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Somewhere between depressed and desperate

Rev. Al Spangler

Al Spangler resides in Seaside Park, New Jersey, where he is Pastor of the Union Church of Seaside Park. During Hurricane Sandy, he remained in his church and watched as the storm brought its fury to the Shore. In the aftermath, he has helped members of his community to find strength in a time of emotional turmoil. In his narrative, he speaks of his experiences during the storm as well as thoughts about the recovery, and he notes that his pastoral responsibilities were both a burden and a blessing during this difficult time.


What were you doing in the days leading up to the storm?

I was vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I drove back the day before the storm to beat it here.

Did you think the storm was going to be as bad as it was? Or did the media kind of alter your expectations of what it was going to be?

In the media, in the Governor’s office… they were pretty much on target with the immensity of the storm. I radically underestimated it and didn’t believe it at the time that it was going to be as bad as it did turn out to be.

Could you describe your experience during Hurricane Sandy?

Well most of the town and most of the island had been evacuated under the Governor’s orders. There was some emergency personnel that was left on the island. We decided to stay for the storm and it started off with a lot of wind and rain. And we got through high tide the night of the storm and had seemingly dodged the bullet because the ocean did not come through the sand dunes that we have here in the town. The problem was at about 2am the next day. The island filled up with water from the breach and the water came in and flooded the entire town. I still remember sitting in the dark because the electric was out I was wide awake. I was looking out at the streets and I was like, whoa, what is that strange looking mist that I see in the street? And I open the door and I realize it was water, and that the town was flooded and Central Avenue was like the Colorado River. It was moving dangerously. It was deep and it was dangerous and I was afraid at that point.

One story I told many times is, my two sons, myself, my daughter-in-law and one of their friends stayed for the storm in Ortley. The ocean broke through around late, and they were in their home on 4th Avenue. Their house filled with water to the second floor and I was on the cell phone with them that night for a couple hours while the water was rising. We were really afraid that they were going to die that night, that they were going to drown because houses were being swept away by the ocean coming through. They watched Joey Harrison’s Surf Club, a famous landmark, be carried down the street by the ocean. And so they actually were on the second floor, in a window, you know, ready to try to jump into the water and go to another building that was higher than them. But thankfully, the water stopped at about eight feet in the house. It was scary.

What were you thinking when you saw the island again for the first time after the hurricane?

Just…devastation. Everything was devastated. Everywhere. Obviously there were homes destroyed. There were a handful of people walking, stunned, aimlessly around the streets. There were people still evacuating. The roads were, you know, many roads were destroyed like in an earthquake. One of my friends here lives in a three story house. The first two stories disappeared under water. They were eaten by the ocean. And the top story of his house was all that was left. It was sitting in the middle of Route 35. And so it was just… it was devastation everywhere.

What did you do after the storm?

Well the first thing we did was I got my four wheel drive vehicle and headed towards Ortley, cause Ortley Beach had been hit a lot harder than us. We were flooded. They were not only flooded from both sides, both the ocean and the bay, but houses tumbled and roads were buckled and it was really, really bad. So I went out there to help evacuate people early the next morning. My one son’s fiancée and one of their best friends stayed in Ortley during the storm and their house was flooded. And so we picked them up and got them to a safe place.

And then of course the National Guard came in and state police were here. The police actually caught people coming across the bay in boats to rob houses. There was vandalism. There were a lot of gas leaks and fires. And most of the island was abandoned. It was just kind of like a cold, dark, scary place.

I mean, one of the things I’m amazed that, with the whole storm and the destruction, there were very few people to actually have died as a direct result of the storm compared to, like, Katrina where many people died. So that was like an amazing thing, that someone’s life was spared. I think that was the biggest positive takeaway that came out of the storm and I think that’s because most people evacuated. Nobody ever expected in a million years that the waves would come in and take them.

What are your thoughts on the process of rebuilding?

The rebuilding process is still taking place today, two and a half years later. It was a really slow process because the Governor had shut down the island and turned off all the utilities, and so no one was allowed back on the island except for emergency people and utility workers. Nobody was allowed back here for about eighty days, and so it was really, really slow going. Contractors couldn’t get on the island and so the first three months were basically at a standstill.

And then after, when the Governor gave orders just before Christmas that we were allowed back on the island, people began to come back and clean up. There was debris on every block. On every street, everywhere you went there was huge piles of debris piled up in front of the houses way over your head. Some of it was houses, some of was furniture, so it was like personal belongings just everywhere. It was like a big really big mess. It actually took a few months to clean up and so it probably was six months before the rebuilding process got underway.

Our church has had to relocate across the bridge on the mainland in Toms River for seven months. So it took us seven months to get back and we suffered. And so you can imagine people who suffered greatly. You know, there are still people who are have not rebuilt. Many people, especially up in Ortley, will never rebuild. They don’t have the personal funds to rebuild, and they haven’t been able to secure government funding or insurance funding. They’ve just abandoned their homes.

What is your opinion on the response of government agencies such as FEMA?

I think in the first thirty days a response was really awesome. FEMA really stepped in and immediately got people funding so that they could get in temporary housing, which was the most important thing because people had no place to live. So I would say that first the initial phase was good. The second phase got dicey and confusing. The third phase got frustrating and became more difficult. And the stage we’re in now for the people who are left… they’re just somewhere between depressed and desperate.

There are people who still have not been able to work through the maze. The regulations change and it’s tough. You’ve had a lot of fraud taking place amongst contractors. A lot of insurance companies have dragged their heels and they’re being sued… It’s still a mess for many people. And most of those people, by the way, the people who have been affected the longest and hit the hardest, are those who are the poorest amongst us. People who are independent and wealthy could come in because they had their own funds and begin to clean up and rebuild immediately. They don’t wait for insurance companies or government funding to rebuild. And then the next group of people, who had private insurance or flood insurance, or had some type of partnership with an insurance company or got government funding right away, they were able to rebuild, I’d say, within the first year. But the longer things drag out, the worse it got for those who were underinsured or underfunded.

How has the hurricane affected your community? Has it brought you closer together?

Oh, it absolutely brought us closer together because after the storm, when people came back, people who really didn’t even know each other would meet in the streets and hug each other and cry. People would meet in churches, in coffee shops, wherever they could gather… and it really brought the community closer together. In fact, we still have community support groups that are ongoing as a result of the storm, one that meets here every Wednesday morning. We have a monthly community dinner where people from all walks of life get together and have dinner together. There’s a real openness amongst people in the community who have been through this together. They really open up to each other.

Some people have said that the hurricane was a blessing because it gave Seaside the chance to revamp some of its older buildings and boardwalk. Do you agree with this?

That’s a more difficult question. I think the answer to that remains to be seen. It’s probably going to take a decade to see if that’s true. See, I live in Seaside Park, which is different than Seaside Heights. Seaside Heights is worldly amusements, as it was put on the map nationally and globally through the television show Jersey Shore. You know, it’s a party town. That town has definitely not recovered. The consensus is that from the people that live there and the businesses there, the storm has been anything but a blessing, but a curse.

It’s become a real difficult place for anyone to live and survive. It’s really a sad situation. It’s also become one of the most prominent places for heroin overdose deaths in the state. And while it was bad before the storm, it’s definitely gotten progressively worse since the storm because the influx of… not only poor but people with mental illnesses and people with addictions. So it’s a difficult area. We’re trying, by the way, you know we’re trying to do…along with other churches and charities… trying to address some of those things, but its difficult work.

Do you think there is a lesson to be learned from Hurricane Sandy?

You can never be prepared enough for disaster, but you can also always be more prepared than you are. So I think better preparation is a biggie, which we’re all in the process of doing, heeding the warnings here. And in the case of Superstorm Sandy, it wasn’t overstated, but in a case where it is overstated, you’re better off being safe than sorry. We learned that. A lot of people learned that.

Do you believe there will be another storm like Sandy in the future?

Yes. It’s inevitable now.

What do you think should be done differently next time in terms of preparation?

There needs to be better preparation, and that involves a plan. I know our town has a plan now, and not only an evacuation plan, but a response plan that’s being developed, headed up by our police chief and our mayor. See, that’s key, everyone’s gotta know about the communication. And that’s just one of the things we’ve had since the storm is the community communication system, which I recommend is one thing that every community should have. You know that’s a reverse 9-1-1, where every residence on the list gets called in the case of any emergency or anything they should know about, something as simple as a snow storm. So communication is really improved, so that everybody knows and can respond quickly. And I think those are really, really important things.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently during the storm?

I wish I would have left! By the way, so you know, I made a decision that the next time there’s an announcement that there’s a potential disaster here on the island, I’ll be the first one off. I’ll be leading people off the island! It’s true

If you could give other people advice about natural disasters, what would it be?

Well like anything in life you can’t you can’t… we cannot maintain the belief that something can’t happen to us because it hasn’t happened before. That’s just foolish. I mean the storm proved that. And I think that’s true not only of Sandy but it’s true of anything. It’s true of illnesses, it’s true of losing a loved one to death, or you know, anything in life. What’s the plan? You know, how am I going to respond to that? And again we can’t… we can never… we can never preclude all unexpected things from happening to us, but a lot of them we can be prepared for… not all, but a lot of them we can.

What was it like being a spiritual leader in your community during this time?

That’s a good question. It was both a blessing and a burden for me. It was a blessing because, like I said, people were much more open. Experiences that cause us pain in life tend to cause people to pray, even if they’re not praying people and… tend to make them more open to others, even if it’s simply on a human level. So we share our humanity more deeply even if we’re not theists. But I notice a real openness, a real gentleness, a real sense of community that is still carrying over to this day.

Our church has actually grown as a result of Sandy, indirectly. We’re stronger now than we were before, but it was also… not only a blessing, it was like a burden because it was emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Because everywhere I turned, there were like… it was devastation and depression, and in some cases… desperation. And so I personally absorbed a lot of that. And it probably has taken me a good two years to recover from that personally. You know, they talk about post-traumatic stress and all these things… well I’m not sure that I had the classical post-traumatic stress, but I absorbed a lot of sadness from people. And I trust that it was helpful to others, but it really, really challenging for me. For me… it took a long time to recover from that. I feel like I am recovered from it but it took a long time to go get help. So I mean I got support from volunteers and emergency workers that came. So for instance I used to go to Ryan’s Deli, which was the first business that opened up on the beach on the island. Police and emergency workers and the contractors and helpers and healers, I call them, would congregate for coffee in the morning. I went down there and I met this woman who was from an organization called “Hope and Healing”, which was a nonprofit that had been organized just after the storm. And the woman said to me, “Would you like to sit down and talk about what you’ve been going through?” And I said, “You really want to listen?” And she said, “Yeah.” I said, “Sure.” I just poured my heart out to her and as I began to talk, I start crying and… I’m not a crier per se but I start crying. I realize how much of other people’s sadness I absorbed and I was kind of like, in a state of shock, you know?

I’ve heard this this reported in other natural disasters but never experienced it firsthand… the goodness of people and even strangers was overwhelming. And I got phone calls from people from other states who didn’t even know us that found us on the website and said, “Is there some way we can help?” And people came by the busloads. Young people, old people, retired people, high schoolers, everybody. College students, you know, we had fifty the first summer after the storm. We had fifty college students pay their own way to come here and to live here for ten weeks to help people, all from Big Ten schools in the Midwest.

So we tend to, even with a storm, we tend to fix on the devastation and the sadness of the day. What we don’t usually get, which is really an important part of the story, is it exposes the overwhelming goodness of people and responding to people. So I’m glad I said that because I hadn’t really like, articulated it before… so I’ll make that into a sermon and give you credit.

When disasters like this happen, a lot of times people ask, “How could God do this?” Has that been a hard question for you to answer?

What is considered philosophy is the classic Achilles heel of the Christian faith… the problem of evil. How could a good God allow bad things to happen if he loves us, if he’s good? And so the answer to that’s pretty simple… I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. There are some things that I just don’t know the answer to, so I can’t really speak to something that I can’t answer. And I’m definitely not going to speak for God in respect to something like that. But what I can say is that there is both good and evil in the world. They are in conflict with each other, and I choose to be on the side of good and to live my life in such a way… very imperfectly… but live it in such a way as to try to influence the world, society, individuals… for the good. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how it all fits together and that’s what it’s about. Faith is about trusting what I can’t see and figure out, and I believe because I believe in heaven and hell and an afterlife. I believe that, one day, either those questions will be answered or they’ll no longer be asked. For now, I have faith believing in the goodness of God and also the goodness of people. I’m realistic enough to realize that there’s a lot of evil in the world and that’s a problem. That’s a part of the struggle of faith. That’s a part of working through the whole deal. This is a heavy burden to carry but what I choose not to do is to blame it on God. And the reason that I choose not to blame it on God is because the Lord has been so good to me, and I’ve experienced that my own life and in the lives of others, he’s been overwhelmingly good… just like people in my life have been overwhelmingly good. So I choose to focus upon that. I didn’t really answer the question you asked, but I figured it was good chance to preach to you.

Interviewed by Stephanie Kroeger
Assisted by Jennifer Pagliaro
Edited by Stephanie Kroeger
Seaside Park, New Jersey
Recorded April 23, 2015