Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Saturday In Union Beach, NJ: Hope and a Red Cross Team Not Really Sure Where the Disaster Is

I will occasionally re-run pieces from my other blog that were published in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to give the new audience of Inlets and Outlets a sample of the experiences we all ran into here in the days and weeks after the hurricane. The following piece originally ran on December 4, 2012. 

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The following is a relay of my experience working in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to help residents who were affected rebuild from the storm. I am only one of thousands of individual people who are doing recovery work on their own, without recognition and without a support infrastructure. I write this to get information out to those outside the storm area that New Jersey is still straining under the weight of the storm and its aftermath.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend my wife and I put out a social media appeal for gift cards in $25 amounts to Home Depot and Lowe's to distribute to the people who are rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. We had given out $500 worth of cards the week before and were overwhelmed by the fact that $500 was just a tiny drop in a very large ocean of despair.
The storm surge in Raritan Bay shifted a home off its foundation.
 © 2012 Jack Sharkey

We were able to collect $1450 in gift cards in 5 days. When added to the $500 in cards (that incidentally came from just two donors), our total in two weeks is $1950 and I will be collecting and distributing another $300 to $400 more to distribute this weekend. In total, between monetary donations, and clothing, food, and toiletry donations, my wife and daughter and I have distributed approximately $8,000 in items since the Wednesday after Sandy hit. Bear in mind that we are merely one family in a community of thousands who are doing this work, and you get the idea of how New Jersey works.

We have concentrated on Union Beach, Keansburg, and Port Monmouth in Monmouth County. The areas that were hard hit in Ocean County (about 40 miles south) have the sexiness and romance of the boardwalks to help them keep their plights in the public eye; the communities I mention here have been pretty much forgotten by the local and national news machines.

© 2012 Jack Sharkey
The progress from Saturday to Saturday was heartening to see. The local municipal governments are doing yeoman's work cleaning the streets and trying to get the municipal infrastructures back to normal. Here are a couple of things we took away from our work on December 1:
  • Church group volunteers are out in force. We saw at least 150-200 volunteers in Union Beach alone doing everything from raking lawns to ripping up sub-flooring
  • Its less the act of donating $25 than it is the fact that people care enough to try to help. When we are asked where we're from and who we are, we simply reply we're just people and that the card is from other people around the country who care. The emotion these people carry as they try to rebuild their homes is kept walled up until some kindness crosses their paths
  • When we first started doing this, we were distributing almost a card every 5 minutes, but as people try to fight off the spiritual and physical fatigue of what they're faced with, we are finding that what people really want to do is talk, so in some cases we are only able to distribute one card every thirty minutes. The interaction is actually of greater help
  • High school kids who are volunteering make up a large percentage of the volunteers doing the absolutely horrific job of emptying homes of their water-logged and now moldy contents
  • Occupy Wall Streeters lived in tents for about a month and worked from a beat-up U-Haul truck delivering hot meals to residents
  • Corporate donations of mattresses, sheet rock and other basic housing items are helping speed the recovery efforts while also keeping rebuilding affordable for people
Anyone who reads this blog knows its main viewpoint is that government exists because of people and that people do not exist because of government. While first responders and local government agencies are doing great work, anything above the state level is too mired in red tape and bureaucracy to do much good for people.

I have also been reminded why large corporate "charities" like the Red Cross are impotent to do anything other than raise  money. When it comes to distributing aid they fail like large government entities always do.

People in these parts won't have much good to say about the Red Cross, and quite frankly, we all would have been just fine without them--keep that in mind the next time you want to donate money to aid people whose lives have been torn apart by disaster. The aid that comes from small, non-governmental agencies is the aid that gets in the hands of the people who need it most.

As the sun began Saturday, to set we found ourselves in a lightly damaged area of Keansburg. Some areas of the borough were devastated by dune breaches, while just blocks away it looked as if nothing happened on October 29. We still had a few cards left to distribute and on the empty street we were on we saw a Red Cross "Disaster Relief" truck with Oklahoma tags slowly coming our way. I flagged the truck down, explained what we were doing and asked if the driver knew where we should go with the cards we still had. My assumption was a simple one: that the Red Cross would be far more plugged in to what was needed and where it was needed than I would be.

The kindly older lady said, "I don't know, we've been driving around all day trying to hand things out and nobody needs anything."

They were handing out personal toiletry kits with toothbrushes and tooth paste, mouthwash and the like. Keep in mind, this was 33 days after the storm, and they were in an area that hadn't been hit hard.

"Do you know where people might need some things?" she asked.

"Have you been to Union Beach?"

"Where is that?"

I gave her directions and she thanked me and drove off. You'd think with all of the money Bruce Springsteen helped them raise they could buy an atlas and some newspapers. Maybe the Red Cross could even cut down on the CEO's salary  and pay for a dispatcher to help the Red Cross go where it is needed instead of having their volunteers just aimlessly drive around with beatific smiles on their inefficient faces.

From the Red Cross website:
“The best way to help a disaster victim is through a financial donation to the American Red Cross. Financial contributions allow the Red Cross to purchase exactly what is needed for the disaster relief operation. Monetary donations also enable the Red Cross to purchase relief supplies close to the disaster site which avoids delays and transportation costs in getting basic necessities to disaster victims.”
Red Cross CEO Marsha J. Evans' salary was almost $952,000 last year, plus expenses.

I disagree with the Red Cross about the best way to help a disaster victim.

Buildings can be rebuilt. The jury is out on how long before the lives are.
© 2012 Jack Sharkey

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