Deployment Diary: Damage in the Old Neighborhood

I work for a disaster relief organization, but until today I had never seen a disaster in a place that I once considered home. Belmar, N.J. is a shore town about 90 minutes south of New York.  It’s wonderfully quiet in the winter and way too busy in the summer.  I used to live along Ocean Avenue, in the first apartment building across from the boardwalk.

Today, I was in a car surveying damage when I realized that we had driven into my old neighborhood.   There were more trees cut in half and uprooted than I could count. Roads were closed. Sand had worked its way off the

The boardwalk in Belmar, N.J. was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy and pieces of it were strewn about the neighborhood.

beach and covered the street like snow. Light poles were tilted over and bent at odd angles. A lake near the ocean had flooded and in some places there was still a few feet of water on the ground. It was very surreal and then it became even more so.

The driver unknowingly pulled to a stop in front of my old building.  The building itself is still standing, but sand from the beach across the street had formed a berm about five feet high on the front lawn. Debris was everywhere. Large planks from what used to be the boardwalk were strewn about. The boardwalk itself was completely gone. We saw pieces of it a few blocks inland.

I spoke with two people who live there – one of whom actually lives in my old apartment. He said they’re cold, uncomfortable and still have more than a foot of water in the basement. They’ve set up a grill in the parking lot and are sitting by it to cook and in an attempt to stay warm. I also met a lady who was in tears.  She said that they can’t get any information because they’ve been without power for so long that the batteries in their radios and flashlights are dead. She asked for help. When I told her it was on the way, she was so grateful that she almost cried again.

Some of my happiest memories are from that neighborhood. I still can’t quite believe what’s happened to it. And, as bad as the damage is, it’s nothing compared to some other areas.  But the Red Cross is helping, in New Jersey and across the east coast. We’ve deployed mobile kitchens that can cook nearly 200,000 meals each day, 230 response vehicles and 3,300 disaster workers.  Even more help is on the way, but we can’t do it alone.

The American Red Cross isn’t a government agency and we provide all of our disaster assistance free of charge. Superstorm Sandy was very large and our response to it will be quite costly.  Please consider helping our efforts by visiting RedCross.org, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a one-time $10 contribution.

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Deployment Diary: Seeking Shelter, Finding Inspiration

Last night, more than 9,000 people stayed in 171 Red Cross shelters across 13 states. The night before that number was 11,000… and I was one of them.

The most rewarding aspect of my job is that I get to assist on disaster relief operations.  On Monday night, I rode out the storm with some new friends at a high school in Pottstown, Penn.

One of those new friends came to the shelter with his wife, sons and dog (there was an area set up for pets) after the storm had blown out the windows in his home.  But he wasn’t your “average” shelter resident… he was also a Red Cross volunteer.

About 15 years ago, Charles Reith lost his home in a fire and the Red Cross helped.  Soon after, he and his daughter became volunteers – and they still volunteer today.  Even though a disaster was hitting home for the Reith family yet again, they were still concerned with helping others.

Charles sat at the registration desk almost all night, helping to welcome others who had also been affected by the storm.  His daughter spent the night working at a shelter nearby.

There’s something special about people who volunteer, but there’s something genuinely amazing about Red Cross volunteers.  It is honor to work alongside them.