Thanksgiving weekend is always a welcome holiday break in the Kern household. First, we have the distinct pleasure of hosting the holiday dinner with my parents, siblings and kids present. Secondly, due to how the holiday falls on the calendar, I'm typically able to take off multiple days before and after the holiday. Thankfully, this year was no different.
As a family, we attempt to do our part with charitable giving throughout the year, and given the recent events surrounding Hurricane Sandy and the devastation we witnessed in New Jersey, we decided to make a monetary donation online to the Red Cross and sent Lauren back to Rider University with five large trash bags full of warm clothing. Throughout the year, we routinely bundle clothes and household items and leave them on the front porch for the Purple Heart and Vietnam Vets associations. However, we never really see the people these donations ultimately help. Our items magically disappear when we get home from work and for our efforts we’re left with a paper receipt we use to complete our annual tax returns. Our life continues on uninterrupted.
So when my childhood friend, Brian, posted on Facebook of a community effort to
assist the residents of LBI adversely impacted by Sandy, I immediately wanted to
help. Admittedly, this was very foreign territory for me.
We arrived in Manahawkin with the sun shining brightly, although the outside temperature had dipped 20 degrees lower than the previous day. Strangers, families, couples and groups of friends gathered outside the local surf shop awaiting our assignment. People munched on free coffee and doughnuts. The vibe was positive and upbeat.
Joanne, a local organizer, informed our group we would be assisting an older couple whose home was located on the Beach Haven West section of the island known as East Point. She was very specific with her instructions that the homeowners were very apprehensive about what to do with their furniture and household contents. While they needed our immediate help, we also needed to tread carefully and do our best to assist them with their intentions concerning their personal effects. We plugged the street address into our smartphones, hopped in our cars and proceeded onto the island, many of us not knowing what exactly to expect.
As we crossed the inlet bridge and began to observe firsthand the level of destruction, the chatter in our car quickly became hushed and quiet. The images we’ve all seen online were now real. While four weeks has passed since Sandy arrived, the streets were still lined with items we all have in our own homes: furniture, appliances, mattresses, lamps. Since this area of the island consisted mostly of single-story homes, in most cases the piles of debris were nearly six to seven feet tall, hiding a large portion of the houses as we drove by. We made a left turn and arrived at Ray and Carol’s shore bungalow.
Carol welcomed us on the front steps. Her helplessness was apparent as she tried in vain to greet us, remember our names and cordially welcome us to her beach house. Inside the home, our team leader Brian told her we were all at her disposal to assist her and her husband in any way we could. When she addressed our group of nearly a dozen strangers, her voice cracked and her eyes started to tear with emotion. Looking around I noticed a few remaining pictures had remained affixed to the family room walls. After her brief instructions, we got started.
Suddenly strangers in bucket brigade fashion trampled into the home and proceeded to move the furniture out onto the front stone lawn. Dressers, beds, nightstands and bookshelves were placed next to the curb like you'd routinely put out the trash. One dresser I helped carry out had (what I imagined) were her grandson’s baseball cards sitting on the top, which I secretly placed in the first drawer so they wouldn't get lost.
Carol was clearly frustrated having to discard a brand new family room sectional sofa she was still making payments on. I imagined she and her husband, her kids and grandkids enjoying ice cream, relaxing on the sofa on a hot summer night, getting ready to watch a favorite movie after a wonderful beach day together. My family has often enjoyed these very same moments at my parent’s beach house in Ocean City.
Others worked in the outside yard, which backed up to the small channel inlet that
separated houses within the subdivision. As we raked up debris and sea grasses, we came upon the remains of a summer garden with a few green peppers and Jersey tomatoes still attached to withered brown vines. I imagined the adults gathering here nightly, sitting in comfortable beach chairs, sipping cocktails, watching their neighbors come and go on small boats while the sun set in the nearby bay.
Others worked in the garage removing bikes, golf clubs, beach chairs and other beach staples. Again, I imagined all the times me, my dad, brother and brother-in-law have enjoyed a round of golf down the Shore. Or the times we’ve ridden our bikes with the kids on the OC bike path or played childhood games in the partitioned closure at the end of my parent’s street.
When we finished, the inside of the house appeared exposed for all to see. A brown, partially water-soaked and bowed sub-floor was all that was left. The front yard looked like an unwelcomed and unwanted yard sale. The home's contents were placed at the curb for all to see.
Brian informed Carol he believed we were finished. She spoke with her husband Ray now at her side. The words came even harder this time. She expressed her heartfelt gratitude to everyone, not knowing how to properly thank us for our time and assistance. A few women wiped stray tears from their eyes as they formed a makeshift line to hug and wish Carol well. The guys gave Ray a bro hug and offered good luck and well wishes. A lump formed in my throat.
Later, we headed to the southern tip of the island to Holgate. It was here we witnessed more destruction. The lower part of homes, garages and carport areas were ripped apart, exposing hanging wires, beams and insulation swaying in the cold ocean breeze. We climbed over huge sand dunes to witness the beach erosion and exposed jetties. My photographer's instinct compelled me to photograph this utter destruction, but admittedly, it was difficult to take these photographs.
Finished for the day, we gathered with the other volunteers, event organizers and
sponsors at the Mud City Crab Shack for a barbecue for the participants. I said my goodbyes to Brian, Christie and Alan, cued up some Springsteen on my iPod, headed west on Route 72 and watched the island slowing disappearing in my rearview mirror until next summer.
One month later, I'm still amazed and extremely thankful my family, friends
and loved ones were spared from this horrible event. I’m hopeful Carol and Ray and others I met on the island can someday rebuild their lives once again.
And maybe everything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City”