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Mercer Islanders at Sandy work, drive, pray
It was supposed to be a three- or four-week deployment for former mayor-turned-consultant, Jim Pearman. A FEMA reservist, Pearman left just after Thanksgiving for the East Coast to help run FEMA operations after the Hurricane Sandy storm. But, he missed Christmas here at home with his wife and two daughters. Stationed in New Jersey, Pearman has run into a former Island neighbor, Tom Joyce, a 20-year resident of the Island who retired and moved to Bend, Ore., several years ago.
The days have been long, and the work is non-stop.
Talking by phone, the pair, who were joined by a FEMA communications officer, did not sound weary even after yet another storm had pounded the Jersey shore just hours before. They work out of a huge operations facility in Lindcroft, that houses over 2,000 FEMA employees and volunteers.
Joyce, who has been in New Jersey since the storm hit, started out his career in service and emergency management as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1961. From there he joined other service organizations such as VISTA and Americorps. He has worked for the federal government for 39 years, he noted, primarily in emergency management. He now organizes volunteers in a new organization called FEMA Corps, a national service program for young adults who are trained to work in disaster areas.
Joyce explained that he has worked 34 disasters in 13 years for FEMA since his so-called retirement. The devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy is second only to that caused by Hurricane Katrina, he said.
According to reports, Sandy became the largest Atlantic hurricane on record (as measured by diameter, with winds spanning 1,100 miles. The storm hit New Jersey and New York on Oct. 29, 2012, with winds reaching 90 mph and unleashing widespread flooding, displacing and injuring thousands.
Due to the acute need for housing for those who lost their homes, emergency and temporary housing is reserved first for storm victims. In New Jersey, some 2,600 people are staying in more than 300 hotels or motels in the surrounding area.
The need for housing goes beyond the storm victims. FEMA workers, volunteers and contractors must also find a place to sleep. Workers must live further away, necessitating commuting for long distances. FEMA Corps members are living on ships docked in shipyards. Pearman stayed for a time in Cranberry, a town an hour away.
After working a 12- to 14-hour day, FEMA staff must sometimes drive an hour each way to get to where they are staying, Joyce said.
Pearman said that he was on a ‘ride-along’ recently with FEMA workers, out to check up on residents in hard-hit areas. One neighborhood, Seaside Park, is still closed off from main roads by the National Guard two months after the storm.
Some of the people he encountered appeared to be in shock still, he said.
And he knew why. The number of homes destroyed and just the amount of devastation were incomprehensible.
“I was not prepared for the enormity of this,” he said. “You just cannot imagine how bad it is unless you see it yourself.”
There are 113,000 homes still left to be assessed, said Joyce. There are thousands who are without housing. FEMA estimates that the need for large numbers of emergency housing units will last for 18 months.
The response and recovery effort is massive. The sheer volume of people, property and claims is just one part. There are other agencies that are involved beyond providing temporary housing, restoring and rebuilding. There are agencies that are working to assist individuals and those who work on how to change the landscape to prevent such devastation from happening again. There are groups working to assess or recover historical artifacts or conduct environmental clean up.
Pearman said that he has met amazing people.
“The people who have come to help are from all over the nation,” he said. “And many people who lost virtually everything in the storm have kept their sense of humor.”
There are the people who return to their wrecked homes to hang a wreath on the door. A family, with the help of volunteers, set up a Christmas tree on what remained of their main floor, placing the tree on a sheet of plywood over the beams that open to nothing below. The family now lives upstairs.
Many remain without heat. Pearman met a woman who, with her husband, moved to the upstairs of their wrecked house. They had lost everything. Her husband is a contractor. His tools were washed away or ruined. Their car, which they thought they had moved away from danger to higher ground, was ruined. To get through the days without heat, they told Pearman they were just snuggled a little tighter together.
And there are many other stories similarly heartbreaking. A trio of businesses nearby had worked quickly after the initial storm to rebuild, only to see their efforts wiped out after flooding from one of the other storms that came through after Sandy in November.
Then there is the trash. There are mountains of trash. Hundreds of trucks, heavy equipment and workers have been brought in from all over to sort and move the trash. At one place, Pearman said, there is a pile of metal appliances that is three stories tall.
FEMA estimates that there are 10 million cubic yards of trash to be disposed of. Just 3.5 million have been removed to far.
On Christmas Eve, Pearman said that he attended mass at St. Leo the Great, a large parish just nine miles away from Sandy Hook, N.J. He was moved by the people and especially, the choir.
He worries that because of recent events and the holidays, the disaster and its people have now moved off “the front page,” he said.
“We have gone through the response stage to the recovery. The more long-haul work is underway,” he said. “We cannot forget these people.”
How to help
The best way to support survivors of Hurricane Sandy is to make a financial contribution to one of the volunteer organizations directly involved in relief efforts.
To find them, go to www.nvoad.org/members.