Jill Bessey is from Maine, and she was surprised to learn how many people along the Jersey shore are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt 18 months after Hurricane Sandy.
As co-chair of the TD Bank Volunteer Committee, she suggested volunteering at a home site as a community service activity. For two days this month, she and about a dozen TD employees from the Mount Laurel Tech Center helped build a deck at Sarah Huff’s newly raised home in Brigantine.
“There are so many people not in their homes,” she said. “We just wanted to help out.”
Hundreds of homeowners without the financial resources to rebuild after Sandy are still waiting for help.
Long-Term Recovery Groups, or LTRGs, in each county affected by Sandy have been working since the October 2012 storm to rebuild homes. To make the funds that have been donated go as far as possible, they are relying largely on volunteers to help.
About two dozen organizations already have signed up for one-day, weekend and weeklong-work sessions in Atlantic County this summer. They include local businesses such as South Jersey Industries, public agencies such as the Atlantic County Heath Department, and church groups from as far away as Massachusetts, Ohio and Tennessee. But more are always needed.
The Atlantic County LTRG meets every two weeks, updating its list of what’s been done and what still needs to get done.
Atlantic City alone has 167 open cases, volunteer coordinator Sonia Massie said, and calls keeping coming in. They have finished 75 homes, including one home that will be officially finished today, and 32 are being worked on.
“It’s amazing that some people still have had no work done,” Massie said.
The Atlantic County REVIVE group has 15 projects under way and 12 on the waiting list. BrigStrong volunteers, working in Brigantine, have 15 projects in progress, ranging from installing doors to drywall, painting and electrical work.
Darwisa Strabuck, community engagement coordinator for the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, has been coordinating volunteer schedules. College students recently came to help during spring break, and Strabuck said things are picking up now that the weather is warming up. But it still may take as much as two more years to complete all projects. So far, 2,188 volunteers have come through REVIVE, donating 70,654 hours at a dollar value of $1,978,312.
“People can just come one day a month,” said Jaime Angelini, director of customer services for Atlantic Mental Health Association, which has been sending a volunteer crew out since the storm. She also serves on the recovery group’s volunteer committee.
Sue Marticek, director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, said she has a five-year plan that relies on volunteers. She said the LTRG has 150 cases, but there are many others working with other agencies.
“If not for the skilled volunteer labor, some people would never be able to recover,” she said. “They are the silver lining to the storm. They pay their own way to come. They sleep on cots. Then they thank us when they leave.”
Volunteers don’t need any special skills to help, though people with plumbing, electrical or construction skills are especially needed.
“People do think everything has been done. But these people are relying on volunteers. If there are no volunteers, the house just sits,” Angelini said.
Carpenter Jeff Baknezian, 42, came down from upstate New York to volunteer three months ago and wound up staying. The Atlantic City recovery group hired him as a skilled worker, and while he’s making a lot less than he did back home, he’s getting more satisfaction.
“This is my third house, and I’m starting to understand the architecture of the homes here,” he said as he installed trim in the bathroom of Anthony Jones’ home on Massachusetts Avenue in Atlantic City. “It’s not about the pay. I’ll stay until God says it’s time to go, but I think I’ll be here for a while.”
Jones’ house is just about done. He’s been living on the second floor since the storm dumped 2 feet of water in the house he’s lived in for 17 years.
He said he can’t wait to be able to cook a real meal in his new kitchen. But, he said, not all of his neighbors are so lucky. The storm damaged the entire block, and some families are still not living in their homes.
Local agencies such as the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity and Salvation Army have been pitching in. The Salvation Army’s mobile unit provided sausage and pepper sandwiches to the TD Bank workers. The Hard Rock Cafe in Atlantic City has also provided lunch to volunteer workers. Habitat for Humanity has helped rebuild 21 homes in Atlantic County, director Kara Kattau said.
Carol Cohen, of the American Red Cross, said because most of the damage locally was inside the homes, it is hard to see from the street and people don’t realize how severe it was.
“The houses are standing,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go. Some people are still living just in a section of their home.”
In addition to volunteers, donations are also needed. The recovery groups have received money from the Hurricane Sandy Relief fund, Red Cross and nonprofit groups such as the Robin Hood Foundation. But funds are always needed for supplies, ranging from sheet rock to paint. The homes will also need furniture and appliances, though storage can be an issue and the groups try to match donations so they can be quickly distributed.
Brigantine homeowner Sarah Huff said her family spent most of their money raising their house, and are grateful for the volunteers who come to help rebuild it. She has already moved four times and will have to move again in May, but she’s not sure the house will be ready.
“The house is gutted inside, down to the studs,” she said. “It almost might have been easier to do a new build. We’re funding it all out of pocket now, so we have tremendous gratitude to all of the volunteers who show up. There is such a huge need for volunteers.”
Henry Wise, chairman of the Atlantic County Long Term Recovery Group and a Salvation Army regional disaster coordinator, said he knows there are still people out there who need help but may think it’s too late. Wise said his groups will keep working until everyone who qualifies for help has received it.
“This is all about getting people back into their homes,” he said.
Angelini encouraged individuals, families and businesses to donate a day, a weekend or a week. They’ll be glad they did, she said.
“It really is rewarding,” she said. “We were able to follow one home all the way to the end, and it was great when the homeowner was able to move back in.”
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