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Joe's Take > When nature strikes, women nurture

It occurs to me that one difference between men and women (except, of course, for women governors) may be that we men think of disaster relief as a programmatic thing – a matter of organizing utility trucks, bulldozers, generators and the like. Women often see it as a call for more personal action.

One example last week took me back 40 years to a slapped-together affair called the Brigantine Emergency Team, organized by two women and run by a bunch of young mothers.

In 1972 Hurricane Agnes had flooded the Wyoming valley in northeast Pennsylvania, destroying 68,000 homes and forcing tens of thousands of families into emergency shelters.

Maryanne and Pat and other young mothers got to thinking about those folks in Pennsylvania and what they were doing with their kids during the disaster.

Mud was a big, big problem. In South Jersey, floods bring sand. The Pennsylvania river floods brought mud into the houses – mud that had to be shoveled, shoved or washed out of kitchens, living rooms and basements; mud that ruined furniture and made homes unlivable for weeks to come.

When Agnes spared Brigantine, a few of the island’s young moms decided to take the kids from places like Forty Fort, Kingston and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., into their homes for those few crucial weeks, giving their parents a chance to shovel mud without worrying about the children. The idea caught on – in Brigantine, Absecon and Margate, and up and down the coast. Churches, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other outfits were contacted. Buses were chartered. The kids were brought to churches and shelters with the clothes on their backs and put on the bus with little identification other than handwritten name tags.

Here at the shore, local moms and their daughters picked the kids up in the church parking lots and took them into their homes for hot food, clean beds, and summer clothing. There was some culture shock. The Pennsylvania mill town kids smoked, even in grade school, and used pretty salty language. But the New Jersey communities opened their homes and their hearts. In September the kids went back to their schools and their parents with good memories of a summer at the shore. The young moms are now grandmothers, but they and their daughters still share laughs at the memories of their unexpected guests.

Last week, when power was finally restored to most of a storm-savaged Brigantine, other young moms acted on the same impulse of do-it-yourself disaster relief. Thirty-something moms Melanie Gillespie and Joanne Driscoll, helped by their daughters Ella Gillespie, 9; Zoe Driscoll, 9; Kenzie, 6; and even little Lenna, 2, made huge pots of hot soup and containers of coffee, loaded that and bread and Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons into the back of a white Nissan Pathfinder and headed for Brigantine. For five days they drove up and down the streets, stopping wherever folks were hard at work dragging soggy furniture and ruined rugs out to the curb.

“Some people hadn’t eaten in two days. Others hadn’t seen hot food all week. No electricity. Lots of hugging. And some crying, on both sides,” said Melanie. “They were showing us family pictures they were drying out. One man was in a motorized wheelchair. He’d been without power, but now had it back.”

I asked how their daughters, two of them cheerleaders for the Absecon Blue Devils, reacted to the experience.

“They loved it,” Melanie said. “Joanne and I really wanted them to see how to help people. Once they started, they didn’t want to quit.”

Joe Wilkins is a semiretired lawyer and former municipal judge. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or see www.josephtwilkins.com.


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