In Belmar, New Jersey, Super Storm Sandy Puts the Unity in Community

Defying cold nights and dark days, Jersey Shore mayor tells TakePart his town is determined to rebound for Memorial Day.

Hurricane Sandy in Belmar, New Jersey

Volunteers help sort through clothing donated for residents affected by Hurricane Sandy in Belmar, New Jersey. (Photo: Adam Hunger/Reuters)

is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

In an illuminating contrast to the dawning awareness in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurrican Katrina, the recovery from Hurricane Sandy has not been bungled by inept, unprepared government agencies. Quite to the contrary, local officials in the Northeast United States have praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for its response and resources.

However, many victims of the super storm are disappointed and angry. Their ire is directed at local power companies that have been slow to turn the lights back on.  

The small beach town of Belmar on the New Jersey shore is a microcosm of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, which has claimed around 100 lives and done billions of dollars in damage. A town of 5,900 winter residents, Belmar lost its famed boardwalk and saw 75 percent flooding from the storm surge, according to local officials.

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Almost two weeks after the storm made landfall, thousands of gallons of water was still being pumped from the town back into the Atlantic each minute. Until late last week, about a quarter of Belmar remained without power. Matthew Doherty, Belmar’s mayor, summed up the situation in a single word: “Frustrating.”

He directed residents to bombard Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) with calls to get power restored to the 20 percent of residents who were stll in the dark on Friday. “It’s dark and cold and people are getting miserable,” Doherty tells TakePart.

Doherty isn’t alone in taking utilities providers to task.

In New York, the Long Island Power Authority’s efforts to restore power were called “abysmal” by Congressmen Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who requested that personnel from the Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Department be brought in to do the job. 

Late on Sunday Jersey Central Power & Light issued a statement saying that it was in the process of restoring power to the last 1 percent of customers affected by Sandy. “We thank our customers for their continued patience and understanding,” Don Lynch, president of JCP&L, said in the statement. 

As hard as it was for residents without power, Mayor Doherty tells TakePart that Belmar is pulling together to take care of its own. Everything from blankets and sweaters to warm socks were delivered to the doors of residents left in the dark. Local restaurants provided free hot meals to residents who were unable to cook. And those whose homes are uninhabitable are being housed around town.

“We have neighbors taking in other neighbors whom maybe they haven’t spoken to before,” says Doherty.

Community unity has been strong in Belmar since the night of the storm, when most of the town evacuated. People who stayed faced rising floodwaters. About 200 families were trapped. Rather than wait for outside help, a team of local volunteers riding everything from Sea-Doos to small motorboats sprang into action. There wasn’t a single fatality in Belmar, says the mayor. “Everyone’s going through this difficult time together.”

The town isn't out of the proverbial woods yet. It suffered $200 million in damage. Homes were destroyed, basements were flooded, appliances damaged. FEMA, along with state and local governments, is helping compensate residents, but Doherty says the hard slog of rebuilding and cleaning out those soggy basements is the work of the coming weeks and months.

The town is accepting donations on its website, and money has flooded in from around the country and from as far away as Italy. Moreover, volunteers have arrived from places like Kentucky and elsewhere and a non-denominational church has promised to cook Thanksgiving for the whole town.

“As shocking and overwhelming as the storm surge was, equally as shocking and overwhelming has been the outpouring of support from New York, New Jersey, around the country and internationally,” says Doherty. “It’s something I thought I would never see.”

Another thing Doherty never thought he’d see was the damage done to the town’s beach boardwalk, a structure that helps swell the local population to 60,000 in the summer months. When Sandy hit, it smashed the wooden promenade with such force that pieces of planking were found on second story roofs blocks away.

Doherty, who has only been on the job for about two years, made one promise to residents. “I’ve made a guarantee that we will have the boardwalk rebuilt by Memorial Day this coming summer,” he says. “It’s the heart and soul of the community.”

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