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Immense piles of garbage. Mold-remediation trucks. Boarded windows. Police roadblocks. These are the sights that greeted us on Saturday as we drove into the waterfront borough of Highlands on a mission to help with the post-Sandy cleanup.
There were about 60 volunteers in my group from Montclair and the surrounding communities, all looking to do something, anything, for the battered folks down the Shore. In our own Essex County towns, power has been restored and life returned to normal.
But in blue-collar Highlands (population 5,005) there is much to be done. Here water from Sandy Hook Bay had surged as high as 17 feet through the downtown streets, flooding every house and business. Most of the homes in this Monmouth County hamlet were built as summer cottages; these days many serve as fulltime residences. For now, they are uninhabitable. And at the curb in front of each, a helter-skelter heap of memories and debris.
We pulled into the staging area across from the VFW hall on Bay Avenue, where the well-organized locals were handing our assignments and shovels, along with donuts and coffee. Crews were assembled. We were reminded to be sensitive of peoples’ possessions as we entered their homes with our crowbars and hammers. But in fact, there was little to save.
Our first task was to rip out the soggy walls, carpets and kitchen of a cute one-bedroom on Seadrift Avenue, about four blocks from the bay. Mold had already begun to do its dirty work where the water had rushed in.
On each wall, we scored a line four feet from the floor. Everything below that had to go. Donning dust masks and work gloves, we pried and pounded, reducing layers of wet paneling, plaster and wood lath to dust and splinters. Loads were hauled to the curb in large trash barrels. In time this house too had its signature pile of debris, worthless appliances, ruined furniture and a soaked mattress. A framed photograph of Marilyn Monroe, seemingly unscathed, peered from the rubble.
The homeowner, Pam, has lived in the single-story house for 11 years and plans to come back. Dropping by briefly to see how we were progressing, she shared her story. For now, she’s staying with a friend in Belford. FEMA, she told us, has been great. The agent already gave her a check, but she’s afraid she might have to return some of the money once she gets her insurance settlement. Uncertainty is the order of the day.
Breaking for lunch, we headed back to the staging area, where Jon Hepner was dispensing free meals from his Thai food truck, Aroy-D. He too had driven down from Montclair to help—supported by $1,500 in donations to cover their costs. The food was a hit.
After lunch it was back to work, this time cleaning out several bungalows on the water at Fifth Street. By then I was bone weary, my right wrist sore from whacking away at plaster walls with a sledgehammer. Picking a task that required a little less brute force I went to work detaching and removing a kitchen sink, replete with their countertop and cabinets. Pleased with this achievement, I moved on to a second bungalow and made quick work of another sink removal.
The day was rewarding—who knew I had such a knack for demolition?—yet somehow empty. In Highlands (“Where the Jersey Shore begins”) at least the homes are still standing. The challenge is to get rid of the dampness and mold before the homes have to be condemned. Certainly, the hard day's work was worth the effort; all together 200 volunteers descended on Highlands that day, cleaning out 60 houses.
But could we ever do enough? And what of the towns further south that were simply washed away, with no homes left to save?
Earlier in the day, back on Seadrift Avenue, a local had called out from a passing car, “You guys are angels.” I don’t know about that, but I do know the Jersey Shore needs a lot of angels, and then some.