Sunday, November 4, 2012

Devastation, Memories...And Heartbreak

The curious and stunned came to remember...
In the early pre-dawn hours, sitting in my warm kitchen with hot coffee and electrical power is probably something that I will never take for granted again. After spending a cold, blustery November Saturday delivering donations and touring some of the Jersey Shores severely damaged areas, the surreal scenery is weighing heavily on my mind.

My sister Betty had spent the last few days working social media sites asking for much needed clothing and food items that we could collect at a designated spot and transport to a coastal drop off site. The great people of Burlington County, along with Twitter and Facebook friends did not disappoint. Car after car met us on site bringing, canned goods, water, clothing, cereal, even dog food. We packed my big SUV without an inch to spare and headed east to one of Egg Harbor Townships fire departments (a large community on the mainland side of Atlantic City). Once there, we got into a line of cars and trucks that had done the very same thing; appeal to the goodness of their friends and neighbors and headed towards the shore.

Here lies the Jersey Shore - RIP
The “what else can I do” spirit of the volunteers emptying the cars, and that of those delivering, was nothing short of heartwarming. But then, the short ride into Atlantic City, over the Albany Ave. Bridge and onto Winchester Ave, where rows of homes got caught between the rising bay and the crushing ocean turned to nothing short of heartbreaking.

These are not multi-million dollar vacation homes; these are the row homes of casino workers, firemen, bus drivers and school employees...and most of the contents of their first floors were out on the curb saturated with sea water. Carpets, furniture, appliances, the very things that made a house a home on Sunday, rendered it inhabitable on Monday.

Traveling further down the road toward the inlet section, this usually bustling city had no traffic lights…or traffic. The casinos, which had to close because of mandatory evacuations a week before, had reopened hours earlier to the public, but the public wasn’t returning on this day. For a gambling town that has been struggling to hold onto its’ patronage since the opening of competing casinos in neighboring states, a forced week-long shut down, has to be devastating.

We kept going toward the inlet section because this is what I needed to see. A few years back, I worked in neighboring Absecon for a while. When time allowed, I would the take the mile ride on Rt. 30 into AC and have my lunch break up on the inlet boardwalk and sea watch. It was a stressful job and this was my release. This portion of the boardwalk, away from the casinos, restaurants, amusement piers, and upscale shopping malls, belonged to the people. It was where residents went to fish, to walk and socialize. It seemed that everybody knew everybody else. I went often enough that an occasional familiar face would smile and say “hey, what's for lunch today?”

My former favorite lunch spot.
I had seen video footage of the “1/4 mile portion of the AC boardwalk that was swallowed by Sandy” and had to see for myself if it was the section I became so fond of. It was. As we crossed over Atlantic Ave., beach sand had been plowed to the sides and straight ahead the beach was empty with nothing left but a few pilings and ocean. People were mulling around the smashed dunes and water’s edge. No socializing or friendly chatter, just a realization that a piece of their life had been claimed by a force so strong that cement columns were reduced to rubble. 

"My father and sons fished here almost every Saturday for the past several years" said one woman turning  her collar up to ward off the cold wind. "With everything else that's been damaged, this will probably be the last thing they fix."  And sadly, she's right. The casino workers, firemen, bus drivers and school employees will have to wait their turn in a very long line.

Red tag on door - "Uninhabitable"
Over another bridge and onto Brigantine Island led us to more devastation and amazement. Vicious winds whipped around the end of the island at the sea wall rendering million dollar homes tagged with red signs reading "inhabitable". Boats, once docked in marinas, now littered the streets, sometimes miles away from where they belonged.  

On the bay side, are year round residential communities where some homes looked untouched and others lost almost everything. Streets lined with indoor and outdoor furniture made some road impassable.

It goes without saying that the entire New Jersey coastline has forever been altered. It will take much time, money and effort to right the wrong that Sandy has inflicted on us. Some things may never be right again. Seaside Heights where I spent many Saturdays during my teen years, putting quarters down to spin the wheels or eating sausage and pepper sandwiches, is in ruins. It is hard to imagine where to even begin the cleanup. 

President comforts a Brigantine resident.
It is now one week later and I think of the thousands still in shelters, or living without power or heat on this cold November day. If you are reading this warm, dry and in your own home, then make the effort to help those that are not. Blankets, coats, underwear and food are in much need. Compassion is the first step toward getting our neighbors back into their homes and the first brick in rebuilding our shores. Step by step. Brick by brick. Board by board...we'll get there!

Photos by Jo Ann Phelps & ImageGoggle