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Shore 2 Recover

Toni Pecunia

Toni Pecunia lives in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, where she also manages a café. Hurricane Sandy left her home severely damaged and her business without electricity for about two weeks. Seeing the devastation that the storm inflicted on her community, she decided to found a non-profit organization, Shore 2 Recover, to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. In her narrative, she speaks of her experiences during the storm, as well as the work of the relief organization she founded.

 

We were not allowed out. They had all of the train tracks shut down. Nobody was allowed in if you were not already in. Standing on the roadways you could see all of the boats in the middle of the road, and all of the power lines down… all the trees down. The roadways were heavily enforced by police, so you knew that there was something wrong, you just didn’t know what. It was a very debilitating feeling, you know? Not being able to go to your home and see what was going on. You could see where the water line stopped right by over the tracks and all of our houses were on the other side. We pretty much knew, you know? We just didn’t know the severity of each house and everyone kind of hoped that theirs wasn’t the one severely damaged. There were hundreds of boats in the middle of the street, kind of like they were just parked there. I did what I think a lot of people did – I got really desperate. I just thought the very worst. It’s hard not to go there right away, you know?

Were you worried about the storm?

No.

Irene was all this hype. We boarded our windows and everything for Irene and got nothing. So we just thought it was one of these precautionary things. So many storms have come through and we have never been affected.

There were a lot of people that weren’t okay, we found out that like a week later because we had no cell phone service or anything like that.

Did you evacuate as the storm came?

Yes we did. I didn’t want to be the lady on the roof with my kids, you know? We went west. I have a friend that lives in Toms River. We evacuated on Saturday, and the storm hit us Monday. And then we were not allowed back in until Thursday. So we were gone for almost a week. And at that point I think they just lifted the evacuation, because people just kept jumping the tracks and they couldn’t stop the over flow.

We live in a town where our windows are unlocked and our front doors are never shut. It’s nice you know that we don’t lock anything, so that was like my first immediate thing. Like oh my god I didn’t even lock any of my windows. I was just not thinking when we left the house, because I just wanted to get out of there with the girls. Before the storm the girls were getting scared, the winds picked up really heavy. We just wanted to get out of there. We went over my friend’s house and it was like a big sleepover for a week. I just wanted to go home.

I had valuable things in there. And that feeling itself is really, really humbling especially when you have kids and a family and all of your valuables are in there, like money.

What happened when you got back home?

There was four and a half feet of water in my finished basement. Everything was just off floating around.

We said everyone can come stay at our house, we had a generator. People just started dropping off their kids. We had fifteen girls staying with us till December. It was crazy, you know? The kids were getting bored. But it was cool. People I didn’t even know were stopping in the middle of the road and had hot coffee in the back of their truck and asked if we wanted a cup of coffee or food. It was cool for the community to come out and help everybody. The café that I run has a regular clientele. They heard that we had fifteen girls staying and they started bringing food and gift cards. The donations for them didn’t stop coming in, we had so many donations coming in we did not know what to do with the money and that’s how we were inspired to become a non-profit organization.

How did you start Shore 2 Recover?

My sister and I started Shore 2 Recover solely based off volunteers. We knew we would just be sitting in the driveway with nothing so we used the daylight to help our neighbors clean out their houses. It was something to make the time go by. We didn’t really realize it would evolve, which I am grateful for. We started with five families that wanted to raise $1,000 for GoFundMe. We had fourteen days to do it. We were really, really scared that we were not going to be able to do it. If you don’t raise it in the fourteen days you don’t get any of the money. So I started telling everybody, and my friends started telling everybody and we wound up raising $5,000 in six days – it was a sign. I started filling out the application in the end of December. A month and a half we worked on the application, 162 hours for me and 162 hours for my sister. We had our 501C3 status in March. We decided that any money we raised we would need for basic building materials like plywood, insulation, and drywall… just enough to button up the house and keep it warm for the winter. The weather was really, really cold. I don’t know if it just seemed colder because it had a really sad vibe too. We had other organizations in other areas donating basic supplies to help us and we started going door to door. Then, Robin Hood gave us a $50,000 grant!

We helped some schools and made a free art camp for kids with brain tumors that were affected by the storm. We found the Pirl family in the process and they really touched our hearts. Caitlin Pirl, who is now 23, used to work across the street from where I work. She was hit by a drunk driver in 2008 at the blinking light by our school and now she had brain damage and is paralyzed completely on the left side of her body, she is confined to a motorized wheelchair now. Watching her parents and how strong they were really moved us to do something. Their house suffered three feet of standing water that did not recede until a week later. And they were living in their home that wasn’t gutted or anything. We sat down with Mr. Pirl and said we heard his story. I don’t know if it was a parent or a community member, but I was totally moved and I said, “We are going to build you a house!” I know this is something we are supposed to do so that’s what we are doing right now. Demolition started two or three weeks ago, permits are in and the foundation should start next week. We have a million people and 30 businesses that have pitched in and volunteered. It’s really, really cool!

Was your business effected by the storm?

The business was out of the flood zone. It was just effected by having no electricity. And it’s a food place so we lost all of our food.

Was there a heavy presence of the National Guard?

Absolutely yeah, it was definitely super heavy… especially going into the Mantoloking and Bay Head area. They were not messing around. I have a friend who is a police officer in Bay Head and he took some pictures, and I mean it was crazy. As everything settled everything looked worse and worse. Some of the houses that haven’t been touched.

They were not letting anyone through, like I said they really just shut down the train tracks on the east side which was really smart. They did a really good job. Being an irrational resident at the time it was like, “What do you mean I’m not allowed in?” But looking at it in hindsight I’m like oh my god that would have been crazy if they let people over. Because there were power lines down and there was still standing water. Even when they let us in, up until four blocks away from the ocean there was still water knee high. It had nowhere to go because the sewers were filled with sand. After four o’clock you were not allowed on the road because it got dark so quick, they did a good job with that. As the weeks went on, they were a little easier about it. Doing Shore 2 Recover we were dropping off the National Guard coffee and food and they were patrolling Mantoloking, and the Bay Head Area.

Did you have trouble with insurance? Did you receive compensation?

We did not get a lot of money at all.

With Shore 2 Recover that was the biggest complaint – that people were waiting and waiting. Some of the stories were almost unbelievable, you wanted to call the insurance company yourself and wanted to be like, “Are you kidding me you can’t do this!” It was quite terrible, it was almost like you would be better off stuffing a few hundred dollars under your bed every few months, rather than paying insurance. We helped 581 families and I can say not one of those families said, “Oh my insurance company was so good to me.”

Did families reach out to you for relief or you to them or was it mutual?

Well when we first started we knocked on doors and just said, “What do you need? We have this, can you use any of it?” And then a lot of it was we have a website, Shore2Recover.com and that’s where we had a grant application that would allow anybody any raw building material.

Did the government reach out? FEMA?

We have a government representative for Shore 2 Recover. But as a resident of the town…

No. They didn’t.

It was going on 16 days and FEMA was not at the house. And we had seen them walking around everywhere, even the bigger organizations like the American Red Cross, we still get phone calls… they don’t know what to do. We haven’t had any help from any big government, FEMA, or any other bigger organizations. We didn’t have anyone reaching out. That’s another reason why we started Shore 2 Recover. Because we felt like the middle class were the people that really really needed the push, and that the government kind of subsidized things for lower income. And hopefully the upper class would have enough money to recover from things like this. And if not there was something we would be able to evaluate. The middle class is such hardworking people and really qualify for nothing. And we, being in that category, realizing that if everyone pulls together and just throws in five bucks, then we can totally help a lot of people!

Where do you see Shore 2 Recover going in the future?

We are building a house right now and it’s like a big hole in the ground. This will probably take us to the summer time. We did re-apply to the Robin Hood Foundation and asked for a minimum of a $250,000 grant so we can help people lift houses. As of right now I feel like there is so much. Out of sight out of mind. People think that the storm left and had gone and everybody is okay. Even if you drive through this neighborhood over here, if the door is closed everything looks okay. But once you open the door, homes are usually gutted on the first floor. It’s just going to take a long time. I feel like our focus will be Sandy relief until that is done.

What do you think the future holds? How has the community reacted to this? And how will you prepare if anything like this occurs next time? Is there anything you would change?

I would just hope that from this point forward that everybody learned their lesson and take the warnings a little more serious. I think that what our community is doing to prepare is that those who can afford to live… are doing it. But there’s families that have been living here forever and don’t have a mortgage, don’t have insurance and they can’t afford to lift. Just be prepared, have a plan. Definitely evacuate.

This was like nothing we have ever seen before.

There are some simple things that we can do. So just do those simple things, natural disasters are going to happen. There’s not really much that we can do. But if we do those selfless steps, I think that would be really helpful. I think keeping awareness up is really important, that’s the biggest thing.

So you think that support has died down?

Yeah, it started happening in the summer time too. The sense of community was overwhelming when the storm first happened. The awareness was so high, everyone was sitting in the car, and you could feel the somberness. And now the only time you really remember it is the tenth, the eleventh, and the twelfth when they are running marathons on television. Unless you live there, or experience it.

Just keeping the awareness high. Volunteer whenever you can, or if you can get a group together. If everybody does that even a little bit, it makes a huge difference. Helping a little makes a huge difference.

Interviewed by Tirth Patel and Brian Litt
Edited by Allison Jones
Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey
Recorded November 9, 2013