We left Lafayette this morning to start the hour long trip to the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, where we were staying for the week. The issue is disaster relief, specifically Hurricane Sandy relief along the Jersey Shore. Our team leader is Abby Williams and our learning partner is Jen Rao. The club is in the most dangerous part of Newark: the central ward. We were safe as long as we did not live the premises; a high fence surrounded the premises and it was generally regarded by the community to be a safe zone. The club itself was just given a complete makeover by the Snowflake Foundation (gives large grants prior to super bowl) for a quarter of a million dollars. The gym, pool, and game room areas were all new. Shaquille O’Neill had come here as a child and so he signed the gym floor! The club would host about 57 people from various universities either working with children in the Newark community or going to the shore area to do rebuilding, as we were. But we would never take a walk around Newark outside the club, which highlights another issue in the community. In our United Way orientation, the directors of the program, Adam and Brian, informed us that we would be helping those people who are considered ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, yet Employed). We would be fortunate enough to have breakfast, lunch and dinner provided by United Way (the group that runs the Alternative Spring Break [ASB] program). The kids who come to the Boys and Girls Club often have their school lunches and the guaranteed snack at the club as their only food on a given day. That was hard to comprehend. Every day, we will be working almost eight‑hour days rebuilding homes on the shore that were damaged by wind and flooding, by as much as eight feet of water in many areas! This is a daunting task while sleeping little on cots in a classroom, but it’s all a learning experience and I hope to get a lot out of it.
Day 1: Little did I know this would be the beginning of my lights out at 10:30pm and wakeup at 6:15am week. We all slept in the same classroom and this is the first time I have ever heard seven alarms go off at once. I kept the same routine every day: pack my lunch (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, and carrot sticks), eat a quick breakfast of cereal and a banana, get ready in the locker room/bathroom we were using, and I was good to go. My grogginess from the early start made me take over an hour each morning to get ready, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about that. We drove to Keansburg for our orientation with Eric, the general contractor in charge of the volunteer labor. He told us that 346,000 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in New Jersey. Of those, 10,000 were in Monmouth County (where we were) and since September, the AmeriCorps/United Way partnership has helped move 20 families in the county move back into their homes. We started our orientation in a house that looked normal on the outside, but the inside revealed that the house was completely unfinished, with all the structural boards and insulation showing. We then walked a short distance to another house a few blocks away. It looked homey, with painted walls and a nice kitchen. Eric then told us that this house had been completed by volunteer labor, and that this is what we were capable of. Initially, a lot of money was poured into Sandy relief efforts. Now, volunteer labor is needed, which decreases the cost to the homeowner by 2/3 to 3/4 of the total. Shortly after the storm, the state of New Jersey passed a law requiring these shore houses to be raised to prevent future disasters if the house was 51% or more flooded. This applied to most of the shore houses. This means that the house’s former first floor becomes its second floor, and a new basement type level is created on the first floor. These ALICE homeowners could afford to have their houses raised or rebuilt, but not both. That is why this work is so crucial. Among our group, we discussed how many Sandy relief organizations feel forgotten, because a year and a half after the storm Sandy is old news in the media. As we walked down the street, we saw some houses that had been rebuilt, but most had been untouched, barely begun being rebuilt, or were just empty lots as the houses were washed away and no rebuilding attempt was made. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing. I had seen the numbers on how many houses had been damaged, how many billions had been lost in the storm. But never in my dreams had I really grasped what that really meant until this moment. After our orientation, we proceeded to our first house in Monmouth to do a paint job. The house had been raised, the walls and ceiling were put up, and primer had already been applied. We were there to paint the walls and ceilings. I didn’t know that this meant not one but two coats of paint and a touch up following each coat. It was rough getting our technique down, but we got pretty good at it. We returned to the Boys and Girls Club around 6pm only to realize that dinner was an hour off and we couldn’t shower until after dinner. When in Rome! That evening after dinner, we discussed what we would shoot with the camera for our documentary. Even on day one it was clear that the storm has not had the attention it deserves and we were going to do our part to ensure that the awareness is out there.
We woke up again at an early hour and got to the house around 9:30 to begin working. In the morning before our service, we stopped and stared as we saw a house that had been raised. It was a strange looking house: it was a one-story house that was raised up to be two stories, but its only support was six wooden stilts! There wasn’t even a way to enter the house as work was still being done. Now I truly understand what it meant to raise a house. Today we had a lot of work to do, so Abby came up with a plan to divide the work so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed. By the end of the day, with the exception of a closet and touching up, we had successfully painted the ceilings and walls of the whole house with two coats. A group of donors walked through the house and told us how impressed they were with our work. We were told later that the homeowner is a single father and his daughter. They had previously paid a contractor to do the job, but he did a horrible, partial job, took the money and fled to Europe. This is why groups like United Way are so necessary. After our service, we drove to Seaside Heights for a closer look at how Sandy impacted other shore communities. The town had previously been in the media for having its pier destroyed and a roller coaster carried into the ocean, the boardwalk damaged beyond repair, and a destructive fire a few months later. The roller coaster remained in the ocean for several months, as an embarrassment to the entire town. As it was March and cold, very few businesses were open on the rebuilt boardwalk. We stopped into one restaurant that was open, JR’s. We talked to the owner, who told us that most business owners on the boardwalk lost all of the possessions that they left behind on their lower levels. Those with flood insurance had the insurance companies claim it was wind damage, and those with homeowners insurance (which covers wind damage) had the insurance companies claim it was flood damage. So many victims of Sandy was not paid for the damage, whether they were businesses or households. Sandy was not kind to New Jersey in more ways than one.
When we arrived at the site this morning, we finished touchup and cleanup. The entire house painted in just under 2.5 days! It can take weeks to paint a house, but we did it in days. This is not rebuilding New Jersey by any means, but we were able to help in at least one small way. It was a proud feeling to know what we had accomplished. It was gratifying to see the homeowner walk through the house and comment on how much had been done. A friend of the owner’s said that the last time she had walked through the house it had barely had floorboards! Even when it was time to quit and go home after half a day of working we couldn’t leave. We didn’t want to leave the house a mess with wet paint out and paint brushes everywhere. We stayed behind and cleaned at the risk of being late. Our group really cares about getting the job done, and the impression I got from the AmeriCorps leaders is that this was not always the case with other groups. After half a day of work, we drove to the Staten Island ferry and took it to Manhattan around 4:30. We didn’t have enough time to go to the museum with an exhibit on Hurricane Sandy, unfortunately, but we did have enough time to go to Magnolia Bakery near Rockefeller Plaza! Well worth a week of no desert. The German Chocolate cupcake was irresistible. We then proceeded to Times Square, took a group photo, and had dinner at Tony’s Italian restaurant at the square with two Lafayette alums who graduated approximately ten years ago and were presidents of ASB. One of them was recently on the board for Breakaway (the national organization in charge of ASBs). They had gone on all the ASB trips that their college career would allow and were glad to see that we were donating our time during our spring break to rebuild New Jersey. One of the alums was from New Jersey and was personally affected by the storm: Sandy damaged his heating system; he had no heat, so his pipes froze and then burst. He was forced to stay with a friend for weeks. It was gratifying to talk to someone who had gone on all these ASB trips and talked about how their experiences affected them, because it confirmed what I had been beginning to understand all along. ASB trips really do affect you for the rest of your lives in a way nothing else will. On the way out, I noticed a wooden frame of a small house in the middle of the square. It turns out that Habitat for Humanity was building a house to raise awareness. It was good to know that the storm was not so quickly forgotten. We took the ferry and drove the van back late at night only to discover in the middle of Newark, three blocks from the Boys and Girls Club, we had a flat tire. We were lucky to be able to drive it back to the parking lot.
Abby and Jen were kind enough to wake up early to call AAA and get the van fixed. Enterprise just ended up giving us another van. We ended up getting to the site the same time as the second van that left on time because they ran into horrible traffic. We drove to the first house to do one final checkup on the house. The AmeriCorps people were impressed and we finished by lunch. We took pictures of our work to show people back home what was going on here and what a small team could do to make a difference. The next stop was a different house, this time in Union Beach. The house was within sight of the ocean and Manhattan itself. This put it in a very vulnerable position for flooding. This house was in the early stages of rebuilding, and while a different team painted the upstairs, we placed drywall on the ceiling of the newly created “basement-looking first floor”. The contractor Eric had informed us that many of the houses in the bay area had been destroyed or carried into the bay, yet again with no insurance payments. This house was lucky enough to still be intact, but it had been flooded throughout. This raised an important question in my mind: who does the volunteer labor besides the spring ASB groups? The answer: they get a few more college groups to come over the summer and a few one day corporate groups, such as those from Johnson & Johnson, Vonage, and Nordstrom. That is about it. It is hard to imagine that as much can be accomplished in a day of service, however, when it took us a day to get into a routine. This observation was reinforced by our experience of learning how to install drywall in the afternoon. We used lifts to raise 8’ by 4’ pieces of drywall to the basement ceiling and used power tools to drill screws holding the drywall in place on the wooden beams. It took practice, we had to drill many holes in plywood before we got the angling and positioning correct. But we did mount several pieces of drywall before we had to leave for the day.
We started the day with our last Dunkin Donuts run. It was emotional. I got hooked on the medium iced coconut coffee during the week and it’ll be hard getting back to my normal coffee. I know I wasn’t the only one hooked on caffeine. Even at this point in the trip we knew that we had bonded as a group. Abby suggested we continue our spirit of service by doing Lafapalooza in the spring and there was unanimous approval. The dream team can never die! Before starting for the day, I had the privilege of discussing what had happened during the hurricane in Union Beach with the homeowner. She said that they had lived in the house since before Hurricane Irene. When that hurricane hit, the storm damage was negligible so warnings were ignored and they did not evacuate. When they heard warnings for Sandy, they ignored them as well, only to change their minds and evacuate when they saw the creek down the street had swelled. They took enough clothes for a week and left everything else behind. What followed was six feet of flooding that swept away all their possessions. Their house has been under repair ever since. As somebody who grew up on a house on a hill, this was beyond my comprehension. I had to step back for awhile to comprehend what I was hearing. Sandy changed lives in more ways than many realize. We continued to help to Eric to drywall the ceiling and by the end of the day had completed half of the basement. It was an amazing achievement considering most of us had never even heard of drywall the day before. Eric was very impressed with what we were able to accomplish, and said how most groups were not this eager and dedicated. I left the site with a greater appreciation for the care required to build a house and more of a comprehension of how much work is still required to bring the Jersey Shore back to where it was before Sandy. During our group reflection, the consensus was that we all now knew, if we didn’t before, how much help was really needed still, a year and a half later, long after the media had forgotten about Sandy. We know firsthand how promised insurance money was not received, how entire boardwalks were damaged beyond repair, and how a bustling town turned into vacant lots. We only hope we can convey this in our documentary. I’m glad that I’m more aware of what is going on practically in my own backyard. After all, I spent summers for the first fourteen years of my life at the Jersey Shore. The least I can do is help to bring it back. We returned to the Boys and Girls Club for Launch Night. Formerly known as closing ceremonies, Launch Night is designed to launch us into the rest of our lives as active members of the community. They discussed that the issues we saw here are not unique to this area. They are everywhere, if we know where to look. They did not expect that we would all become United Way volunteers. Their goal was to have us see what was going on in these communities and to take this spirit home, back to wherever we would be going the next day and for the rest of our lives. They gave us Live United t-shirts and water bottles to remember our experience. But I will not need these to remember this experience. What I have seen here has impacted me in ways that I am still processing. I won’t forget the friends I have made and how together we made a difference. I can’t forget the accounts of the devastation from the homeowners and how much work still needs to be done. If I have learned anything at all, it’s the power of one and the power of understanding and awareness.