One of the great things about working at Mad*Pow is the volunteer benefit—employees can use 5 paid days per year for volunteer work. I used my days all at once recently, volunteering in Tom’s River, NJ for Hurricane Sandy recovery.
This was my 7th trip with ServCorps, a non-profit organization that travels to weather-ravaged areas to assist with rebuilding homes. Each trip has been a tremendous experience in terms of helping people put their homes and lives back together. But this trip was different for me. I used to live in Hoboken, I rented a summer house on the Jersey Shore with my college friends, and both my parents are from Jersey, too. As a kid, even though my parents relocated to Massachusetts, we took our summer vacations on Long Beach Island. The Jersey Shore was the coastline I grew up with, and I know what it looked like “before.”
So as we drove down the coast for the week’s work, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d seen the pictures after Sandy retreated, I knew there was a lot of damage. But 6 months later, it was still shocking to see houses completely destroyed—some lying on their sides, some with second floors ripped off, some with all the windows and doors blown off. And that’s what was easily visible. As we drove through coastal neighborhoods with homes appearing intact from the outside, it only took a closer look to see the interiors were totally empty—gutted, right down to the studs—done after the storm’s water receded and all that was left was mud and debris.
I was assigned to work in a modest home in a neighborhood in Tom’s River bordering Barnegat Bay. Houses look out on the water, with canals in between. It’s a big boating community, and almost every house has a dock. Don and Bev, the homeowners, had heeded the evacuation order before Sandy hit, but they’d only been able to take a few items of clothing with them. “We lost everything else,” Don recounted, “when we came back all the furniture was ruined, wet and soggy, 2 feet of mud everywhere and everything—kitchen cabinets, carpets, flooring, bathroom fixtures, had to be removed.” Don’s a retired engineer, he and his wife bought the house in ‘72, raised three kids there. Today, Don’s face is tired, drawn. They’ve been living with their daughter ever since Sandy, and Bev broke her hip in a fall soon after the storm. “I just want to get her back home,” Don told us.
We arrived at a project nearing completion—drywall had been replaced, electrical rewired, and the plumbing was in working order. The walls were painted and some of the kitchen cabinets were still usable. Our job was to get the house completely finished--doors needed to be hung and painted, some needed to be framed, doorknobs attached, trim cleaned and painted. A bathroom needed to be mudded, sanded and painted. This is the kind of detail work that takes concentration—and time. I felt the pressure of wanting to finish everything quickly --I wanted Don to be able to bring Bev home. But as I got started on sinking nails in trim, spackling holes and preparing doors for painting, I knew it would be better if I worked slowly and patiently, versus rushing and having to redo work.
During the time we worked on Don’s home, he came by every day and talked with our team, and we learned about his family and their experiences during the storm, as well as the maze of insurance, legal, federal and state regulatory stuff that homeowners have to navigate after a disaster like Sandy. “We walked around for a month after the storm in a daze,” Don said, “no one knew what to do.” Eventually, he was able to get someone to come and clean out the house, remove the drywall and assess the damage. When insurance money ran out, Don turned to Team New Jersey, a local non-profit, for help. “I can’t count how many volunteers have been here, working on the house. Maybe 100 or more,” Don told us, “I didn’t know there were people that do this—that help others like this.”
Sometimes, Don was quiet and reserved, and he seemed exhausted and depressed. As the week went on and we were finishing, bit by bit and room by room, Don’s spirits also seemed to improve. When he arrived on Thursday to a house that was really starting to look complete, he was whistling a tune and had a spring in his step. “Maybe we’ll be able to move back in on Saturday,” he said, hopefully.
As we left Tom’s River at the end of the week, it was bittersweet. We had helped Don and Bev, and were happy they would be moving home soon. But, there’s still so much recovery ahead for New Jersey. I’m lucky to work for a company that supports volunteer efforts, and I hope I can go back to New Jersey to help again.