As Hurricane Sandy surged toward the New Jersey coast in October 2012, Toms River school officials were ready.
The cafetorium at Toms River High School East was turned into a 200-bed community shelter. The kitchen was stocked with food. The parking lot was put to use: The school property is elevated, and Toms River’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) directed emergency responders from the town and nearby beach communities to park ambulances, fire trucks and police cars there to avoid flooding.
A second shelter, operated by the American Red Cross, was also set up at Toms River High School North.
Then the storm hit, and the torrent of people began.
“They started coming in Sunday night. By 3 a.m., we were full. And everybody that walked in was soaked,” recalled Tammi Millar, Toms River Regional School District communications coordinator and shelter manager.
“At the last OEM meeting I remember them saying it was going to be a horrible storm and we needed to be prepared. Still, knowing that and going through the preparation, we were surprised at the fierceness,” she said. “The problem wasn’t what we needed, the problem was the scale of what was needed.”
Hurricane Sandy caused widespread devastation in New Jersey, destroying or damaging an estimated 346,000 homes statewide; leaving schools, businesses and millions of households without power; and killing 38 people.
In Toms River, a school district of 16,000 students in Ocean County, which includes Ortley Beach and other hard-hit beach and waterfront communities, the destruction was intense. Thousands were forced to seek shelter as homes were flooded and in some cases, literally washed away.
After the storm struck, Toms River’s emergency efforts ramped up further. School buses and drivers navigated flood waters to rescue residents. More cots were added to expand the shelters. The Toms River Detective Bureau and East Dover Fire Company both moved into High School East, after the firehouse flooded and lost electricity. Volunteers came in droves to help.
At the same time, donations began pouring in. Large quantities of food, diapers, clothing and shoes arrived at the shelters. Cartons of toiletries; whole truckloads of pet supplies and Duracell batteries; and more was donated to the stricken community.
“The next morning, I called the local radio station to say I needed towels, and in the first hour I got 7,000 towels,” Millar said. “People were calling and saying, ‘we have a 40-foot truck, where do you want it to go?’ People were very generous.”
With donations overwhelming the schools, the township’s mayor and council arranged for use of a warehouse owned by Community Medical Center. When that filled up too, materials were packed into 70 school buses. But as the district prepared to reopen school in November, the buses had to be emptied. The People’s Pantry was born.
Toms River resident Pat Donaghue, president of the district’s special education PTA, was volunteering at one of the shelters – making baloney sandwiches – when she was asked to help with the pantry. The idea was to create a place where residents could receive the donated goods they needed. Teachers, parents and others pitched in, and the People’s Pantry opened in a vacant store in a strip mall, just two weeks after the storm.
The hurricane was very hard on the kids, but they seem to have weathered the storm.
The Pantry was like a “crazy little kind of Wal-Mart,” Donaghue recalled, with supplies ranging from tools to baby food to furniture. Yet, she said many residents were reluctant to ask for help.
“We found there were many people who lost everything in the hurricane, who had never needed help before,” Millar said. “It has become a community resource.”
Three years later, the People’s Pantry is a significant legacy of the storm in Toms River. Now serving the community as a food pantry, it is located at a non-profit facility called the BEAT Center, and run by INSPIRE, a non-profit group. It works in partnership with the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean counties and rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Foundation. Donaghue is executive director of the People’s Pantry.
The Pantry fed 22,000 Ocean County residents last year; clocked more than 21,000 volunteer hours; and distributed 1.2 million pounds of food to area residents, many of them still suffering the effects of the hurricane, Donaghue said.
“The People’s Pantry evolved from a grass-roots organization to something that is mind-boggling,” she said. “It started as people coming together, to help kids in the school district and their families. We never expected it to become what it has become.
“While many school districts opened shelters during the storm, Toms River took it a step further,” she said.
Toms River officials said they took other lessons from the hurricane as well. According to Millar: First, don’t underestimate the need for storage. Second, be familiar with Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements; many storm victims struggled with the complicated process of getting temporary housing certificates.
Third, make provisions for electricity. High School East lost power the first night, and had limited power for eight days, after obtaining generators. Verizon helped out, bringing a truck full of cell phone charging stations, computers and more.
Overall, Millar expressed pride at the community response, noting that school administrators, teachers, students, municipal officials, emergency responders and others all pulled together. “The third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy is a significant milestone for what has been done and what still needs to be done to restore the shore,” she said.
An Anchor in the Storm Lavallette sits on a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay, a Shore community with wide beaches; a small downtown; and streets lined with summer homes.
But the town whose population swells with vacationers in summer is also a year-round community of fewer than 2,000 residents. Children grow up riding bikes everywhere. Families enjoy crabbing or fishing. Parents know each other, and each other’s kids. The brick Lavallette School in the center of town, its sole K-8 school, is like a family of its own.
“Raising kids in this town is idyllic. It’s the best way to describe it,” said Lavallette Board of Education President Steve Shohfi. “It’s the kind of place where your kindergarten teacher comes to your high school graduation party.”
When Hurricane Sandy struck, it left the tiny Ocean County school intact. “Ironically, we didn’t have a drop of water in the building,” Shohfi said.
But the town surrounding it was shattered. Homes and businesses were swamped with three, four or more feet of water. Roadways, and Lavallette’s signature boardwalk, were ripped apart. Some residents were trapped in homes the night of the storm, perched on kitchen counters or huddled on second floors as they awaited rescue.
And residents were forced to leave home for weeks as a mandatory evacuation order locked down the battered barrier island.
“Our kids were all over the place. We have five board members, everybody was scattered. Everybody’s lives were completely in disarray,” Shohfi recalled. “We thought, we need to get these kids back with their teachers in front of them, and give them some sense of normalcy.”
Immediately after the storm, Lavallette’s superintendent, Dr. Peter Morris; business administrator Patricia Christopher; and board members began planning to reopen school. The question was, how?
Unable to access the school or their own homes, the displaced board held its first post-storm meeting at an Atlanta Bread Company restaurant in nearby Toms River.
Because the school was inaccessible, they decided to temporarily relocate classes. They found space at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in nearby Toms River, and began searching for families. “We had to figure out where all the kids were, and then get them to school,” Christopher said.
Under New Jersey law, students forced to relocate could have attended class in new communities, but she said most parents wanted their children to return.
A phone call “blast” went out, asking parents and teachers to make contact. Some emailed. Some called the business administrator’s personal cell phone which, for a time, was the district’s only line.
District officials had no supplies to outfit the temporary school, but as word spread, donations flowed in. “We had no computers, no paper, no pencils, no books, no anything. People gave us tons of that kind of stuff, plus monetary donations. We actually had to give stuff to other schools,” Christopher said.
A “walking district” without busing, Lavallette created temporary bus routes. Teachers went in to set up classrooms. A parent meeting was held, drawing nearly 100 percent attendance. Two weeks after Sandy, Lavallette School reopened in the church.
“There were a lot of tears, and a lot of hugging,” Christopher said.
Lavallette mom Beth D’Aloisio, now the PTO president, recalled her son had just started kindergarten that fall. “I think the way the school handled it, was really what kept us parents together,” she said. “To give our kids that stability, the continuity to be with their friends, was awesome.”
The temporary school operated until mid-January, when students returned to Lavallette. The cost of the displacement was about $150,000, about a third of which was recouped from insurance.
Three years after Sandy, both Shohfi and Christopher said the makeup of the community has changed. With homes destroyed, some Lavallette families never returned, and many smaller homes were replaced by larger “second” homes. The school’s population declined: From a high of nearly 180 students pre-Sandy, including some from nearby towns who paid tuition, enrollment is about 140 now. The percentage of tuition students has increased.
“Lavallette has always been a summer community, about 2,000 people year-round and 30,000 in summer. But it’s changed the nature of the year-round residents,” Shohfi said. “Some families moved away and haven’t come back. A lot of houses are being knocked down and sold, and there’s a lot of construction of summer homes. We’re not bringing in families that often.”
Long-term, school officials said enrollment may never be what it was, although neighboring Seaside Park applied to the New Jersey Department of Education for the option to send students there. For now, though, the school functions as always: Small enough to offer individual attention and a nurturing feel, yet substantial enough to provide things such as athletics, music, and strong academic performance.
And the tiny school, it seems, is an anchor for the Lavallette community.
D’Aloisio, who, with her husband had to rebuild two businesses after the hurricane, said the school and its community were a source of support for parents. “We were all going through the same thing for a while. It was great having each other,” she said. “I think the kids having their friends at school, and the parents having their friends, makes life better.”
Shohfi, the board president, said he’s proud of the district’s response to Sandy.
“People were devastated. Saying there was ‘disruption’ is a mild word,” he said. “Getting everybody back together, and starting back up again, really gave people hope.”
Weathering the Unexpected When Moonachie school officials left the Robert L. Craig School for the weekend before Hurricane Sandy was due to arrive, they did not expect a flood.
The school in the small, blue collar Bergen County town is about a mile from the Hackensack River, so with heavy rain predicted, school officials were mostly concerned about a few leaky spots in the roof. They set garbage cans out to catch drips.
A tidal surge that pushed water up the Hackensack River caused massive destruction in Moonachie and neighboring towns, however. Residents had to flee the sudden flood waters, some escaping in National Guard trucks. Cars were washed down streets. Moonachie’s borough hall, police department, civic center, first aid squad building and fire department were all flooded.
And the hurricane swamped the town’s only Pre-K-8 school with four feet of water, forcing the building to close for eight months, and kicking off what became an $8 million disaster recovery and reconstruction project.
“We never imagined there would be a tsunami like that. It was a whole combination of tides and surges and rain,” said district business administrator Sue Anne Mather. “If it wasn’t for that surge, everything would have been fine.”
Water forced its way into the one-story brick school through door cracks and “uni-vents,” a ventilation system that allows fresh air to get into and out of classrooms. The flood toppled book cases and desks. When school officials were able to access the building – which wasn’t until three days after the storm – Mather said they pulled open file cabinets full of brackish water.
The business administrator even found a cup full of water, and a fish, in her desk drawer.
The gymnasium, cafeteria and all classrooms were heavily damaged. Electric outlets, which were below the four-foot water line, were destroyed. Supplies were ruined. “We lost everything – all technology, all teaching supplies, all classroom books, the library – everything. If it could be cleaned, it was cleaned. If it couldn’t be cleaned, it was disposed of,” Mather said.
“It was a total disaster,” she said.
The school’s insurance company sent a disaster clean-up company, which had worked after Hurricane Katrina, to start the recovery process. The entire school was eventually gutted and rebuilt, with everything from boilers to the computers replaced. The district’s insurance covered the bulk of the $8 million cost, Mather said, but because the district did not have flood insurance coverage, Moonachie had to pay a $1 million deductible.
“Now we have flood insurance,” she said.
Moonachie students went to school in nearby Wood-Ridge for six weeks, then moved into three dozen trailers set up on the school site, from January to June. Many students had lost clothes and school supplies in the storm as well; Mather said there were donations from many volunteer organizations, and the town of Wood-Ridge held a huge garage sale to help.
School officials were able to begin moving back into the building the following August 1, and classes started in September. “How did we get it done? With a lot of pushing,” Mather recalled.
When the Moonachie school reopened, the September after the storm, the day was a mixture of festivity and relief. Gov. Chris Christie came, and school officials held a ceremony to welcome children back. A year later, volunteers also converged on Moonachie to help rebuild the playground.
With the timing of the storm, arriving on October 29, children in Moonachie and many other towns around the state also suffered the loss of a favorite rite of passage: Halloween.
The holiday, too, came back to Moonachie the year after Hurricane Sandy.
“They had the annual Halloween parade in the afternoon, when students come back after lunch. They wear costumes and parade around in the parking lot. They were happy it was back,” Mather said.
Mather said the hurricane was “very hard on the kids,” but looking back, the district was able to overcome it. She noted that no one was injured, students were not in the building, since the storm struck on a weekend, and the community survived.
“They seem to have weathered the storm,” she said.