources of this community can make a big difference. If you’re local, consider volunteering for a few days, and if you live farther away please consider donating money for much needed tools and supplies.