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I'm lucky that I live in this town

Patricia Donaghue

Patricia Donahue lives in Toms River, New Jersey, and is executive director of the People’s Pantry Relief Center.  After riding out Hurricane Sandy in her home, she went to a local shelter to check up on members of her community.  She ended up taking the lead in developing the People’s Pantry, the first full-time relief center set up after the storm.  In her narrative, she speaks of her experiences in helping with the recovery effort commends her community for the support it has provided to those affected.

 

I am the executive director of the People’s Pantry Relief Center. We are the first full-scale relief center that was set up after the storm. Originally, it was set up to distribute all of the donations that came in because we had seven shelters set up. It just grew from there. We do rebuild and volunteer management, case management, and mental health. So what I did was, I brought in all of the entities that came into the area and we are the first central hub for recovery. Currently, we see four thousand people a month, and we supply them with food and supplies. We have clocked ninety-three thousand volunteer hours just in the pantry aspect of it. Between the pantry and our warehouses, we’ve moved close to a million pounds of food from Monmouth Ocean Food Bank, close to another 200,000 pounds of donations that have come in from companies and other entities and 170 tons of clothing. Those are some of our numbers.

I’m the president of the Special Education PTA for the school district. When the storm came, so many people were in the shelters. Although I didn’t live in a flood area, my house sustained damage. As soon as it was safe, I went to the shelters to look for the families and the children and special needs kids to make sure they were ok. I stayed in the shelter working for a week, and when the pantry opened I started working in the pantry. When the school district that was managing the space opened, everyone needed to go back to work and they named me the director. I moved it from a 3000 square foot facility with two warehouses into a 20,000 square foot facility with a loading dock. So what started as me looking for a couple special need kids tuned into a year of seventy hours a week.

What we’ve come to see is a different aspect of this disaster. It’s something that we don’t hear from governmental agencies and things after something like this. The economic impact has been catastrophic, and it has been made worse by real financial issues faced by the community. We are prepared to stay in business for about ten years.

Do you think that everyone responded well, like the first responders and the government?

The first responders were phenomenal. Township and local governments were tremendous. It took a while for the state and federal response to get here. As a community, they had people throw around the phrase “Jersey Strong” like it was nothing, but it truly was a testament to the people who were affected, who just stood up and started helping one another. None of us get paid, but we just keep piling through.

The people of this state have been incredible. The people of this community have been incredibly supportive of those who’ve been affected by this storm. It truly became family. Because my past, my life prior to sandy is deeply entrenched with the special needs community and awareness and the mayors and governors office, this community was always very accepting of special needs kids and adults and I saw that same compassion and that same heart and that same passion come through for neighbors. It’s been quite an experience, for every negative there have been ten positives that have come out of this storm. The strength of this solid middle class community has just been so strong and stick together and make it happen for one another. It’s wonderful.

Would you agree that the storm has brought the community closer together?

Absolutely. We were always close. Like I said, we were always close but it just became apparent to everyone else who may have not realized what kind of people live here. It’s been very heartwarming to see people, probably sixty or seventy volunteers weekly in the pantry and the majority of them who were clients but have become more stable. Now they come and give back and work with other victims of the storm, which is nice. And the high school kids are good.

I could sit here for hours telling you recounting stories of heroic acts by just regular people.

Do you ever fear that another storm like Sandy is going to hit?

Everyday. Everyday. We are still so vulnerable. People have redone their houses without raising them, so you kind of hope that nothing happens. They’re in the position where if something happens, all the work they just put in to their house will be for nothing. It’s like every aspect of our world has been affected from the sewer system that it now filled with sand, and everything. It’s just a hot mess. If you sit and look at how big the issue is it’s overwhelming. It’s unbelievably overwhelming and it’s going to be a very, very, very long process. Just doing repairs to the infrastructure. Right now if you drive down Route 35 on the island it’s like you’re doing the electric slide, you have to keep moving. There are bulldozers and trench cutters and streets are gone and parks are gone. We’ll get through it.

Do you think people are repairing the right way if another storm does come?

No, no, absolutely not, no. A lot of people are fixing their house without raising it, or they are raising it to the bare minimum. Quite frankly, if it were me, I’d go ten feet. I don’t care. I’d have to put lights on my house for the plants, but then there lies the other problem. It’s a very, very old group of people. So now the concern is if they raise their house, how will they get into their house? So they can’t do elevators they have to do lifts. And because the amount they are saying to raise it you would have to wrap a ramp around the entire house. So I don’t know. I give a lot of people a lot of credit because if it were me I would’ve walked away from my house by now. I would have just said let’s give it back to the bank. It’s far too costly, far too emotional, and far too tedious and there’s no guarantees. There are no guarantees.

We were lucky in this area. There was no loss of life with the exception of the guy who dropped dead from a heart attack when he was trying to move a tree. We were lucky not to lose anyone, and that’s where I have to give kudos for the town officials and the first responders. They went out and went above and beyond. All the while knowing that their houses were twelve feet underwater so it was we were lucky. I went to Staten Island after, about a week in a half after the storm. My sister’s in-laws are in Staten Island so I went up to see my sister and we went over to see her in-law’s to check in on them. They had refrigerated trucks set up as temporary homes and there were bodies. That was Staten Island, and that’s not on the news. They kept that very quiet because of how much life was lost in Staten Island. There was a women holding her kids, she had a set of twins. Surge came in and took her babies; she lost both of her children. So we were lucky we were blessed.

Do you feel lucky living in this area?

I do, I do. I’m lucky that I live in this town. I feel lucky that I happen to have the absolute best people working with me at the relief center. We’re the home for the American Deployment for Ocean County and we have Jersey Care doing volunteer management so we get thousands of volunteers to deploy out into the fields to help people. So I am lucky. My family wouldn’t think so, because you know I haven’t cooked dinner in a year. It’s all good though. Thank God everyone loves pizza! But we’re blessed to go through something like this in this area, with this school district, with this township, with this council with the freeholders, with the governor that we have. Although I wasn’t a fan before the storm because he doesn’t like teachers but that’s another story, I’m not a teacher.

Do you think the media is doing a good job in keeping people updated?

No, absolutely not. But we don’t expect them to.

You’re always just one disaster out of the headlines. When the mudslides in Colorado, and then the Oklahoma, this is the best: Okay, so I do volunteer stuff and I work in the relief and there’s a state office it’s called the VOAD, volunteer disaster whatever. So every state has one, and when the tornado hit in Oklahoma, people were calling me up saying let’s take up a donation for Oklahoma. So I said, “Hang on a second let me look into this.” So I called the VOAD office in Oklahoma and the gentleman who runs it said to me “No we’re good we got this, we have warehouses set up and already have supplies. You’re from New Jersey what can we do for you?” So people who work in disaster realize that but then you have these people who just it’s a knee-jerk reaction and people just need to a lot of times I’ll find, we just got a donation of food in and one of the cans was from 1985 but that’s just somebody trying to make themselves feel better. But it’s good I get it. But there’s a system and I think that that should be something that everyone is aware of. And the knee-jerk reaction help sometimes can be indolence. Like I got a tractor-trailer full of clothes in December from Las Vegas. Okay, really? It’s December in New Jersey. We don’t need tank tops and shorts. So all that did was make me have to assign people to unload this tractor-trailer, go through everything, sort through everything, and then dispose of everything. But it’s been a process, but it’s good. We’ll all get through it. I thought I was retired, but no.

Do you ever get tired or working?

No, I get tired but not of working. When I’m home I worry about the facility, when I’m there I worry about home. But it’s an incredible experience and it’s through it all, I’ve made some really close friends.

Do you feel it changed how you perceived things?

No, no. This is by far not the most difficult thing. I have an eighteen-year-old daughter with autism. That’s pretty tough. And in the beginning, not now because she’s doing great thank God, and she’s in culinary school. But in the beginning it was hard, and if you could put a dollar sign on it it’s not worth crying over. And the majority of the people here feel that way. They recognize that nothing was lost in that storm that you can’t replace, and slowly were helping replace everything they need to replace so it’s all good.

For the people that didn’t get affected as much, do you think they appreciate it?

Yes, they appreciate it. Like I said this a middle class community. We’re all homeowners. If you didn’t lose your house, you’re feeling the impact of the flood just by the cost of living here now. So everyone is enlightened to that and everyone is recognizing that if we come together and work together to try to help people get home and to try to stabilize our community, the sooner we can do that the better it will be. The beautiful thing is we have eighteen schools and learning centers in Toms River alone, and the school there’s is quite a few of the elementary schools. And this school is one of the shelters, but this school was affected by the storm, a lot of the kids in the school. But because the school district is so big, the other schools do food drives for us and we have one elementary school that’s doing a food drive right now to put together Thanksgiving dinner: boxes for two hundred families, and those will go to another school to help those kids. It’s kind of like a big network, a big family.

Everyone is thinking outside of the box, and everyone is trying to help. I live twenty mile from here. I drive twenty miles from my house to get to the center every day. We have an elementary school right around the block from where I am that’s doing all of these dinner boxes for an elementary school that’s on the water. And I kind of get them connected, because that’s what I do. I make those connections and sit in my office behind stockade fence. But that’s another story, find us on Facebook, we’re hysterical. I think that largely in part, see that’s our mayor over now. Now I ask you a question. How many people do you think has the mayor of your town’s cellphone number? Right? Do you think any residents do? I have his, I have that gentlemen down there he’s the head of our public works, I have the mayor from Seaside, Seaside Park, Normandy, Mantoloking, Brick, I have all their cell phone numbers because we need to be able to reach out to them.

Do you think people are trying to avoid that and just go back to how it was?

Yeah, they don’t want to face it. The emotional toll this storm has taken has been catastrophic. We see a tremendous amount of PTSD. It’s reflective in the children and we’ve also seen a tremendous amount of survivor guilt in the kids. You could be sitting in a classroom next to a fellow student who’s lost everything. The divorce rate is rising. The destruction of the family unit is a major concern because as people are displaced you have mothers with the younger children living with her friend, and older children living with their friends and because it’s a commuter community, dads may relocate closer to work. So the family unit has taken a hit. The economic poll and everything else is destroying marriages. You name it, that’s the problem. It’s just everything. How many dogs and cats had to be surrendered because they couldn’t go with their owners, the shelters were packed.

Why do you think that despite all those conflicts people still stay in the same area instead of leaving?

It’s home. It’s home, she’ll tell you she lives by the beach. It’s home. It’s the familiarity of it, the connections you’ve made, the sights, the smell, and the sounds. It’s home. Having had to relocate from where I was born and raised and that was under good circumstances, how difficult it was for me to make an adjustment as an adult. It’s just its home and nobody wants to and I think there’s a lot of stubbornness too. That stupid Jersey mentality, I have to win.

Do you have any other personal stories from Sandy that you went through?

That I went through? No. I was lucky. I was blessed. My family is older and my children are older so that afforded me the opportunity to what I’m doing which is a blessing. It’s an honor to do what I do. I don’t get paid a nickel. It costs me money to do what I do, which my husband never fails to remind me, but you know whatever. It’s just an honor to do it. We have rules in the center. There’s no crying in the pantry, because you know if someone comes in crying then everyone starts crying. There’s no crying in the pantry and we have a big bell that we ring when someone comes in and says I’m going home. Unfortunately we don’t ring that bell as often anymore because the people who aren’t home yet probably won’t be home for a while. It will all work out, I keep saying that because I’m trying to convince myself.

Interviewed by Sebastian Casas and Emma Pasula
Edited by Grace Jeong
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013