Facing Sandy

November 14, 2012

Atlantic City, New Jersey

By Tom Mihalek

My assignment covering Hurricane Sandy began Sunday, October 28 and ended on Tuesday night November 13. Both the first and last day had something in common: A flat tire on my vehicle caused by a nail or screw from the debris left by Sandy’s flood waters in the different areas I covered.

In the days I spent photographing the preparations against the approaching storm in Atlantic City, to the recovery efforts being made in Seaside Heights, a resort beach town literally blasted by Sandy, I saw destruction on a scale that was staggering. Having covered the 1991 Halloween “Perfect Storm” that hit southern New Jersey among other regions, I can say that was nothing when compared to the damaged brought to central New Jersey’s beach communities by Sandy, the “FrankenStorm”.

What began as an assignment to cover Sandy’s mayhem for Reuters, soon became a personal journey of re-discovering the goodness, humanity, and brother and sisterhood in so many of us. This is something I will never forget.

Amid knee-deep water, piles of debris, downed trees and sections of boardwalks, I watched volunteers, men and women, young and old, many from out of the area, join together to clear streets and empty homes of waterlogged furniture. I came upon a food donation/distribution center set up by a few local citizens in Belmar that was in full-swing.

These were Americans at their best; no agendas, no politics…just helping others in need. I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this in my lifetime.

A few days after the storm, I made entry onto the beach in one of the most devastated towns – Bay Head. There, I saw an empty lot with just pilings sticking out of sand and a smashed house on either side. Odd, I thought, these beachfront lots are extremely valuable and to see an empty lot seemed peculiar. As I moved farther down the beach, I came upon a once-beautiful home that looked like a giant hand had picked it up, broken it in half and threw it down – which, in essence, is what Sandy did.

On Election Day, accompanying Reuters’ reporter Phil Barbara, we went to polling places in the storm-damaged towns. With electricity out, many were running on big mobile generators. Turned away at one, we went to Bay Head, waved through a checkpoint by National Guardsmen. Before we got to the Bay Head Fire Company firehouse where voters’ cast their ballots, Phil asked me to go with him to a beach-front lot where he had seen an “R.I.P.” sign where a house had once been. He would catch up to me, he said.

I went to the lot, saw the sign. I realized this was the empty lot I had seen a few days before with nothing but broken pilings protruding from the sand. The house had been obliterated by Sandy. When I read the “R.I.P” message the owner’s had posted along with a photo of their beloved home it was more than I could take.

Rich or poor, losing all you have is something few of us can comprehend. Yet time after time, I spoke to people who lost so much and said ‘we have to move on, what else can we do?’

What I came away with after covering Sandy was hundreds of photos. But more important to me as a journalist and human being, was that it renewed my faith in man-and-womankind. In an era of political obstructionism, divisiveness and intolerance, it’s a fact that when we need the help of our neighbors in a time of crisis, it can be counted on.

On my way home Tuesday night, my last day of coverage, the flat tire I fixed in Seaside Heights gave out 30-miles into a very rural area known in New Jersey as “The Pine Barrens”. While I was putting on the spare, a local man, 78 years-old, pulled up to help, saying the headlights from his pickup truck would make the job easier. He said he’d stay until I got back safely on the road again. He added that anytime he saw someone broken down, he’d pull over to offer help.

I think this last interaction I had with someone offering to help out of the kindness of their heart sums up all that I saw during my coverage of the 100-year storm, Hurricane Sandy.

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