I couldn’t stop thinking about the opening scene from the Wizard of Oz –where the house spins wildly in the air and lands with a crash. In the next scene, Dorothy wakes up and learns that she is in Oz, opening an adventure. The scene that made me remember this childhood image was very real, and it is no adventure at all. The houses that spun and landed were real houses picked up by Hurricane Sandy just weeks ago. Unlike their fictional movie counterpart, these houses didn’t land intact. They broke into thousands of pieces, some tiny and some amazingly large, some sweeping through the nearby reedy marsh.
This was the scene in Union Beach, New Jersey, where I spent a day volunteering with a group from the Jewish Federation of Metrowest, NJ. Our community has adopted Union Beach and made a special effort to assist this devastated community less than an hour’s drive from my home.
The town manager outlined the extent of the devastation – 1600 modest middle income homes comprise this small, hardworking shore town, and virtually all were either flooded, badly damaged, devastated (needing demolition) or completely demolished by the storm. 50 houses were destroyed, while another 300 are beyond repair. The needs are enormous.
We worked on cleaning a marshland wildlife habitat adjacent to the shore. One street on the bay side of the marsh suffered a direct hit from storm surge, and every single house was destroyed. Much of the debris landed across the marsh. In one section we pried household plumbing and parts of walls out of the tangled marsh. We cut and removed sections of wooden framing from houses, alongside an entire outside deck. We discovered what appeared to be the pieces of an entire house along with its contents, uncovered piece by piece from the mud. A child’s toy truck. A refrigerator. A couch. A hat. A section of a kitchen table. A storage bin for toys. A mailbox attached to the post, #168. A box of love letters, the top one addressed, “Dear Honey-Bunny”, from thirty years ago. Photographs, some in albums, many alone in the debris, attested to whole lifetimes of family and special times. One baby picture looked eerily like my son as a baby. Each item brought tears to my eyes – this was their whole lives, and it could have been mine. I grieved for their loss.
The town manager told us that they don’t know how many people are currently living in the town. Many are sleeping on couches and floors with family, friends and neighbors. FEMA has yet to provide housing for any of the displaced residents.
The AmeriCorps team leader told me that she had just come from working in a section of New York that was a worse disaster than Union Beach. There is plenty of misery to go around in New Jersey and New York.
I wished I could cut just write checks to these homeowners to get their lives rebuilt. I thought of the politicians in Congress playing politics with the request for emergency funding that is facing opposition in the House. I felt sick about it.
I came home and told my son about our work. I was achy and tired, but glad I did it. He said, “Yea, but its only one day.” He’s right. The need is so much greater.
As I scrubbed the mud from under my fingernails and nursed my aching back, I thought of the politicians whose help is desperately needed. All the volunteers can’t do what our government can do to help these communities. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined a fantasy – every politician who must decide whether to fund the Emergency Fund as requested by local officials ought to have to spend a week sleeping on floors and couches in these cramped quarters, spending the daytime not debating, but digging, sawing, lifting, and removing debris. And then rebuilding—wouldn’t that be nice! Maybe if they got their hands dirty they would think twice about saying “no.”
After all, there is no place like home.