By Amy Ellis Nutt and David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger
Traveling from one storm-ravaged city to another, a “Train of Hope” steamed into Newark from New Orleans Saturday afternoon, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Sandy tore through New Jersey. Instead of passengers, however, the Amtrak train came laden with relief supplies.
It was just one ray of light on an otherwise mild, gray day, as many New Jerseyans struggled to get back to normalcy, crowding malls and supermarkets, while others continued to struggle just to get by.
Residents of Long Beach Island were finally allowed back in to see the damage caused by the superstorm, while about 113,000 homes and businesses statewide remained without power.
About 90,000 Jersey Central Power & Light customers were expected to have their electricity restored last night, according to Chris Eck, a company spokesperson. However, for many customers in the barrier island communities “the damage is so great that it’s going to be awhile,” he said.
Erica Lembo, a spokeswoman for Public Service Electric & Gas, said most of the roughly 15,800 customers still in the dark and cold would also be back online last night.
While some waited for light and heat and others sifted through debris, what became abundantly clear over the weekend was that aide was continuing to pour into the state. From all corners of America, by car, by bus and by rail, volunteers extended hands and hearts, offering food, supplies or just hard work. Sometimes the impetus to assist was as simple as the text exchanged between two Louisiana women:
“We’ve got to help these people.”
That was the message Kim Bergeron received from her friend, Donna O’Daniels, nine days ago.
“We got the idea about midnight last Thursday,” said Bergeron, director of cultural and public affairs for Slidell, La., a city of about 30,000, some 34 miles northeast of New Orleans. She jumped at the chance and the next day she and Bergeron got to work.
With the help of many others, the two women said they accumulated five tons of supplies — canned goods, cleaning products, blankets, batteries and diapers, among other items — in a matter of days. Amtrak signed on to bring the goods to Newark, where they were then trucked to Bayonne and Hoboken.
The Amtrak train from New Orleans, normally called “The Crescent” was dubbed “The Train of Hope” for this 30-hour trip north.
Bergeron and O’Daniels said their desire to help sprung from bittersweet memories.
“Slidell was one of the hardest hit cities in Louisiana (by Hurricane Katrina),” O’Daniels said.
Elsewhere, dozens of Baptists from Missouri, North Carolina and Oklahoma have spread out across the state to help clear damaged homes of debris, while others have been delivering hot meals. The men and women said they belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief, a 20-year-old program.
The Baptist volunteers helped gut homes of sodden furniture and debris in Union Beach and Keansburg, where residents, apparently, seemed a bit hesitant at first.
“People are kind of scared of Southern Baptists at first, like we’re a Southern cult,” said Dwain Carter, state director of the Missouri chapter of the Baptist Convention Disaster Relief organization. “We pray with them and hand them a Bible when we leave, and that’s it.”
Some of the Baptist relief workers — more than 100 were expected to arrive by the end of the weekend — spread out to at least eight different locations to set up kitchens, prepare food provided by the Red Cross and deliver meals.
In Rahway, where many residents were still without power yesterday afternoon, 400 survival kits handed out by the Red Cross in the City Hall parking lot proved to be too few.
“All of a sudden it was like a big rush,” Red Cross worker Lauren Franklin said. “They went extremely quickly.”
For Monique Patterson, who arrived too late to get a survival kit, it was insult added to injury.
“It’s been hell,” she said. “I have three kids and we have no power, no heat, for 13 days now.”
William Dickson, who works for the Union County city, said there has been little communication between authorities and residents about when PSE&G would restore electricity.
“It’s so cold at night I have to sleep with a blanket over my head and use my own breath to stay warm,” he said.
In Hunterdon County, William Voyce, a committeman in Tewksbury, expressed a similar frustration with JCP&L.
“I think our residents would deal with it if they were told two weeks,” he said. “Instead, it’s been ‘A day more, two days more’ … Three or four days, it’s like camping, the pioneer spirit. But two weeks is wearing on everyone.”
In Sussex County, the police department, town hall, sewage facility and two schools in Byram remained without power yesterday, even as homes in Byram, as well as Netcong and Stanhope, finally had electricity restored.
While Hopatcong schools were about to begin their third week without classes, the lights in the homes of the borough’s residents slowly blinked on.
“It was like a Christmas tree lighting,” said Bill Gratacos, when his street, Huron Trail, finally re-joined the grid Friday night after JCP&L contractors worked on the wires for hours.
Other New Jerseyans whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Sandy were not expecting relief anytime soon.
Rhenzi Zhu and his family tore moldy sheetrock from the first-floor walls of their Sayreville home yesterday after returning from a shelter at Rutgers University. Inside the home, all that remained taped to a wall in one bedroom were honor roll certificates Zhu’s two older children, ages 11 and 14, had received at school.
There was nothing to recover at Viking Marina’s bait and tackle shop in the Laurence Harbor section of Old Bridge. Sandy’s tidal surge collapsed the shop and shifted it 20 yards off its foundation. Of the nearly 200 private boats docked at the marina, just four were left unscathed.
“It sucks, it’s devastating, it’s horrific,” Tristan Johnson, who owns the marina with his mother, said as he stood atop an unsteady concrete slab that used to be part of the foundation.
Two out-of-state workers who have seen the destruction both along the shore and inland, expressed gratitude at being able to help out, even if it was just to direct traffic. State troopers Jim Gochanour and Joel Niedzweski were part of a 24-person unit that drove out from Michigan a week ago after a call from New Jersey State Police Col. Rick Fuentes.
Yesterday, Gochanour and Niedzweski helped Sayreville police direct traffic around streets still too dangerous to travel. The two men, who criss-crossed the state last week, saw more than their share of the storm’s destructive power.
“The TV images and pictures in the newspaper don’t do justice to the damage we’ve seen here,” Gochanour said. “Seeing homes ripped from their foundations and blocks and blocks of folks’ belongings piled up on the curb — it’s devastating.”
Gochanour said he’d like to return to New Jersey sometime down the road, perhaps in five or 10 years.