A State of War Zone: An Account of Helping Hurricane Sandy Relief Victims

After spending Friday, November 9th – my 40th birthday – and the following Saturday morning packing and sorting the generously donated supplies we received for our Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, my volunteers and I closed up several expansive trucks and vans and set out for the New Jersey Turnpike. Every mile we traveled was like a precursor to the nightmarish story we would see when we arrived in the communities that had been hit the hardest, with trees fallen and scattered along the road.

As we come off the turnpike and took various local streets to our drop-off location, we got a foretaste of the worst. It was two weeks after the monstrous “Frankenstorm,” and most of the areas we drove through had power, but it was clear that it was only recently restored as many people were outside cutting up the trees that had fallen in their yards.  Trunks and limbs were bent sideways, snapped in half, sheared off, and ripped out of the ground – everywhere.  To make the scene even more chilling, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, even though for several days it had been about 50 degrees.  What a combination, I thought, surveying the damage – a hurricane followed by a nor’easter, with 12 inches of snow.

At the drop-off location, we were greeted by at least 60 cheering New Jersey friends.  Many of the areas we had intended to enter were still locked down by the National Guard and only those with local ID’s were allowed access, and usually just for an hour at a time.  Other locations were still locked off to even the residents that inhabited them.  We quickly realized that we needed to develop an alternative plan, and Justin Lotano’s father talked to a friend who owns a large warehouse where they train adults with developmental disabilities.  It was the perfect solution: we had a huge team to unload the trucks, the boxes went through the door and were immediately sorted into bins, and then taken into another room where other volunteers were filling the orders of needy residents.  Within an hour of arriving, our donations were heading out the front door to neighbors in need.

My husband and I left around 4:00 to tour some of the areas that were accessible.  We visited Union Beach and were in utter shock.  People were moving about the business of throwing out the contents of their lives; trash was piled up 10 feet all around us.  Water had filled the 1st floors of houses and for some, the upper levels as well.  Houses and businesses were completely destroyed.  It smelled of rot as everything was decaying in mountainous heaps, still soaking wet.  Sand had piled up in dunes blocks from the beach and the water was as calm as can be in spite of the surrounding chaos.  We were told to leave by the Sheriff’s office when the sun went down.

It has been described as a war zone, and in many ways, it looked and felt like a place that had seen battle and been ransacked.  What I learned in that brief time was that while what we did was amazing – especially in 8 days – it was barely a drop in the bucket. In fact, as many families struggle to find shelter and share quarters with family and friends or occupy hotels, all the materials we brought them have no real space to occupy until they find temporary but long term housing arrangements.

While we received a lot of great publicity for what we did, it wasn’t why we did it; we did it because it was the right thing to do.  We did it because there was a need and people wanted to help but they didn’t know how – Justin, Chrissy and I created an avenue so they could.

It was amazing to see how the business community of Baltimore came together to support our neighbors to the North.  With that I say thank you to Von Paris, Walters Relocation and Easy Movers for donating their trucks, drivers, boxes and time.  We say thank you to HealthPlan Headquarters, the Downtown Dog Resort and Engility for being our drop off locations, helping us to sort and pack, and most importantly for allowing us to infiltrate their facilities for a full week.  We say thank you to Joel’s Auto Shop, SAIC and the Baltimore Orioles for doing drives that supported us.  I also need to thank Susan Katz of the Growth Coach, Kathleen Dorsey of Global Results and Marci Yankelov of Century 21, who not only used their networks to send around our flyer soliciting supplies, but more importantly, connected us to several of the key players listed above.  Without them, this would not have happened.

Final thanks to my husband, Matt Desrosiers, who challenged me to make something positive out of the situation that was consuming me – and had to cancel the surprise party he had been planning for me in order to help me do so. I must also extend my gratitude to Justin and Chrissy Lotano, who had the same vision of filling their personal vehicles with supplies and making the trip up north to offer relief to Sandy victims – and agreed to join forces with me to make our endeavors even more effective. On Saturday after the drop-off, Justin and I bonded over a laugh, equally shocked that our small start had evolved into a full throttle, well-rounded relief mission.

I have no doubt that my 40th birthday will be one to remember for years to come.  I hope that in the upcoming months, all of you will continue to support the efforts in New York and New Jersey. Be the springboard for their recovery to normalcy – they are going to need you.