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“The Smallest Things Matter”

Jillian Apel

 Jillian Apel is a resident of Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey, and one of the managers at Pluggy’s Too Deli & Subs in Union Beach. During Hurricane Sandy, Pluggy’s did not sustain any damage and was able to remain open. In her narrative, Apel talks about her experiences with the customers at Pluggy’s in the days following the storm and why her community at Union Beach is so important to her. 

This is where I have a job. This is where my kids go to school and I feel safe in this community because it’s one square mile and the cops know everybody. You can ride your bike up and down the street without a helmet and not worry about your kid getting hurt. This isn’t a crazy town. This is a very quiet, small town and people like that. The commute into the city isn’t that bad. People who work in the city live here.

This is home. This is where people grew up, this is where people have kids and they want to raise them in the same environment where they were. This is where their family is. This is where we want to stay.

How did you prepare for the storm?

We bought a generator. We did sandbags at the front and back doors. We made sure we had enough products to get through the days, should we have lost electricity or lost anything in the course of the storm. We made sure we had enough food and drinks here in order to supply the town if we needed to. The generator was a huge help because once the storm did hit, we were actually still able to operate. So, we were the only place in town open. A hot cup of coffee went a long way when people don’t have anything. We just made sure we had enough here so that the day after everything happened, we would be ready to help.

In the week the storm was supposed to hit, were you especially worried?

No one really knew what to expect. We heard the weather forecaster telling us one thing and another thing happens, so I think a lot of people were really skeptical of the enormity of what could happen. But, we took it seriously only because this is our livelihood. If we lose our business, we lose our house too. So, there’s a lot at stake. So, we took it seriously by again, making sure we had the generator and making sure we had enough.

Where did you stay during the storm?

When the storm hit, I was still working at the Hyatt in New Brunswick. I was a banquet manager there. It is on route 18. So, I was actually stuck there for a good three or four days. We lost power in the hotel and we were at full occupancy. It was crazy, but once I left there, I came to Pluggy’s. Union Beach had no power for weeks. So, I was here doing whatever I could to support whatever needed to happen. We would close at one o’clock because we would run out of food. We just had nothing left to give people and we would go shopping for whatever we could and come back and give it all the next day. It was definitely an interesting ride.

Tell us about your experiences at Pluggy’s after the storm.

We opened at six or seven in the morning and then we would stay open for as long as we could. Usually, it was six or seven hours and then that’s it. We ran out of stuff. We just didn’t have enough food to give. The generator kept the slicer on. The grill is gas so that never went down. We had enough refrigeration to keep everything cold and we had the slicer on so we could make subs.

There were probably a couple hundred of people each day that came to our store. The storm completely devastated the town. That was terrible. I think without the storm our business wouldn’t have jumpstarted the way that it did. We opened on August 8th of 2012 and we got hit in October 2012. So, had the hurricane not hit, I’m not sure our business would be doing as well as it is today and that’s only because of what we did when the storm hit. We were very good to people. We didn’t jack up our prices like a lot of other places did; everything stayed the same. We sold milk at the same price. We sold eggs at the same price. Up the street, that didn’t happen. So, people became familiar and loyal with us only because we were the only option that they had. Through that, we built up a very good customer relationship base. So, as much damage as it did, there was some good that came out of it. It’s hard to think about it that way because you feel, I feel guilty about it sometimes, but you know what, everything we did, we did it the right way and people are repaying us for that now and that’s how you have to look at it.

How did the storm affect your community?

I think some people walked away and never came back. I think those were the people that didn’t want to be part of a small town anymore and that this was their way out. I also think that there were people that were forwarded opportunities that they didn’t take advantage of and now are on the losing end of the insurance battle, especially on the losing end of FEMA. Also, there were people who took full advantage of everything that was given to them and they are already back in their houses while some people are still living in trailers. So, as much as I think it brought people together, it definitely divided the town between the haves and the have-nots. So, I don’t think people feel bad towards each other. There are no bad feelings towards each other but you can definitely see the difference between some people.

The response was just as slow when it happened seven years ago with Katrina. I just hope that when the next disaster happens, and something is going to happen, -we can’t control nature-that there is a better plan in place because I don’t think the response has been very good. Three years later-it is now2015-and there are still people out of their homes, out of their businesses, out of their livelihood, and still in the same situation. It’s just terrible.

What have been the biggest challenges of rebuilding your community?

I don’t think people know where to go. People don’t know what options are available to them anymore. Like you said, you’re trying to bring awareness back. People think this is done and over with. People that don’t live in the community don’t know what is still going on. So, I think the biggest challenge we have right now is that this community, the way that it was built, was a very blue-collar, very middle, lower class income kind of community and we don’t have the money in the bank to just go back and rebuild what was there. I think that’s a huge challenge we have right now and they’re living paycheck to paycheck. They’re still trying to figure out how they’re going to put food on the table or how they’re going to get their kids clothes for school; they’re not thinking about how they’re going to rebuild the house. They’re just trying to get through the daily struggles and the big picture is still glooming over them.

This isn’t a vacation town. This isn’t a place that is deserted in the wintertime and then blooming in the summertime. It’s not like that. It’s kickass all year long; it really is. This is where people live. This is real life for people; this isn’t vacation time. But, I think Union Beach itself as a town did a great job in their cleanup. They were actually one of the only towns that took money out of their pockets and put dumpsters in every street. Because of this, people got back on their feet a little closer to reality or back to normal a little quicker than other people in other towns because other towns didn’t do that. The very next day after the storm, everybody came together. They were doing what they had to do to make it look normal again. That was a good feeling to see that happening. I think there’s two ways to look at everything. There was a lot of destruction but the school still stood and the church still stood. There were places people could go and congregate and tell their stories. Everybody went through it together so it wasn’t like one or two people were devastated. So, I think as a community we got closer than we ever were and we were close to begin with.

What can we draw from Hurricane Sandy?

I think people were in shock. They didn’t what to do. They didn’t know where to go. They wanted to stay in their houses they were underwater. But, the general feeling when they walked into Pluggy’s was gratitude. We donated every tip and everything that we made went to the town. People had nothing, but they kept giving us money. To us, we were like, “are you nuts?” We would tell them that all the money was going back to the town and it is not going in our pockets. But, they just kept on giving and giving. To me, that was just insane. It was just an insane concept. We were never selfish people but you lost your house and you’re still giving us something. It gave us a different perspective on life. It really did. We do anything anybody asks for, like if they ask for a donation, we always make sure we give them something, even if it is something small.

It makes you appreciate what little people do for you but once somebody does something for you, you know how to give it back to somebody. I feel like that was the lesson we learned through this whole thing. It was that the smallest things matter to somebody and you just never know what the smallest thing could do for somebody. A cup of coffee literally changed people’s lives the day after the storm. We boiled the water and we funneled it through a filter. People were like, “oh my god, I can’t believe you have coffee.” It was the littlest things. So, it was definitely a life-changing experience in that way. For me, when I went to Mississippi to help with Katrina, I lived in a NAPA auto part store. There were bunk beds everywhere and we ate in the front of the store. I went with a Church and we did our prayers in the morning for those fighting. I was there for ten days and I will never forget how appreciative those people were for what we were doing there. Just to see that they were happy again from the time we started until the time we left was great. Their attitude changed and they brought that home. Have a good attitude and things will be ok. So, I think that’s what we did here.

 Interviewed by Evan Gingrich
Edited by Evan Gingrich
Union Beach, New Jersey
Recorded July 6, 2015