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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hurricane Sandy, Part 6: Facebook Helps, FEMA Not So Much

Please note: It is not my intention to purposely offend anyone, government employee or not. Everyone in the area is under tremendous duress, but good intentions are sometimes not enough.

After putting out requests for aid on Facebook and Twitter, I found myself overwhelmed by the response--both spiritually and physically. An awful lot of stuff started showing up at my door.

Shelters began begging people to stop delivering clothing as early as Friday morning, but human nature being what it is, clothing is the easiest thing to collect. There's not a household in the country that doesn't have a massive collection of unused clothing, and closets are the first place people look when they are trying to help. In spite of the pleas, clothing continued piling up.

I began seeing familiar faces on my trips to shelters and with each new visit those faces were looking more drained and fatigued. Tears crept just behind the eyelashes of everyone I spoke to. In spite of the termendous amount of donations, the need still outstripped the supply.

On Sunday, I helped friends from Maryland deliver an entire SUV filled with needed items to a shelter in Point Pleasant Beach.
Residents in Point Pleasant beach, NJ, empty their homes of their desrtoyed
The vening before I had been advised the shelter at Point Beach High School would begin accepting donations at noon on Sunday. We arrived at 12:45 and the shelter was getting ready to turn donations away.

The gymnasium at Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, High School 43 minutes after
the shelter began taking donations. What you can't see in this picture is the
other half of the gym and the bleachers, both loaded with food and personal items.
Through it all, every donation site I saw was being filled by individuals like myself and small businesses in the area. The outpouring of support for our neighbors slightly softened the hit we had taken as a community. Volunteers, people who decided to act first and apologize later, were saving the day for people who were now either homeless or possessionless.

Throughout my travels, approximately 350 miles in five days of making 36 miles round trips, I saw exactly one FEMA comfort station. It had loads of water and ice, but was 6 miles away from the most devastated area in Monmouth County--a place without transit where flood damaged cars were being towed out in massive amounts. You can bring all the ice and water you want to a disaster area, but if the people who need it can't get it, you might as well send it back to Washington, DC.

On Monday, I arrived at a shelter in Brick Township that had made an urgent request for items just four hours before, with two boxes of the exact items they requested.

The township worker there told me they were no longer accepting donations as they were getting ready to turn the shelter into a polling place and needed to empty the shelter. She told me this as 40 people stood outside waiting to pick up items they needed to help get through the day. I explained that I had come after the request and she replied that she would be more than happy to put my boxes in her car until she found a spot that would take them. The bureaucracy was in charge. I took the items to a church a few miles away that I had delivered to four times previously, and the items were graciously accepted.

When I got home, I saw a social media message from the Township of Brick excitedly proclaiming that AOL was going to be at a high school in town the next day (Tuesday, 11-6) with "$200,000 worth of items including batteries, food and hygiene items"--the very things I and many others had been delivering for five days.

It's wonderful that AOL is getting a chance to make people feel good about their brand by delivering $200,000 worth of items, I just wish they had been there to help in the first 72 hours after the storm hit. That the township I grew up in and still love to this day was turning individuals away and then shouting to the four winds about AOL's generous donations just rubs me the wrong way. It seems to me to be a case of misappropriated priorities. Thousands of individuals delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of items while most roads were still very dangerous to travel on, but the political thanks goes to a corporate entity eight days after the storm.

I understand many of you might disagree with me, and may even find what I am saying here repugnant, but the fact that individuals are quietly being turned away just hours before a municipal entity loudly praised a giant corporation is a smack in the face to the thousands of people who took it upon themselves to help in the hours immediately following the storm.

On Tuesday, I moved my personal efforts north to the shores of the Raritan Bay, and what I saw broke my heart. So if any giant corporate marketing types are reading this, you may want to go to the towns of Union Beach, Keansburg and the Highlands. It may not be sexy to go there, but the help is needed badly.

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