Riding out Sandy with the 'Group of 200'

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It’s a little after 3 a.m. Friday morning. My editor called me yesterday and said we were putting out a paper Saturday and I needed to do a story on the storm.

Where do I begin? I could do a book on everything that took place in Brigantine over the last five days. I have been awake for the last hour trying to compose the story – find the line – it will take too long. I need to be back at the Community Center at 6 a.m. so I will share part of what I saw and experienced. I ask the indulgence of the reader as I cover my encounter with a lady called Sandy.

The arrival of what some forecasters were calling “Frankenstorm,” was a quiet one, particularly after last year’s arrival of Tropical Storm Irene. This reporter, who reported on Irene, also wrote a recent story on the ’62 nor’easter that had devastated the island. This led me to get involved with the Community Emergency Response Team – a volunteer program that is part of FEMA. After all, we are a barrier island.

This past Monday morning I contacted Lt. Jim Bennett, Brigantine’s director of emergency management, and told him that I was prepared to report in at 8 a.m. I was informed that the city was not going to open the emergency evacuation center at the Brigantine Beach Community Center so I was to stand down and await further direction.

However, 45 minutes later I was directed to get over and open up the center for evacuees. As I walked in, I was followed by Denise Ford – the first of approximately 200 people that followed on that Monday.

What I experienced over the last week was amazing. All Brigantine residents had been advised by Gov. Christie that all barrier islands were in a state of mandatory evacuation. But, after Irene’s weak visit last year, many residents decided to “ride it out.”

What a mistake. As a result they put themselves and the island’s first responders in harm’s way.

I was told to expect about 40 to 50 people. That night, at the height of the storm, we had almost 200 “guests” at the Brigantine Waldorf Astoria – with only enough cots for 45. Denise, Tom and Sandy, evacuees themselves, became our check in staff. Young Jake became the “vice president of cots”; Faith was the “vice president of blankets.”

Deputy Mayor Sam Storino showed up early that day with food for the kitchen and started cooking. Later that day, Mike Morgan and his wife Sandy reported in and took over the kitchen. Mike was amazing. Over a period of four days he reported in at 6 a.m. and cooked non-stop for 18 hours a day. Without his help, the guests at our little hotel would have suffered.

The stories of the rescues by the fire department were big screen stuff. They brought in a 27-year-old resident from the north end that was on a ventilator. He needed to be transported in a wheelchair. It took eight men to get him out of the ambulance as the height of the storm was approaching.

Another resident had to be rescued by initially being transported on a surfboard, which was then carried to a rowboat.

Rescuers were walking through chest-high water.

The guys at the Public Works Department were amazing. I truly don’t know how they did it. Most were working on four hours of sleep. The Police Department was everywhere. The dispatchers were overwhelmed with calls.

Lt. Tim Daley from the Fire Department came to relieve me after 18 hours. He had been working 24 hours a day for three days in a row at that point. Thank you my friend.

It was controlled chaos over the city as our first responders dealt with those residents who had to be rescued. There were some nervous moments at the Community Center when the high tide at 8 p.m. resulted in water flowing outside on 42nd Street. It soon passed and our guests finally slept with the help on our space age Mylar blankets.

Wednesday morning we had some visitors who wanted a tour of the facility. They were gracious and obviously with were the government. Later they asked to speak to me privately and queried whether we would be available for a visit from “an important guest.”

It was quickly determined that it would be a very “important guest.” The two visitors were advance staff from the White House and the governor’s office. I was asked to keep the visit to myself and then met with the event Secret Service officer.

The Community Center went into lockdown at 12:30 p.m. and a one-block perimeter was established. No one was allowed to enter the perimeter nor was anyone allowed to leave. All of our evacuees were asked to assemble in the dining room where they were advised of the visit of the president of the United States and the governor of New Jersey to Brigantine Beach.

The Secret Service then conducted a complete search of the building with a canine search team. Snipers positioned themselves over the porte-cochere of the building. Windows were covered and dump trucks situated for protection.

I was then approached and asked if I would be willing to welcome the president and governor to the center and escort them to the dining room where they could meet the assembled residents.

Obviously, I agreed. I was given a “Do Not Shoot” button to wear which advised security personnel that I was allowed to move freely and approach the president. (Note: they didn’t let me keep it.)

At 2:55 p.m. they finally arrived along with an entourage of support staff, 30 or so press people and a large contingent of security personnel. Although scheduled for 20 minutes, the president and governor stayed for more than an hour visiting with each individual and taking photos with most.

It was an historical event for the island and a moment that all in attendance will remember. It followed one year and one day from the official opening of the center. Coverage by CNN, and all the networks brought Brigantine to the forefront of the news cycle.

I had emails from Europe and my neighbor who was in Mexico said they saw me on the BBC with the president. My mother called.

The director of FEMA was also in attendance and FEMA staff were in the center within the hour. I had a call later that night from a New Jersey FEMA man up in Colts Neck who said he was prepared to bring a 12-foot trailer of infant supplies down to the center. Wow, we had one infant. Instead, he pulled together what she needed and drove down with formula, diapers and baby blankets. Our special needs residents had special consultations with FEMA.

Donations started arriving from local groups and charities as a result of the news coverage. Water, food, etc. started appearing.

A Facebook request for bath towels had local residents coming to the center with the requested items. Toni Flowers made two pots of soup and brought them over.

The volunteers were incredible. Denise, Tom, Monica, Mollye, Mary Ann, Jim, Gail, Susan, Faith, Jake, Steve, Christine, Janet, Dana, Kelly, Donna, Judee, John, Bea, Samantha, Susan, Kelly, Mary, Kristen, Domanique, Kate, Rebecca, Amanda, Sandy, Brian, Patti, Susan, Barbara, Melissa, Olivia – the list goes on and on. I know I have forgotten some. What an island.

It is now a quarter to 5. I need to be at the center at 6. Time for a shower and a bite to eat.

Writing this article has been cathartic. All in all it has been an incredible experience – life-changing even. I thanked the mayor earlier this morning in an email for the opportunity. I met some incredible people over the last five days.

Yes, the president and governor were among them. But I am not going to forget all the friends I made among the residents of the island. The volunteer effort they produced was nothing short of amazing. Whether it was helping stock and clean the bathrooms, helping in the kitchen, watching a mother’s children so she could get a break, giving up their cot so someone else could use it, they were amazing. I was humbled to be in their presence and honored to be their new friend.

I will ask the mayor for permission to stage a reunion next year for the Group of 200 and volunteers. They know who they are.

Next week, an in-depth story of the visit from Sandy. If you have a Brigantine Sandy story to share, email beachcombernews.com.

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