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The Perfect Storm Leaves in its Wake a Stronger Community Bond

Hightstown High School senior Cate Douglass interviews community members in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

By Cate Douglass, Managing Editor of The Ram Page

For a week, many local residents lived in darkness – some were powered by the unnatural hum of the generator, while others lived by candlelight in the coldness of their homes. As Hurricane Sandy began on Monday, Oct. 29, no one could have foreseen the devastation that it would bring to New Jersey and New York residents, leaving its mark as one of the worst storms to hit the Northeast.

Many Hightstown and East Windsor locals witnessed the immediate impact of Superstorm Sandy, losing power for a couple of days. Yet, according to Hightstown High School senior Courtney Prunchak, the wreckage left in town by Sandy really amounted to nothing when looking at the bigger picture.    

“We were very lucky,” Prunchak said. “We were able to listen to the news on the radio during the power outage, and we heard how people had lost their homes completely down at the shore, which is awful. The Hightstown-East Windsor residents are very lucky to still have homes and loved ones.”

The Jersey Shore did not have much luck at all, as it had been destroyed from the eye of the storm. Basements became swimming pools as homes flooded; roofs were ripped from their frames while entire houses were detached from their foundations. Utility poles crushed cars, and fallen trees blocked roads.

Hightstown High School math teacher and Atlantic Highlands resident Ashley Maxon said she experienced Sandy from a local perspective, witnessing the damage firsthand the next morning.

“The day after Sandy, I went out driving the streets to see her destruction. This is when it really hit home,” Maxon said. “You could see right into bedrooms and living rooms of some houses because the walls were just completely torn off. Boats from the marinas were down the street in people’s yards, piled on top of each other. People’s belongings were in the streets because the flood had just washed the stuff right out of their homes.”

“On one side [of the town Seabright] is the ocean, and on the other is the bay," Maxon continued. "During the storm there was an 11-foot storm surge and the beach clubs and businesses in Seabright are no longer there – they were literally picked up and just washed away into the ocean.”

After evacuating her home located four and a half blocks from the beach, Belmar resident Allison Krilla came home to not only find parts of the boardwalk at her doorstep, but fish swimming in her flooded basement. Krilla said that she found about “a garbage bag” full of fish in and around her house. While some “were on their last leg,” Krilla tried to save the others by pushing them into the deeper waters of her street, in the hopes that they would return back to the lake or ocean.

New York City, as well as well as northern shore towns, was devastated as equally, if not more, by Hurricane Sandy – Hightstown resident Jason Taylor helped salvage flooded homes in his childhood neighborhood of Staten Island, NY. He said that the damage made the streets nearly impassable.

“The ironic part [of getting into Staten Island] was that what was hard was getting past all of the lines of cars that were trying to get gasoline," Taylor said. "Once you got beyond them, it became more and more difficult because there were cars that were literally in the streets that had been pushed there by the water.” 

“There were emergency services people everywhere; there were piles of debris that other people had taken out of their houses that were now in the streets. And what they were doing with the debris was they were actually coming and taking it with front end loaders and just putting all of these people's possessions – everything they owned – into big giant dump trucks and bringing it to the parking lot at the beach and just dumping it there – having it all hauled away,” Taylor continued.

Taylor said he saw three different types of stickers on each of the homes in his neighborhood: green, yellow, and red. Green meant that the house was habitable, yellow said that the house was inhabitable but did not need to be ripped down, and red signaled that the house will be condemned. For every ten yellow stickers, according to Taylor, there were two red stickers. He did not see any green stickers.

“I was thinking about all of the people I know and all of my friends and where do they go from here,” Taylor said. “My entire neighborhood is going to change. Inclusive of all of these houses that need to be rebuilt, restructured, and even the church that [my wife] Denise and I got married in was destroyed. It’s just that what bothers me the most is how it is going to look the next time I go down there.”

The destruction of Sandy seemed as though it stopped time, but, according to Hightstown Highschool math teach Helene Weintraub, life and death could not be put on pause in such circumstances.

“We had a friend’s mother die and had to go sit Shiva in their house with no lights, trying to find food to eat to give to them because that’s a part of the tradition,” Weintraub said. “We brought our generator so that they could have some light because they had a house full of people who were paying their respects. Life and death still had to go on.”

Yet despite the hardship Sandy has brought to New York and New Jersey residents, the community is pitching in to help others either clean their homes, donate clothes, or cook meals.

Simple acts of kindness, some residents said, are what is helping everyone through these difficult times. Belmar local Eileen Fiore, who spent the storm in Riverview Medical Center after giving birth to her daughter, said she tried to console the hospital faculty.

“I felt bad for the staff; they were pretty much trapped there. The next morning, one of the nurse’s came in and she was just attending to me and all of a sudden her phone goes off. Typically, they wouldn’t answer it if they were with a patient but she looked at it and it was husband,” Fiore said. “She just started crying because she hadn’t heard from him and didn’t know if he was safe or where he was. That was a lot of what I did when I was there, just tried to talk to the staff about what they were going through.”

To support one another in the aftermath of the storm, many communities have transformed their schools into shelters, restaurants into free buffets. Community outreach, according to Hightstown High School special education teacher Karen Goff, has been a highlighted theme in the wake of the destruction.  

“I can't believe how my community and the whole state have rallied to help the victims of the hurricane,” Goff said. “I heard about a local fire company that had half of their members lose everything while out helping during the Hurricane.  Within the first two days of returning to school, I had two pickup trucks full of donations to deliver to them. The HHS staff has been very generous with both their time and resources during this disaster.”

Many citizens are reaching out to those who now need help the most. Maxon said she has already fundraised almost $2,000 for her neighbors and will be giving a family a Christmas this holiday season.

“My next project is now a benefit night that I, along with a few of my family members, will be hosting in January to assist more families in need in our town,” Maxon said. “We are hoping to raise about $5,000 with this benefit that we will distribute to families that were just devastated by the disaster.”

While there are numerous organizations offering opportunities to get involved in storm relief, many people have found different ways to offer their aid. Freehold resident Coleen Hoeler baked cupcakes with her daughter and friends and delivered them to the soldiers working by the shore. She said she left without even a crumb.

Through all of the darkness that this storm has brought, beach locals are searching for the silver lining. According to Taylor, the people are resilient. The beach will be restored, the towns rebuilt, and the shore will return better than before.

This article originally ran in The Ram Page, Hightstown High School's official student newspaper.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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