By Karen Zautyk
Hurricane Sandy unleashed its full wrath upon New Jersey on a Monday night, but it was days before the luckiest of us–those who had power restored within a week–could see the TV videos of the incomprehensible extent of the destruction, particularly to the Jersey Shore.
As we watched in disbelief, what most of us didn’t know was that local firefighters had been down there working within 48 hours of the storm’s making landfall.
For the last six-plus weeks, more than 70 members of the Kearny firefighters union, KFMBA 18/218, have been at the Shore helping the stricken residents clean up and clean out what remains of their homes.
Kearny firefighters have been there every single day, with just one exception–the Friday after Thanksgiving. That was set aside as a time to be with their own families. On Thanksgiving itself, they were serving meals in soup kitchens.
We had heard stories of their efforts, and last week, to learn the details, we sat down with the Kearny fireman who has been coordinating the recovery efforts.
Something you should know about the Bravest: They are an exceptionally selfeffacing group. The fireman was adamant that we not use his name in this article. He did not want the spotlight; he did not want it to appear he was taking any special credit for a project in which so many are participating with equal dedication. He would not even agree to a personal photo credit on the pictures that illustrate this story, even though he took them.
He will, therefore, be referred to only as “the coordinator.”
“The Wednesday after the storm,” he told us, “we first went to Toms River,” where the flooding had been particularly bad.
“On any given day since then, there’s a crew of six to 12 guys working at the Shore,” he said. They travel there on a rotation basis. Every single member of the Kearny firefighters union is helping out, on their own time, and at their own expense, he said.
The coordinator also noted that many firemen have second jobs — in construction trades, as electricians and heating specialists, etc. They have skills especially valuable post-Sandy. They are also using their own equipment in the Shore project.
Right now, unfortunately, their work has primarily involved tear-downs in homes flooded by the ocean and the bays.
“We’re ripping out everything in the interiors,” he said, “so when we leave, there’s nothing left but the studs for the walls.”
The firefighters are still in what he termed “the destruction phase,” which must be completed before reconstruction can begin.
“I can imagine this [the tear-downs] going on for quite some time,” he said. “But then we can get around to rebuilding homes.”
Since they began the recovery project, the Kearny FMBA has removed debris from and worked on storm-wrecked houses in Toms River, Brick, Seaside Park, Beach Haven West, Long Beach Island, Mystic Island, Lavallette, Ortley Beach, Ocean Beach and Normandy Beach.
“It looked like a war zone in some places,” the coordinator said. “Even today, it looks like that. The devastation in some towns is remarkable.”
The Kearny firefighters also worked closer to home, in Little Ferry and Moonachie, which did not get as much media coverage as the barrier islands but which suffered extensive flood damage after a Hackensack River levee was breached during the storm.
Thousands of residents had to be rescued in the Bergen County communities. Aerial footage of the area showed every street and road under water, as far as the eye could see. It was as if some demonic developer had decided to build a town in the middle of a lake.
Down the Shore, the KFMBA is getting much-needed help from other firefighters — including their “brothers” from Los Angeles County, Arizona, Toronto (the Kearny FMBA’s hockey rival) and Mississippi and Missouri.
“It all started back in Katrina — this idea of helping people out in natural disasters,” said the Kearny coordinator. After that 2005 hurricane, Kearny sent six firefighters to Bay St. Louis, Miss., for one week to aid in recovery.
“A year later,” he said, “we went back to build a house for one of their firemen who, along with his wife and three children, had been left homeless by the storm.” Fourteen Kearny firefighters took part in that project. “We framed it in 10 days,” the coordinator noted.
Then, in 2011, when a tornado ripped apart Joplin, Mo., 10 firemen from Kearny went there for two weeks, tearing down, remodeling and reroofing homes.
Now firefighters from those regions and elsewhere are here in New Jersey. The Bay St. Louis crews arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the coordinator noted that, since 2005, the Kearnyites and the Mississippians and their respective families “have become very close,” with the Kearny folk travelling south to attend weddings and graduations.
Bay St. Louis, by the way, arrived with 7,600 gift cards for the Kearny firefighters to distribute “to the people who have nothing.”
Multiple departments from Missouri are also sending crews to Jersey every week.
And, of course, fire departments from across the Garden State are working at the Shore. Along with providing volunteer work crews, “the State FMBA has set up a trailer in Lavallette,” the coordinator said. “They’ve kind of adopted that town.”
He also made it a point to thank the wives of the Kearny firefighters. “They’ve put up with a lot over the last six weeks,” he noted. “They’re the ones who make it possible for us to do this.”
And so, with the support of wives and families, the post- Sandy work of FMBA 18/218 goes on.
“Every house you go to,” the coordinator said, “is different.
“Some people want everything thrown out [as evidenced by some of the photos]. Somebody else might just need a smile.”
Heavy labor or a smile — Kearny firefighters are there to help.