Friday, January 4, 2013

Volunteer from New Mexico Shares Her Experience in Post-Sandy Union Beach, NJ

By: Bay Stevens, Cedar Crest, NM

I’m muscling through the upper limbs of a sticker bush to reach my quarry, a shopping bag marooned between thorny branches that snagged it during the hurricane. Got it. The high point of my day. Retreating to my industrial strength lawn and leaf bag, I deposit this loot with the rest of my haul of light trash that festoons this marsh in Union Beach. This is the new viewscape of the New Jersey coast from former residential lots to the ocean.  It is my destination this year for my December vacation.

I call it a vacation because it suits my nature. I’m independent; I have an unusual imagination and therefore I like the challenge of creating my own version of a holiday gift to the unknown world. Yes I can and do participate in my hometown charity drives, but it’s the messy muddy trench work that spurs me to browse the Internet for a destination, map it, contact, question, decide, schedule, sign up travel 2,000 miles, rent a car, find a place to stay, work long past a reasonable stopping point, and drive back each evening dumb tired and perfectly complete.

This night the soles of my boots are clogged with what? Maybe sandy soil, maybe sewage, maybe sea bed mud, probably all three. I find rivulets of blood on the inside of my raincoat from thorns that must have poked through my heavy duty rubberized rain jacket. Aah the exclamation points that will outlast all the disaster pics, “my trip” stories, and words on a page.

Bay (center)with two new friends and volunteers helping
to sort clothes in Highlands, NJ

Several years ago I had read about post-Katrina volunteer work and discovered that most major sites discourage or prohibit out of state residents from assisting unless they are part of an organization sanctioned to be on location. This seemed like self-defeating logic to me so I read a bit more. Then just to test the theory, I called every agency I could find in the New Orleans area and sure enough, I reached dead ends. BP enforced this policy with a vengeance after the oil spill in the gulf. No volunteers, period. Word had it that only local residents could apply for desultory tidewater clean-up activities. Try to get-a-human by phone and you land in pick-a-number for a recorded message somewhere in the PR department or beyond. Now I was getting really interested.

I started moving east along the coast looking for smaller towns and ended up with three in the Gulfport area for a memorable holiday.


This year I chose areas hit by hurricane Sandy and found Shelter Island void of agencies, New York City too complex and anonymous, Long Island was looking good but Monmouth County won out with several smaller agencies and even a collection of neighbors in Highlands who took all comers through an on-line event signup site. United Way is always a good place to start.  Clean Ocean Action is the place to start for beach clean ups, as they had just completed a special hurricane clean up day when I arrived.  I found a guy there named Zach who got me on the ground in Union Beach, one of the hardest hit communities along the New Jersey shore.  Sadly, this is not a community of second homes and resort destinations. Most families here depend on car commutes to jobs and schools, so getting evacuated was much more than a temporary set back. It may be months or even years until they get full service and reconstructed homes.

Here the sirens go off at 4:00 p.m. and cops start patrolling to clear the roads by dusk. FEMA assessments continue, and only qualified agencies are allowed in the damaged neighborhoods closest to the ocean. Burners Without Borders is one, an offshoot of Burning Man annual gatherings. Volunteers spend several weeks or months on projects sponsored by Burners Without Borders’ national or international initiatives.

Working with these young women, some who had traveled further than I had to the site, I began to understand the scope of work in progress and the challenge of setting priorities when the difference between total loss and salvage is not a clear choice.  Sidewalks heave up and trees fall down. A complete house from one side may be missing the back half. Paths between piles of demolition debris weave to the sites where heavy equipment fractures, scours and sorts material ready for removal.

I began taking pictures but was gently reminded to limit what I shot in order to avoid exposing damage that may not have been yet reported to families who lived here. There is also a growing number of Lookie Loos who cruise the coast for sensational disaster pics. In the end, rubble is rubble and there’s too much to do without taking time out to share on Facebook.

As I mentioned, I was exhausted but exhilarated by my time spent gleaning the marsh at Union Beach.


If you choose to take this type of adventure, don’t expect recognition, accolades, or awards. Don’t expect to make a measurable difference. If you’re goal oriented, this probably isn’t the vacation for you. People aren’t prepared for lone volunteers, but once you show up, listen and pitch in, you’ll fall right in with whatever small arena of action is going on that day. Do expect the unexpected offer, gesture, or embrace to grab your soul. You will find extraordinary acts of courage in the subtlest details.

In the end, after all the physical work and ordinary transitions from morning to night, it is not just what you can do but what you can grasp about others who are strangers yet familiar to you; this is the heart of the matter.

Each year I start with a blank slate and create ways to be a better planner, the best participant, the most polite guest, the most focused worker, I can be. And each year I stretch my imagination to view whole people in context from a snap shot in time.

You don’t have to race to the most recent disaster area to find very satisfying work. As headlines diminish, emergency operations conclude, and relief agencies move on to other projects the human toll grows. People who have lost lifetimes of memories, family members, homes, and jobs suffer health and spiritual damage that takes time to heal. Helping humans can be a lifesaver.

Bay Stevens
Advocacy & Community Outreach
PO Box 2066
Tijeras, NM 87059

1 comment:

  1. Bay, you are indeed a special person. THANK YOU !!!!I DO hope you continue to spread the word of your experience. All of us here on the Jersey Shore appreciate the time, effort and energy you directed toward us to help get us back. We are ALL grateful !!!