Outside Belmar’s Borough Hall, bundled-up volunteers offered hot meals of homemade bowtie pasta and sandwiches in brown bags to residents of the New Jersey shore town ravaged by superstorm Sandy. Inside, others stood behind tables loaded with canned goods and cleaning supplies.
Madison Kenny, 26, was trying to reach people by telephone to determine what assistance they needed. Although she didn’t regain power until Nov. 8, 10 days after Sandy hit, the registered nurse had spent every day she wasn’t working as a volunteer, mostly wading ankle deep into sewage to move items from flooded basements.
“Belmar is a strong, amazing town,” Kenny said. “In times of need, people can come together instantly.”
Belmar, whose E Street was immortalized in the name of Bruce Springsteen's band -- the group once practiced in a garage there -- was among the hardest-hit in Sandy’s swath of destruction along the Jersey Shore. At least 40 percent of its homes have significant flood damage and streets were still submerged almost a week after the storm, said Mayor Matt Doherty.
At the peak, 60,000 gallons of water a minute were being pumped out of the town, which is home to two lakes. All but a 20-foot (6-meter) section of the 1.2-mile boardwalk, which draws 60,000 people every summer to the borough of 5,800 yearlong residents, was destroyed, with pieces landing on streets and roofs of houses.
All the buildings by the boardwalk were condemned, including family-run restaurants such as Matisse. Along the beach, once-tall blue lamps were twisted toward the ground.
Since Oct. 31, about 600 volunteers have shown up daily, said Jennifer Nicolay, a councilwoman organizing them.
“The passion, the outpouring of support has been unimaginable,” she said, pausing after sending a team to a home to clear debris. Donations have also streamed in, from 50 cents in envelopes sent by children to $10,000 from MillerCoors LLC, Doherty said.
Megan Brzozowski, 23, drove almost two hours from her home in Flemington, New Jersey, to volunteer. She walked through the streets near the remains of the boardwalk and mounds of sand, holding a sign with the Borough Hall’s address and telling residents that hot meals and supplies were available there. She grew up taking day trips to Belmar, she said.
“I feel that I was so fortunate, and so many people haven’t been,” she said.
Those who were stranded without power on Ocean Avenue banded together and created a bonfire nightly facing the beach, said Diane Ragickas, 51. Talking to each other for the first time, people chipped in whatever food and supplies they had and swapped stories, she said.
Ragickas created a memorial of sand featuring American flags, pumpkins and signs of gratitude on the corner of Ocean and Ninth avenues. She plans to keep adding to it to give people hope.
“We’re strong,” she said. “We’re American.”
Belmar will recover, said Doherty, the 39-year-old mayor, who has vowed that the boardwalk will be rebuilt by Memorial Day. He has “unwavering” confidence in the community, he said.
“Future generations of this town will look back and they’re going to say that this was Belmar’s finest hour,” Doherty said.