'It's not over'
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Jan 8, 2013, 15:07
contributed photo A team of volunteers from Hopewell spent a week stripping houses damanged by Hurricane Sandy.
As Mark Willett, Buddy Mitchell, Linda and Clint Cunningham and two other volunteers from Hopewell drove through New Jersey on Rt. 40, the scenery changed from the trees that line most highways to something different as they neared the coast.
They began seeing downed trees and hotels with piles of water logged mattresses, dressers and other debris out front. They began seeing the still visible effects of Hurricane Sandy.
“To me, it’s a real eye opening thing to what the power of God can do,” said Willett, one of the local volunteers who traveled north in December to help put Atlantic City back together.
For him, the scene in Atlantic City showed the power of God in two ways. In the evident destruction, but also “in people coming together,” something he saw as volunteers from all over the country streamed into New Jersey and as residents of the shore town welcomed the volunteers and remained optimistic.
“Most of the people we met were upbeat, and we worked in the poverty and the low income neighborhoods,” Willett said. “But everybody was very uplifting...When they saw you coming, it was like we were sent there to help.”
The storm, which struck the east coast on Oct. 28, bypassed the hurricane prone Southern seashore and charged toward the more densely populated coastline of New York and New Jersey, killing over 100 people, obliterating whole communities, leaving thousands homeless and causing millions if not billions of dollars in damage and business losses.
“Another thing smacked me in between the eyes this morning – only by fate did it hit New Jersey in stead of us,” said Mitchell, describing the thoughts that stirred in his mind after a week in New Jersey. “It’s an opportunity for people to help whether you belong to our church or not.”
Willett, Mitchell and the Cunninghams got involved in the relief effort through the Presbyterian Church of America’s Mission to North America Disaster Response initiative, which coordinated with the New City Fellowship church and the church’s charity, Hope for Atlantic City on the ground.
In Atlantic City, the damage caused by Sandy was extensive, but less visually apparent than it was in some other communities.
“We had a situation where the bay and the ocean met here on the barrier island,” explained David Cohen, executive director of Hope for Atlantic City.
Cohen said that unlike Newark, NJ, where houses were completely destroyed, Atlantic City neighborhoods were mainly inundated with salt water, which eventually drained out of the houses as the flood subsided.
“People were in a situation where I think they thought, ‘Oh, I can just pull out my carpet and throw out this furniture and then I’m good to go,’” Cohen said.
But that wasn’t true. Toxic black mold was beginning to show up in some homes and the corrosive salt water has begun eating through the structural elements of many houses. Willett said 5,000 houses in Atlantic City alone were effected.
Working with MNA Disaster Response, Hope for Atlantic City started renovating damaged homes, with the help of people like the crew from Hopewell.
“People were in denial a little bit, or not realizing the health and safety concerns about continuing to live in a house like that without it being dealt with” Cohen said.
From Dec. 9 through Dec. 15, the Hopewell group worked on five houses, pulling out flooring, sheet rock, joists and muck, removing debris covered in sea water, mold, sand and even sewage.
“It was a lot of devastation, it was very cold, we had rain a couple of days...,” said Linda Cunningham. “And then when the sun came out, the breeze was just bitter cold, but being very active, you stayed warm.”
At one of the houses the group worked on, she was in charge of carrying buckets full of the debris to the street as they were handed to her by the others working in the basement.
“After the first day, my arms grew about three inches,” she said, remembering the exhausting work, carrying heavy loads.
They also spent time talking the people who had experienced the storm and the losses it caused, including one 91 year old man who had waded through floodwaters that came up to his chest in the street outside his house, while a stretch of houses just two blocks away were completely obliterated.
“I did get to talk to some folks, and that was really, really, really rewarding,” LInda Cunningham said. “To take the time to hear what they had to say and what they had been through.”
contributed photo Mark Willett amd CLint Cunningham take a break from stripping a damaged house.
She said the only person who was not optimistic was a woman who seemed “in denial” about what had happened, and refused to throw out her damaged belongings.
She said that most of the storm’s victims “actually did see a future, because the teams were coming through, things were being done, they could see a light at the end of whatever tunnel.”
Often times, when they would take a pile of debris out to the street, neighborhood residents would materialize to load it into garbage trucks, and sweep the street clean.
Although it was exhausting work, it was inspiring.
“We’d go home and we’d eat and we’d crash and we’re ready to go the next day,” Linda Cunningham said. “I don’t care. You kind of forget all the discomfort. You’re just ready to see what you can do and get done.”
Although the group from Hopewell arrived more than a month after the storm hit and after news cameras and the nation’s attention had moved on, they could see there was still a tremendous amount of work left to be done.
“There is so much need and not enough people,” Mitchell wrote in a diary he kept, detailing the experience.
“It seems like everybody just thinks this thing is over with,” he said.
Willett agreed, and said he hoped that people would realize there is still plenty of need for help.
“My biggest thing is for people to understand, it’s not over,” he said. “It’s going to be years.”
The ongoing Hurricane Sandy recovering effort re-entered the news when House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to scrap a planned vote on funding for Sandy relief efforts on Tuesday night outraged New York and New Jersey politicians, including members of Boehner’s own Republican party.
As of press time, the House of Representatives was expected to vote for $9.7 Billion dollars worth of funding for flood insurance claims on Friday, taking up discussion of an additional $51 Billion in aid on Jan. 15, according to the Association Press and CNN.
RThe group from Hopewell intends to return to Atlantic City in April or May to help with the next phase of reconstruction, which will focus on rebuilding the homes they and other volunteer groups have been stripping.
“It’s a hard thing to explain what it does to you, it really is,” Willett explained. “For me it was like something God sent me to do. I had to do it.”
contributed photo Neighborhood residents assisted with the cleanup by transferring debris left on the sidewalk into garbage trucks, sweeping the path clean with a broom afterwards.
Although they were inspired by feelings of devotion and were working through Mission to North America, a Presbyterian initiative, the group hopes to take more volunteers with them on their next trip, whether they go to church or not.
The December trip was funded entirely by donations of supplies and money from a diverse group including Woodlawn Presbyterian Church, Bill Laun, Rusty Shaffer, First Christian Church, David Ameen, June McCollum, Graham Howell, Loretta Honeycutt, Ray Hall, John Stalling, Mary Connelly O’Reilly Auto Parts, Mark Dunning Industries, West End Presbyterian Church, Smart Home Builders Inc., and West Hopewell Presbyterian Church.
Before their next trip, the group is hoping to gather more donations, possibly even enough to purchase a trailer they could take with them on future missions. Anyone interested in getting involved can call West Hopewell Presbyterian Church at (804) 458-4008.