In the early morning hours of October 30th, 2012 things went somewhere I’d never been before. Sandy was already upon us, evacuations had been ordered 48 hours prior, and yet some decided to stick it out. Water was coming into the tiny little Borough of Ocean Gate – only a half square mile in size – and it was coming from both the Toms River and Barnegat Bay. It didn’t stop for hours. When the water finally started to recede many, many hours (and in some places days) later, the reality of devastation was very evident. Over the next few days people attempted to get to their homes to see what was left, and as in many places throughout the Jersey Shore, it was truly unbelievable. Peoples’ whole lives were out on their front lawns, their driveways, the street. In some cases entire generations of family belongings were gone, some from as far back as the early 20th century when Ocean Gate was, for many years then, a seasonal town where people came in on the train from Philadelphia to spend the summer months together. A summer town that later became a borough and this coming August will celebrate its 95th birthday.
After seeing all of this devastation I felt compelled to act and act quickly. I knew deep down there was no way the borough nor its private sanitation hauler would be able to remove the mounds and mounds of debris. By the Saturday after the storm, the debris hauler was in town and working. Approximately 10 days later the debris was off the streets, off residents’ lawns, out of their driveways; all of their personal belongings and memories just sitting in a huge pile on the borough ball field, gone from their damaged homes and days later gone to the landfill.
Soon after, people were comforted by the American Red Cross, local church groups, local volunteer groups and the like. The outpouring of kindness and support that so very many people and organizations gave to my residents was quite overwhelming. People came from all over New Jersey; some even came from North Carolina and Florida. And they all came to help. The cleanup help was tremendous and for the most part all went well, and once most had cleaned out what they could, the big question was, “Where do we go from here?”
To help them find that answer, I called an informative meeting for all residents on a Sunday afternoon to explain to them what help was available to them and how the borough was proceeding with the restoring and rebuilding process. The meeting room had never been so crowded, and I believe most left with some relief. Still, none felt anywhere near normal; that will take quite some time.
Throughout all of this devastation, I had to deal with my own personal home and loss as well, but still do what was needed to make sure that the residents of Ocean Gate were safe, comforted, and on their way to getting back into their homes. I took a leave of absence from my full time job for approximately two weeks, without pay, to deal with all of it. My family had been out of our home for nearly two weeks – not all that bad when I look at the big picture – but trying to explain this to my 13-year-old daughter wasn’t easy. But now we are back home, more fortunate then some, but still trying to get to the way it was. In dealing with FEMA, insurance companies and the like it has been and still is a tiresome project. Hopefully someday life will return to the simple, day to day routine it was.
While home sick with the flu during the 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy fundraiser concert held in Madison Square Garden, I saw lots of local Ocean County people “live” on this national broadcast, and hearing of the $52 million being raised already, I felt obligated again to try and get some of this grant money to help my residents of Ocean Gate. That night I looked up the Robin Hood Foundation and contacted them via email. When I didn’t initially hear back, I sent several more emails over the next two weeks until FINALLY!!! I received an email back and then a questionnaire to fill out and send in a request. On this paperwork it stated clearly that not all applications were accepted, as it’s a huge organization, and many different areas were devastated by Sandy.
A short time later I received a phone call from the foundation and from then on it was weekly emails, conference calls and information given to them about what Ocean Gate really needed. Then the site visit where the Robin Hood Foundation fell in love with our little community of 2,000 residents. They knew that they could make a difference, and several weeks ago I received a call on a late Friday afternoon that the foundation awarded a grant of $300,000 to be used to primarily get residents back in their homes.
There are very strict requirements that have to be followed for people to be helped. One very big thing that came up in this process was to have a non-profit organization help with the applications, research, and distribute the grant money. I chose the local non-profit Hometown Heroes based out of Toms River, and they agreed to handle everything for this project. The main objective is to do whatever it may take in so many different situations, whether it’s repairing a furnace so there is heat, replacing a hot water heater, paying a utility bill, and on and on. An important point is that ALL of the funding goes to Hometown Heroes and then on to the proper contractor, utility company, etc.; NOT to a homeowner. Homeowners will not receive any of this funding directly. All those affected can apply at njhometownheroes.org or by calling (732) 473-9400. The Borough of Ocean Gate has nothing to do with the funding and its process at all.
In just over four months things are on their way back and I truly believe the residents of Ocean Gate will be back stronger than ever, with many thanks to ALL those who have helped, especially the Robin Hood Foundation and Hometown Heroes.
Mayor Paul J. Kennedy