Signs of hope for Brigantine came the first week after Hurricane Sandy.
Three days after police lifted the roadblock to let homeowners onto the island, residents left their wrecked houses for a few hours to celebrate Halloween.
“It was unsafe for kids to be walking around neighborhoods in the dark with trash piling up in the streets,” said the Rev. John Scotland, who helped organize the belated holiday. “We had to come up with an idea to allow kids to still have Halloween.”
City officials expected a few dozen cars at the Community Center distributing candy from their tailgates. Instead, about 400 materialized. Neighbors exchanged Sandy stories while their children filled plastic bags with sweets.
“Every kid on the island seemed to show up,” said Scotland, chairman of the city’s long-term recovery group, BrigStrong. “That was just a remarkable thing that reflected the spirit people had.”
Recovery began even before BrigStrong had a name and a logo as volunteers from within the close-knit community joined outsiders in the response. In the eight months since then, it’s become one of the most active and organized groups working to rebuild a single resort town.
“BrigStrong has been an integral part of restoring the whole community,” said Mayor Phil Guenther. “The key has been trying to make sure people get timely and accurate information so they can access the resources to rebuild their lives.”
Guenther said the group assumed most of that responsibility as the city dealt with more immediate issues: clearing streets, coordinating with federal authorities and maintaining order in a disaster zone.
BrigStrong, which works alongside the county and various aid organizations such as AmeriCorps, is one of the few groups of its kind with a hyper-local focus. Several hundred volunteers are involved in case management, clothing and food distribution, grant writing, mental health outreach and volunteer coordinating.
The group’s first job was processing the flood of donations that the city couldn’t legally accept, Guenther said. But it’s efforts have gone much further than that.
“Because of Brigstrong, the city has been able to concentrate on the cleanup and restoring infrastructure and dealing with FEMA,” Guenther said.
For instance, he said, construction officials have been able to focus on issuing building permits rather than answering a steady stream of phone calls about FEMA applications and those controversial maps. BrigStrong’s website answers the most frequently asked questions and the group even provided volunteers to walk homeowners through the application process.
Part of the reason Brigantine’s group had a head start — for example, it is one of the only groups to have an active and regularly updated website — is that its members didn’t have to start from scratch. The group emerged from the existing TrueSpirit Coalition, a group of churches and civic groups that helped Brigantine’s low-income residents for nearly 20 years.
While many consider Brigantine an affluent resort town full of lavish three-story beach homes, Scotland said it’s also home to several hundred families at or near the poverty line. Many are the working poor with jobs in Atlantic City or elderly individuals on fixed incomes.
They, too, suffered major losses from Sandy.
Almost overnight, volunteers who had for years managed a food pantry and Christmas donations for the poor had an entire city to rebuild.
“Leadership from the beginning got together from different organizations and tried to figure out what happens now, what happens next week and what happens in the next three months,” Scotland said.
The decision was made early on to operate BrigStrong on an entirely volunteer basis separate but underneath Atlantic County’s long term recovery group.
“All of the proceeds that we get donated to us go to victims of Sandy,” he said.
Volunteers came from all walks of life. Jim Holl, the recently deceased fire chief, used his extensive disaster response training to coordinate aid distribution. A police officer designed the website. A librarian and the head of an alliance for drug and alcohol prevention coordinated mental health outreach. Many simply showed up and asked how they could help.
Natalie Solomon was the disaster coordinator for a Pennsylvania hospital. Her name came up at a City Council meeting and suddenly she was a member of BrigStrong.
Now, the 63-year-old is handling case management, finding resources for storm-stricken residents who call on BrigStrong for help.
“Some of the people, you go into their homes and they have 2-by-4’s covering their floors and barely a roof over their heads,” she said, while volunteering Friday to fix the city’s recreation trail.
Solomon, like many of the volunteers, was a victim of Sandy. She and her husband owned two bayside homes. While on vacation in Barcelona, Spain, during the storm, they saw their properties on the BBC.
One had to be demolished and the other sustained flooding to its garage. They also lost three cars and a boat in the storm. Their cat, Max, survived and was found by a neighbor several days later on a sofa still in their home.
“I consider this God’s way of cleaning my garage out,” Solomon said, displaying the wry humor that’s helped many people get through.
Scotland said BrigStrong’s goals have evolved and expanded a great deal from accepting and distributing donations in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
In recent months, the organization has held a number of information sessions where volunteers helped residents process insurance claims and Federal Emergency Management Agency applications.
The group’s next goal, he said, is to create a clearing house of construction supplies and volunteer laborers to help rebuild homes up to the new standards.
BrigStrong is also involved in many side projects. On Friday, for instance, BrigStrong members joined volunteers from the United Way and other organizations in rebuilding a beachfront recreation trail.
Volunteers left the staging area at a parking lot off 27th Street South to begin erecting signage and installing exercise equipment.
“This gives our public works crews a break,” Scotland said. “They’ve been running non-stop since Sandy, so we’re doing anything we can to help them out.”
For more information or to give or receive help from BrigStrong, visit www.brigstrong.org.
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