2012-11-15 / Front Page
Union Beach now flooded with help
Thousands from across the country step in to help dig out
The small bayside town of Union Beach has never been so busy. After superstorm Sandy blew through town two weeks ago, leveling homes and businesses and leaving hundreds of residents without a place to live, Union Beach has become the focal point for a nationwide relief effort, bringing in thousands of volunteers from as far away as Utah and Canada.
Driving through town on Nov. 10, borough resident Bill Heller pointed out the various church groups and organizations that were walking the streets, helping homeowners clean out debris and lug bulky, waterlogged furniture and appliances to the curb.
“There’s a Baptist group from Florida,” said Heller, pointing to a group of young men in matching T-shirts moving in and out of a Florence Avenue home, shoveling out broken drywall and removing bags of garbage.
“It’s just unbelievable, how much help this town is getting.”
Heller, one of the many Union Beachers who has been living in hotel rooms and friends’ homes since his townhouse was flooded on Oct. 29, then stopped by his Vista Shores housing complex, where residents of some of the 24 units were gathered around talking about what was next.
Ed Niskey, who now has an end unit after his next-door neighbor’s townhouse was demolished by Sandy, said he had already engaged contractors to clear out the sheetrock, air conditioner, furnace and other items destroyed when nearly five feet of water flooded his bayfront home.
“I’ve gone through and thrown as much out as I could,” he said. “You have to worry about mold and all that. I’m going ahead with it. This all has to be done ahead of time, so I’m going to do as much as I can.”
His insurance company told him representatives could not meet with him until after Thanksgiving. “In the meantime I need to take care of this for the winter,” he said. “That’s longterm stuff. Let’s get the short-term done, and argue with the lawyers later. People have to move on with their lives”
Other residents in the complex were busy talking about what kind of hardware to buy, as the powerful storm surge had knocked out most of the units’ front- and garage doors.
The popular choice for doors seemed to be a top-of-the-line, thick-gauge model, which would help safeguard against potential looters now that most of the National Guard and State Police cordons throughout town had been removed.
Still, Niskey and others couldn’t help but be impressed by the level of volunteerism and community support in the wake of the storm.
“This church came down and a bunch of kids came through here doing work, cleaning stuff up. … Volunteers come through with hot soup, sandwiches, anything you want,” said Niskey. “It’s great what they’re doing. There is a human race, you know. It’s just wonderful.”
Elsewhere, groups of Mennonites from Pennsylvania, Muslims, and various Christian organizations from throughout the country, local high schoolers, sports teams, Boy Scouts and countless others were walking through the town in large and small groups, volunteering everything from manpower and transportation to hot food and supplies.
At Union Beach Borough Hall, which beginning on Nov. 2 was converted into a county Disaster Relief Center (DRC), hundreds more were preparing meals, organizing massive stockpiles of donations and providing information and direction to residents trying to figure out what to do next.
Carl Williamson, along with dozens of members of the Gateway Church of Christ in Holmdel, had been among the first volunteers to arrive at the center when it first opened. Now he is sort of a director of operations, working with Jakeabob’s Bay owner Gigi Liaguno-Dorr to coordinate donations, deliveries, storage, transportation and the sprawling team of volunteers manning the center from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday.
“Last Friday, this building was completely empty, and we filled it up.” said Williamson, taking a break from trying to find a cell-phone battery for a resident in need.
“I’m guessing that today we have had just over 1,000 volunteers in Union Beach and more donated supplies and help than we ever imagined.”
Williamson said the center is currently working on several projects, from running a food pantry that provides nonperishable food, paper goods, pet supplies, cleaning supplies, household goods and more to an information center where residents looking to apply for aid, file an insurance claim or move forward with construction can seek answers.
Two workers at the information desk — Nicole and Lea — were independent volunteers from North Jersey who had heard about the destruction in Union Beach and decided to pitch in.
“We definitely see maybe 500 people a day here,” said Nicole, a teacher who continues to volunteer even after her school reopened last week. “Most people are looking for information on FEMA, unemployment insurance, what items they can donate and how they can help.”
Williamson said that thanks to the overwhelming response in the wake of the storm, the center now has large stockpiles of most of the essential items residents might need. What they need now, he said, are biggerticket items.
“We want to find people who will donate beds, furniture, appliances. We’re going out to corporations right now and trying to get washers and dryers, refrigerators, microwaves.
“It’s going to cost so much money to rebuild all these houses, and a lot of people have had to move into apartments with nothing. We want to try to give them some of those things, so that they can spend the money on rebuilding or on getting back to normal.”
The center, he said, was also working to brighten residents’ spirits by providing additional services like email access and cellphone charging. On Sunday, a trailer came by with large TVs and speakers to broadcast the week’s NFL games, while volunteers manned grills and handed out food.
“It’s almost like a party,” said Williamson.
Union Beach Police Chief Scott Woolley, on hand at the center throughout the week, said he has been especially impressed by the level of volunteerism he has seen within the borough.
“I know of several people who have completely lost their house, they’ve been here all week volunteering,” he said. “Their attitude is ‘I can’t do anything for myself right now because my house is gone, let me come in and help other people.’ It’s just fantastic.”
For the time being, residents are able to stock up and find comfort at the center, but the need for temporary housing while the borough rebuilds is still a priority for Union Beach officials.
“We have a lot of homeless people, and right now that’s our major concern,” said Mayor Paul Smith.
“A lot of these people live paycheck to paycheck. We need help and we seem to be getting some now.”
Currently, a number of residents are being sheltered at the Brisbane Child Treatment Center in Wall, he said, and the borough is planning to amend municipal ordinances to allow homeowners to set up trailers on their property.
Other area housing options are now in the works, with a group of FEMA trailers in Hazlet and residential housing at Fort Monmouth set to come online in the coming weeks.
Smith said he is also in talks with county and state officials to work on re-establishing Union Beach businesses and cleaning up the borough as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Even in the midst of so much work, however, Smith took time out to thank all of the volunteers and residents who have given so much to the town.
“I’ve never been prouder to be mayor,” he said. “We have such beautiful people, volunteers here, everyone has stepped up. I made a promise that I wouldn’t mention anyone by name as there’s simply not enough time to list them all. I just want to thank everyone, from the bottom of my heart.”