Jim Gaul is a police officer at Monmouth University who also volunteers as a firefighter in his hometown of Ramtown, New Jersey. Monmouth University was used as a relief shelter for citizens of Monmouth County during and after the storm. Jim worked check-in at the shelter and provided security to keep the growing number of people safe and content. After the shelter closed, Jim aided the Ramtown Fire Company in responding to calls. In this narrative, Jim talks about his experience in the storm, the people he encountered in the shelter, and the fire calls he answered back in his hometown.
When did you first hear about Hurricane Sandy and did you believe it would be as powerful as the news said?
Yeah we believed it, you always got to be prepared but I didn’t think it was going to be as intense as it was. Yes we did believe it was going to be bad. But nothing like that. Obviously as a police department, we were getting updates constantly, so we heard that it was coming up probably a week earlier. We all pretty much knew that something was coming up. We had enough notice so we were starting to make plans. Two or three days before, they decided we [Monmouth University] were going to be a local shelter area.
I helped with security. The night people started coming in on Sunday evening, we were all assigned to different entrances checking people coming in, checking for identifications, and some other people have passes from their local emergency management people so I was doing mostly screening of the shelterees. We were out there doing mostly security work.
Initially it was supposed to be the local Monmouth area but we ended up taking people from all over the place. Atlantic City, Keansburg, the Bayshore, Asbury Park, the homeless.
There were some people that wanted to come in that couldn’t come in because they had other places to go. We had people we had to turn away, as we were only accepting at the time from certain communities like the shore, Sea Bright, Oceanport and other flood prone areas. I guess people heard we were having a shelter, so they started just coming over, so we had to turn some away, cause if I remember correctly, in order to get into the shelter you had to go to your local town first. So if you lived in Oceanport, you had to go to Oceanport, and they would give you a referral to go to Monmouth. Cause there were other shelters around too.
How many people came to the shelter?
I think there was around 1200. They didn’t expect that many people at all.
Initially, there was only going to be one gym, but they had to expand it to a larger gym, the main arena. I don’t think that was expected, but they did have enough shelter material and they did have enough cots and things available, but I don’t think they ever expected that many people. At least I didn’t think so.
The main gym seats about 4500 people. Every bit of it was covered. Then there was another auxiliary gym, on the second floor, where the workers were sleeping.
They had cots set up in the middle of the big basketball arena and the practice arenas. They were broken down into areas like seniors that needed help, and the disabled folks, and there were segregated areas, families went to one area, I remember, there were some mentally challenged folks, seniors that were a little off.
How did this hurricane preparation compare to the other hurricanes you’ve experienced?
On a much greater scale. I mean the other hurricanes I have experienced have just lost power for a day or two. You know they kind of blew through and did a little bit of damage, sand got off of the beach and into the roads, and they would bring the plow trucks out. But in this storm, putting a plow on a regular dump truck that you push with snow, I mean sand is much heavier, they needed super huge earth movers. In this case, they probably could have used more heavy duty equipment. I don’t think they expected that kind of a surge. And plus, I have to say with the weather channel, you pretty much know what size it is, you know what category it is you know all these categories. That’s the biggest one I have ever seen.
How was it when the storm actually hit?
I was sitting in the parking lot on the north side of campus when the sky lit up and it was almost like fireworks, like we were under attack because all the transformers started to blow and then you listen on the radio and you hear people saying another one went, this one is out and then you are watching the sky light up like your being bombed and then all of a sudden, the lights went out. And that’s when it got really spooky because everything just went dark and there were still flashes and there were some fires and it just got too bad so people were calling for rescue. I guess they got scared. They didn’t take everyone’s warning to leave so they start calling for help.
We stayed on campus, even though the kids were gone, we just wanted to protect Monmouth. Anything that wasn’t batted down was flying and that’s when my boss decided, he said you know guys its not worth being right out in the road and having a tree fall on you and kill yourself. I forget what time it was it was probably 9:00.
Some people came in wet, they were rescued by Union Beach, Keansburg and the Highlands area, they came in [and] they were soaking wet because they were on roofs and they got rescued and taken right to us, so we saw that too.
What was the mindset of the people who came into the shelter?
They were nervous. They were just worried about their homes. Most of them were like when am I getting out of here? When can I go home? Some didn’t have any homes, some lived under boardwalks, some of the folks from Atlantic City were actually homeless and living under the boardwalk, and they brought them out from under the boardwalk, because they were afraid they were going to get washed away.
Was there any misconduct going on in the shelter?
There were a couple that were known to be wanted, some were known to be different levels of tiers, different tiers of offenders. Everyone had to check in, everybody got a bracelet, everybody was run for warrants and quite a few were removed. There were people there who should not have been there with kids, there were people there who should not have been there with spouses because of domestic violence issues and restraining orders, and things like that. Some of them were wanted and some were not nice people that didn’t belong in a shelter with families and kids. I mean there was a couple that went rowdy. We physically escorted one guy and drove him out, we opened the door and said you’re on your own son see you later and just let him go. We can do that, you know, don’t come back and if you come back and you’re being told you are not wanted here, you’re going to be fined [for] trespassing and arrested. That usually helps. It was an interesting couple weeks or so. I mean it wasn’t a problem when they found someone who wasn’t supposed to be there, they immediately shipped them out. They were sent back home and some of them were sent back to correctional institution.
So were there any major incidents that you had to deal with while you were there?
No not really. Most of the people were just anxious and wondering when can I go home, do I have a home, I need clothes, I need money, my car, you know most of the people were just freaking out about the uncertainty. They didn’t know what to do and we couldn’t let them go because once they left, they couldn’t come back. It wasn’t like the shelter that you could go. You were there for your safety, if you chose to sign yourself out, if you want to leave you left, but once you left, didn’t come back.
As a matter of fact, you know the storm happened before Halloween, so it was mischief night and obviously Halloween was canceled. Some of the folks that were coming back and forth, some of the shift workers kicked in a couple of bucks each and they bought a whole bunch of candy, and they were passing out candy to the kids on Halloween night, but that didn’t work out too good either. You got all the little children running around with bags and handfuls of candy, so then what happens? They are all full of sugar highs, getting sick, puking, so then they kind of toned it down a little bit but they felt bad for the kids. People who were coming in working different shifts from different agencies were bringing candy, that they had at home or that they bought or whatever was left… that wasn’t a good idea. They did a nice thing but kids were getting sick, even some adults were getting sick.
One of the other bigger problems was people smoking. It was a non-smoking facility so they had to set up smoking areas. People were selling cigarettes to each other for like five dollars. It’s a really bad habit and you know how people get when they need a cigarette. Being cooped up with people who need a cigarette, it’s not fun so there was a lot of bartering being done and I know that there was a lot of arguments about cigarettes. Nothing serious you know you hear hey you knock it off or you’re out of here… most people shut up. Better than going home with nothing.
Were there any medical emergencies that happened?
The Red Cross set up like a disaster camp. I remember we had medics and paramedics, we had a whole medical team. There was a team from the hospital, some place in Pennsylvania, some National Guard or air force unit that set up tents outside almost like a MASH unit. It was really well coordinated and run and I don’t think anyone had any medical emergencies.
How was the shelter itself affected by the storm? Was there any structural damage?
I think there was a couple leaks in the building. It’s a new building but it really wasn’t too bad. I don’t think there was any damage. It’s a huge building, mostly concrete and steel. It was pretty safe.
So people couldn’t leave by choice?
Yeah, most the people came from specific towns and when the ok came from the towns that they could go back in, depending on where they lived, they would contact us. Somebody had a database of who was there, where they were from, what streets, so in like Asbury Park, we knew when the Asbury Towers got their power back, it was safe to let the people come back. They were notified, they were shipped by their department or us and they would go out and call someone, they would call them and say you’re free to go. Some had to be brought in by buses. So the buses would arrive and we would say so and so goes on this bus. We kind of helped out with that stuff.
So overall the shelter lasted how long?
We started taking people in Sunday night before the storm, and it closed the following Tuesday [the week after the storm]. So it was around nine days. Then they went from our place to a little tent village over at Monmouth Park at the racetrack. They had to breakdown everything, move everybody out, sanitize the place, clean everything. It took a couple of days to clean up and finally the kids came back. There were people out of Monmouth for at least nine days if I remember correctly. And from there, they moved them out in the snowstorm to Oceanport to the racetrack.
We were just so happy to get rid of people, and not in a bad way, but we were just happy to get back to our own thing because listen, we were working twelve hour shifts. We didn’t eat right, I wore the same uniform for like three days before I was able to go to my sister’s house cause I just had to do laundry you know my uniforms were starting to stink, your boots are wet you know you got to change, take a shower, and coming home was good but you can only do what you can with no electricity.
What was your initial reaction when you visited the beach after the storm?
Holy crap! Haha, the next day I got down towards the beach, cause we have housing along the beachfront at Monmouth, so naturally they were concerned about the kids’ places and when I finally got down there I was like holy crap… it was like wow, what a mess. My partner who lives in Ocean County, he lives two blocks up from Jenkinson’s [Aquarium], the water came through and blew out his entire first floor, most of the house is on the second floor but it came in through the east wall and the ocean went right through to the west wall. There was a hole in the house. The east and west walls were gone, north and south were still up. It just washed through and washed everything out. So we went over there and tried to help him, and it was like, oh man, this is bad.
What other Sandy work have you been involved in, if any?
The Ramtown Fire House [needed] shifts, so I stayed over there a couple of times. We were answering a tremendous amount of fire calls. Not fires but smells. People run generators, people with wood stoves, there were a couple of open burners in the backyards. So we had those kind of problems. And then, once the power came back on, the other problem was the CO alarms, the CO batteries because the CO alarms, ran dead after so many days, so when the power came back on, they all start chirping, so people heard the alarms ringing and chirping, and they call us. There were a lot of calls, I don’t know how many but maybe 50 or 60 calls. We were going on countless CO alarms. So that’s a lesson, people should do that because we were going crazy. And there was still some flooding too. In our company, people were dispatched to other towns, I think they went to the Highlands. Because of the mutual aid system our firefighters went to other towns just to help out and stand by. A lot of places lost everything. The entire firehouse in Sea Bright was out. You see in the firehouse where the water lines were and it’s pretty… you stand there and you’re like wow. They were smart, they moved all their trucks to high ground but basically you were out of service.
What are some of the challenges people are still facing from the storm today?
Well I guess the biggest problem now is insurance. All these insurance companies that deny the claims… There are still folks out of their homes I mean you ride along the shore and you still see houses that are in the same position that are just from the storm because of insurance problems. Some people just abandoned their houses, some folks just said screw it I’ll fix this or they’re fighting with the insurance companies. Now these things with the fraud claims that these building inspectors going on out and telling somebody that their house has been condemned. They say we’re going to fix this and then they send the reports in and the reports are being changed. So there is a lot of fraud going on. I think that is probably the biggest thing.
What do you think people can learn from Hurricane Sandy?
As much as I love the beach its tough living on the shore, you have to take a chance, again be prepared. We have to be better prepared in the future for these kind of storms, take precautions and take it seriously. And plan for the future when you are building these kind of homes, elevate them so that water can go underneath and not do as much damage. Then again you lose the niceness of it, a lot of people who have homes on the ocean, they don’t want to put a wall in front of their house. They have 2, 3 million dollar houses, I’m not going to build a wall in front of my house, so you roll the dice. You pay a lot of money for the house, you pay a lot of money for the insurance. You build by the ocean, you take a chance, I guess that’s what I’m saying. I’d love to live by the beach but you always have that fear that one day a storm is going to hit and you’re going to lose everything and I guess that is a chance you take.
Do you think the shore will ever be fully restored and gain the morale prior?
Yeah I think so. You know we are pretty tough people. I mean you don’t want to say, but disasters like this wake you up and make you better prepared for the future. I guess if my house got blown away, I wouldn’t be feeling that way. I don’t see why the shore is not going to return. I think it is pretty close to it now. I just feel bad for some of the homeowners who are still fighting with insurance companies over the little rinky dink things and ticky tack stuff. Like, well you know it really wasn’t a hurricane it was a super storm. Those are some of the things that people are still fighting with. Insurance companies were designed to do one thing, make money for themselves. They aren’t meant to give it to you, they don’t want to pay a client so they are going to do everything in their power to screw you out of your claim.
But I think the shore will be better.
Interviewed by Gina Palmisano
Assisted by Megan Moast
Edited by Gina Palmisano
West Long Branch, New Jersey
Recorded March 16, 2015