“Crash, crack, smash!” – Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy slammed our shores. In a few short hours, the ocean met the bay and Long Beach was under water without electric or clean water and ‘shelter’ took on a brand new meaning. One night’s damage would take years from which to recover. For weeks and months on end help came from everywhere and in all forms. The kindness of strangers never ceased to amaze me.
There was the school bus driver from Connecticut who filled his truck with gas, water, blankets and food because he thought it was the right thing to do. There was the woman from California who organized seven trucks from Ohio to support a community she knew needed it. There were the everyday heroes who despite a gas shortage drove for miles to come and stock shelves, hand out food or comfort others because they knew it was necessary.
And even those who would go home to a cold, dark house spent hours helping others get back on their feet first. Truck after truck, car after car, loads were donated to the Long Beach Ice Arena acting as the main donation and distribution center for the entire barrier island. People wanted to help. Providing for animals, infants, volunteers and an entire community – people gave of themselves in every way imaginable. Thank you can never be enough.
Week after week at the Long Beach Ice Arena I met some of the most amazing people. Character mattered. First names only were shown by a slapped on piece of duct tape and written with large black sharpie marker. No one knew what you did for a living, where you came from, how much was in your bank account or for which candidate you vote. There were things to be done and people did them.There was Blair from the shoe section, Keasia in diapers, Arin in toiletries and the group of friends who schlepped from the city and organized every can of beans and baby food in the joint. Former students of mine answered my calls and gave any time they could. A woman named Tracey drove from Texas to lend a hand and slept in a trailer in the parking lot to be there at the start of every day. Caroline drove from the West End each day to pick up supplies for those whose cars had been washed away. Ray unloaded boxes and Wayne swept every inch of the oval shaped floor. Mary, Brittany and Katie signed in every volunteer. Patti greeted every guest and made sure they got what they needed. John comforted community members, Matt liaised with the city and countless other superstars stood dressed in layers on the cold concrete floor each day lifting, sorting and doing.
There were the burly men and women dressed in yellow from the Forest Service Wildland Fire Fighters who weren’t afraid of anything. They made daisy chains and hefted hundreds of donated filled clothing bags off of the cold cement ice rink floor. With their FEMA briefing every morning they followed directions from Incident Commanders and got the job done-any job with which they were tasked and many with which they weren’t. National organizations and religious groups of adults and children came to support in more ways than one. Sending food for volunteers, cleaning up the neighborhood or sorting through donations to organize and distribute-they worked from their hearts.
A carpenter drove all night from western Pennsylvania and built us six shelving units and ramps in a few hours before turning back around for the long drive home. Mike, a manager of a Panera Bread delivered food for volunteers whenever we needed. Local and long distance restaurant owners showed up with whatever they could carry to feed volunteers and those in need. Marathoners came by bus to canvass the neighborhood to help those still stuck in their homes. Homeland Security arrived with a mobile command center embracing the city as if it were theirs. Firefighters from all over took extra shifts so the city could remain safe and their brethren who needed to could work on their homes or get some much needed rest. We were protected by heaps of police officers. District attorney folks, the guys in purple ties, members of the military, local Long Beach officers, the canine crew and even DEA and US Marshals who kept watch over the DMAT hospital unit that took care of the sick and dispensed necessary medication. Amidst roadblocks, difficult conditions and curfews, the volunteers kept coming to Long Beach and their compassion never waned.
Mat and I can honestly say that we met more people in those few weeks of volunteering than we have in all the years we’ve lived in Long Beach. We now have Homeland Security friends we treasure who hail from the Midwest and if possible, an even greater respect for the Forest Service and hot shot crews who jumped in with both feet and changed our lives for the better. We are founding members and volunteers with incredible organizations that work to better the lives of those afflicted by disasters. We opened and closed the arena on a daily basis. This beachside community came together as one. There were city workers and staff members, council members and officials, lifeguards and residents who kept coming to help, donate, clean, volunteer, serve, deliver, feed and exist together through this difficult time.
Neighbors looked out for neighbors – but this time, those neighbors didn’t only live next door. They came from other towns, other counties, other states and even other countries to give. Hundreds came together (many giving up time with their own families) on a most special day to feed over 1500 guests for a Thanksgiving dinner long remembered. The feeling of community was felt far from our shores.
Today you hear of survival stories, stories of courage and bravery and those of people still struggling and waiting to come home. Organizations that sprung into action in the days after the disaster haven’t stopped working. Volunteers come in droves on build days around the country and charities haven’t forgotten. No one would dream of wishing this on anyone. Homes were decimated. Our hospital closed. Our boardwalk was destroyed and the thriving Long Beach community was ‘bruised, not broken’.
Lives were changed in an instant. Although personally, our building was untouched by water damage, our lives changed, too. The hurricane was a turning point for so many, including myself. Today, my outlook, priorities and even career are different. Sandy changed so much for so many. Time and again we are reminded of the kindness of strangers each day then and since. A lot of good came out of that disaster. Community action, mindfulness, kindness, and compassion only scratch the surface. If we could do it again, we’d all want to erase that day and turn back the clocks to our pre-hurricane city. But, if it had to happen, I count myself lucky in more ways than one. Aside from the tangibles of new friends, a brand new boardwalk and ongoing dune project, this post hurricane city and everyone in it is without question, stronger than the storm.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all who came and helped in their own way.
You made a difference that won’t soon be forgotten!