On October 28, 2012, Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Jersey shore. It made a direct hit on Ocean County destroying vast expanses of oceanfront homes, rendering them into something eerily similar to something one might expect to see in a war zone. Eighteen months after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on New Jersey, we find ourselves still in the midst of one of the most massive rebuilding efforts in the history of the United States. Here is a retrospective of the storm from the eyes of a first responder.
Dark. The power has been out for about 6 hours now and I am lying in my bed listening to the wind scream and rip at the trees outside my window. I look out to see 100 foot trees swaying 15 feet in either direction. It amazes me that they haven’t split in half already. Alternately, I hear loud thumps as limb after limb lands on my roof mixed with wind so loud it sounds as if a freight train is coming through my house . It is 2 AM and I know that life as we know it has just ended. I have weathered many hurricanes in my 45 years as a resident of the Jersey shore. In fact, hurricanes don’t frighten me a bit, but this storm was different. It felt different, it looked different, it sounded different and it didn’t look good.
I awoke after getting only a couple hours of sleep. Power was out, the phones were down (including cellular service) and you felt like your world had just reverted back to the 1800’s. If you wanted to know what was going on a mile down the road, you were going to have to go there and look for yourself. Technology was neutralized in an instant. Day 1 post-Sandy was spent checking in on family and loved ones. Day 2 was when the work began.
Verizon was the only network in service immediately after Sandy hit. We use Verizon here at D&D so we were one of the first companies to have phone service back after the storm. On day 2, the phone only rang once. A family in Middletown needed a roll off dumpster. I lived in Middletown at the time and I delivered a container to them. What I saw was an image I will never forget. Street after street of destroyed homes. Entire homes ripped from their foundations and nowhere to be found. Houses piled on top of each other, and mashed together so completely that telling where one ended and another began was impossible. I couldn’t believe water and wind could do this much damage. The police were everywhere with semi-automatic rifles and checkpoints. It felt like we were living in a war zone. As a first responder, we had access to the hardest hit areas and the sights were incomprehensible and hard to reconcile with reality.
As I delivered the container, neighbors started surrounding my truck begging me for a container for them too. They had no phones, so they came running when they saw the truck on their street. I delivered every container I had available in our Monmouth County yard that day. I drove until there was nothing left to deliver. On day 3, my employees began checking in (I had left them all messages). I had begun working from our Ocean County yard and began delivering containers much in the same way as mentioned above. Every time we drove down a street, people were begging us to bring them a container to help them start sorting out their lives. D&D employees were on the road and delivering dumpsters from Day 3 on. We drove until there was nothing left to deliver. On day 4, the landfills and transfer stations opened back up. Recovery was in full effect. As we delivered dumpsters, we could hear the roar of helicopter after helicopter searching nearby neighborhoods for survivors and victims. It was truly surreal.
We worked until our bodies couldn’t work any longer. No day was less than 18 hours long. Then we rested. Then the cycle began anew the next day. This went on for months. The landfills opened 7 days a week and extended their hours well into the darkness so haulers followed suit. We worked ourselves to the brink of exhaustion and beyond, but we felt like we were doing something. We were helping people take the first step to being whole again. As sad as the situation was, I was proud to be helping my community.
In one day, Sandy generated over 8 million cubic yards of debris. The storm was the largest tropical storm ever recorded at 900 miles across. The cleanup effort spanned over 10 states. The debris generated by the storm started the largest solid waste cleanup in history. The storm was second to only Katrina in property damage. Over 305,000 homes and 265,000 businesses were affected by Sandy and that recovery effort continues today.
On the surreal side, you really learned not to be surprised by anything you saw. You could turn a corner and find a boat in the middle of the road almost anywhere. Cars were piled on top of each other and in back yards INSIDE fenced rear yards! There were holes in roads the size of cars, there was debris EVERYWHERE. Roads were choked with so much debris, you could barely navigate them. My employees and I couldn’t believe what we saw. I know I will never forget it.
But in every tragedy, there are beautiful stories. Like the girl I saw standing at a coffee and hot chocolate stand holding a sign that said “Free. Stop and take a break. Jersey Strong.” Or the one neighborhood I was working in where all the homes had been flooded beyond belief. All the neighbors were out cleaning out their homes and they were barbequing in the street. All the neighbors would come over, take a break and eat and get some coffee then go back to work. The man working the grill told me he had been cooking for 4 hours straight for his neighbors (and in case you were wondering, his house was wrecked too). There was also the neighborhood where we had almost a dozen containers on one street. The entire neighborhood cleaned ONE house at a time and moved on to the next house together. We just kept pulling and returning boxes as they moved down the street house by house.
As we enter the final phases of recovery and rebuilding, we should always take time to look back where we came from and never forget what is important. Houses are made of wood and nails, homes are made from what we put into making it.
Be safe, be well and most of all BE HAPPY!