How did Hurricane Sandy affect you as a Branch Manager of the Upper Shores Branch of the Ocean County Library?
There was really a tremendous effect. I actually am the branch manager of The Bay Head Reading Center branch as well. This branch, Upper Shores, and Bay Head Reading Center were the two branches that were worst affected from Sandy. Bay Head Reading Center was closed for eight months and we here at Upper Shores were closed for ten months. None of our other branches experienced that kind of thing.
My staff here is comprised of four other full time employees, and four other part time employees. I had, I felt, a major responsibility to my staff to keep them connected and to make them feel that they were supported. It was a very emotional time. Two of my staff members, one from Upper Shores and one from Bay Head, were without their homes for a very long period. The emotional distress was quite clear. Luckily our library system did offer support to its staff. We were all relocated to work at other branches so that we didn’t have to lose our jobs; but those two employees who were out of their homes weren’t even able to work at that time. They were just too distraught. We were all kind of out there on our own and although our co-workers in those locations provided a very nice welcome, it was really difficult, really difficult times.
Our community members also were dispersed all over the place and those who remained in Ocean County living elsewhere were using some of these branches where we were working. If they would run into us they immediately were drawn to us like a magnet and it was just so important for them to be able to connect with us and share their stories and feel like we could still see each other and know what was going on in each other’s lives. We really have a very close knit community here. So over the course of the ten months that we were out of this branch I worked, very, very hard, to keep us connected, as a team.
Did the library prepare for the storm? Were any preparations made?
Preparations are always made in our library system. There were press releases that went out with expectations of being closed and things like that, but obviously no one in our tristate area was quite able to prepare for the magnitude of the storm. I don’t think anyone believed it was going to be as large as it was and as devastating as it was.
What kind of damage did the library sustain?
I am going to refer to a document by our facilities director, Joe Cahill:
In so far as the building is concerned, we as a county agency had the resources to recover and replace our losses while we awaited insurance proceedings. The building was damaged to the point where everything had to be removed, accessed, replaced, and recovered. All of the carpet, walls, and furniture had to be totally removed from the building and what was salvageable was stored in trailers for many months while the building was renovated. Various Ocean County crews were utilized to demo the interior of the building to save time and expense to prepare for bidding the reconstruction of the facility. In the county system everything has to go to bid. The entire electrical service to the building had to be replaced, as the original wiring was underground and severely damaged. New overhead wiring had to be installed for the complex and as many homeowners found out, was subject to power company’s schedules and timetable, which delayed our time line. The reconstruction of the building took several months and many contractors to complete. Upper Shores Library sustained damage, as did many if not all other properties on the shore. As many residents discovered, we were limited to access to our building until weeks after the storm. (The police and the National Guard were brought in and they controlled traffic that was allowed to come over the bridge). We sustained damage to our property both interior and exterior; the exterior landscape resulted in substantial damage to our property that caused us to remove all of our shrubs, trees, and lawn. Everything had to be removed and redeveloped. The salt water caused major damage to our facility. It was a difficult decision to totally remove and replace years of planted and aged materials. With the help of our landscapers we installed newer and more storm resistant shrubs and plants. The result we think has had a significant difference in maintaining a better and more resilient species of plantings for the area.
Overall, the facility recovered on a timely schedule to meet the needs and expectations of our customers and rejoin many of the businesses in the area to provide a level of service known and expected for the residents of Ocean County.
What role did the library play in the local community before Sandy?
I’m very proud of this library. This library serves the customers from South Seaside Park all the way up to Mantoloking and so there are many different communities and local governments that we work with to provide services. The library does sit in the town of Lavallette so we have a special relationship with the mayor and borough of Lavallette, and we have a very strong Friends of The Libraries group here that we work closely with. It is a wonderful, wonderful, place to work. We serve vastly different communities because Seaside Heights is a community far different than Lavallette or Normandy or Mantoloking and we try to provide meaningful services and programs and outreach services to all of our communities.
I love programming. That’s my favorite part of my job. People come here from all over for our programs; they’re really just a lot of fun, a lot of entertainment, as well as informative. The very first and foremost community that I decided needed to be reached were our customers who suffered loss due to Sandy. We want to keep connected to our regular customers but we found that so many of our customers simply weren’t here and their contact information was not current. People are busy still battling insurance companies, dealing with contractors. So it’s a very large piece of my job right now. I started out by deciding what kind of impact programs I could design and hold here in our branch that would be meaningful to our community members who are negatively affected by Sandy.
The very first major program that I held was in September of 2014: Managing Depression: Break the Sandy Cycle. It was a seminar that was aimed at regaining control and bringing joy back into people’s lives with motivational speaker Joni Jones. It was an incredibly powerful program, everyone who came felt that she spoke to their personal needs and the start of this ongoing effort. We have had Sandy support group sessions held here with John Muccino of Preferred Behavioral Health and they are continuing this whole transformative impact program. In addition, to lighten the mood I hold monthly Tea & Song with a local resident. She’s a lovely pianist, and she plays melodies and memories and people can sing along if they like but it’s just a friendly relaxed atmosphere for people to come in during the afternoon, join together and forget their worries.
Our library serves as a really big community center. I hope to bring Joni Jones back for a part two which would be called Managing Anger: Break the Sandy Cycle. I intend to have a Rutgers workshop here soon that will alert our Sandy-affected customers on how to keep from being taken by unscrupulous contractors. Rutgers had put together something called When Disaster Threatens to Strike Twice: How to protect yourself and others from financial exploitation after a disaster. In the spring of ’16 I want to continue by having more emotionally charged programs. So I have something online to bring in then called “Remaining positive and productive, no matter what,” which will be kind of a wellness seminar. So that is my big project for our Sandy affected community.
How has Hurricane Sandy shaped your community?
Lavallette is really unique because it’s somewhat independent as compared to many communities. It has its own utilities, that is… pretty much unheard of. And due to that they didn’t have to be dictated in terms of when they were allowed to turn their lights on for example. Even during the most disastrous time there were positive signs of progress being made; the borough was doing their best to bring about the earliest possible recovery.
I kept very close watch on the daily reports on the lavallette.org website. The documentation there was so impressive, there were photos, there was an organization of permission to enter town for its residence, there were constant updates on its infrastructure work and it was beyond any other town or borough in terms of what they were able to provide information-wise. I was able to bring that back to the management team of my library system and that helped us in terms of being able to start work earlier, to refurbish our library here.
I felt it my duty to work with every angle possible to keep my library, as an organization, knowing what was going on and to keep my staff knowing what was going on. I actually led an operation as a special project with FEMA as soon as I started working. I chose to work in our Toms River Branch, our headquarters location, and our Manchester branch during the ten months I couldn’t be here in Lavallette and the management team asked me to lead a project to work with FEMA to bring helpful services to our residents. On November 12th, less than two weeks after the storm I started working with the community relations manager of Ocean County FEMA and I organized services to be held in four of our library branches to bring services and assistance to our constituents. I mean, people needed help. There were small FEMA offices set up but throughout the county but when I went there to see what was going on there was a huge winding line of people waiting outside in the cold. These are people who were already out of their own homes and now they had to be standing in long lines outdoors in the cold to try and get services. So I felt that it would be a great partnership for FEMA to take advantage of our library branches because they are large, warm, and well lit spaces with plenty of comfortable seating to provide people ample room while they would wait, the ocean county residents know where our libraries are and there were magazines and newspapers, reading materials and electrical outlets for them to charge their phones and devices. We were happy to provide laptop computers and designated spaces for all of their FEMA staff. Our public relations department spread the word that FEMA staff were in the selected locations and it was included on our website, in the newspaper, on the radio, we had posters and we set hours when FEMA would be in all of our branches. We also offered minimal training for our own staff to serve as backup assistants for when FEMA staff couldn’t be in our buildings. Luckily, they saw the benefits of partnering with us and I was able to set up services in four of our branches: the Stafford Branch, which is closest to hard hit communities in Manahawkin and on Long Beach Island; the Berkeley Branch, which is closest to Ocean Gate, and that was a community with major outages and damages; the Toms River headquarters location, which is in the county seat so there was transportation available via Ocean Ride (it’s also the branch that was open closest to Seaside Heights, Ortley Beach, and Seaside Park, some of our worst hit communities); and the Point Pleasant Borough Branch, which was the branch closest to our barrier island towns of Mantoloking, Bay Head, Normandy Beach, and Point Pleasant. It’s amazing how many of our communities were so hard hit and I’m very proud of that effort that was able to succeed in bringing services to our community.
So overall has your library recovered from the storm? Are all your staff members back?
Yeah, we’re all back here now and back in the Bay Head Reading Center as well. We had grand reopening celebrations for both of those branches that were happily attended by all of the community members, many Ocean County Library staff and employees. It was a sunny, lovely day, the street was ripped up but we didn’t take pictures of that and everyone was just thrilled. There’s a lot of love in this community and it was certainly felt that day. We had a ribbon cutting and a big celebration in here with live music and food and photographers and it was just a great day.
What do you think are the lessons for the future that should be learned from Sandy?
Oh my goodness. Let’s pray it just doesn’t happen again but if it does, I think that we all were quite surprised by the number of support offered by individuals, groups, agencies, coworkers, colleagues, associations, and people from far and near. I hope that all of us continue to offer those same levels of support for others in need around the world. It was just really, really moving.
Can you give any personal examples of locals affected by the storm? Or how that’s effected your day to day business of the library?
We have so many wonderful, wonderful local residents here who donate their time and work in tandem with us; it’s just amazingly lucky for me to have made so many friends, real friends here in my role as branch manager of the Upper Shores library. One such person is a local artist who lives here in Lavallette, Mary Jo Austin. Mary Jo is a super talented artist, she is a leader over in Island Heights at the Ocean County Artists Guild but since this library has opened, she has done us the wonderful service of arranging for our monthly exhibitors in our meeting room, our art is rotated on a monthly basis and Mary Jo is the woman to thank for lining up all of our artists. I actually was in touch with her and many other close residents on a frequent basis via email after the storm. And if I can, I’d like to read you a short email that she sent me on November 10th of 2012. Less than two weeks after Sandy hit:
I got into Lavallette yesterday on the bus. (Only residents were allowed to come in on these busses and they were ticketed for ID first and they were timed, they weren’t allowed to be here for I think it was a maximum of maybe two hours.) And my house is in pretty good shape, got about an inch on the first floors and a window out on the second. My son boarded up the window we throw out the rugs and emptied the refrigerator turned off the water and gas. But the garage was a disaster. Most of my paintings appear to be ruined. I had them up on tables but the water lifted one of those tables and tipped over all the boxes of paintings on the other table were wet on the bottom. I didn’t even have time to check them all out. There was a brown scum over everything and I had to get the food out of the ancient refrigerator in there. This without running water. Thank heaven for rubber gloves and Clorox handy wipes. We were given two hours to do everything and grab any necessities. Still no power and the gas lines will be out for months. The devastation that we saw in Ortley was incredible. Sinkholes and empty lots full of debris where houses once were, I’m lucky my house had relatively little damage. –Mary Jo
On a more positive note it might be a good time to talk about people who reached out to us from all over, to offer assistance. It’s amazing what a great country we live in. One of the very first people who reached out to me was a woman I’d never met. She was living in North Jersey at the time. Her name is Martha Bowden.
After Hurricane Katrina Martha Bowden chose a town in Mississippi: the town of Pass Christian. She chose their public library as the recipient of her assistance efforts. In addition to fundraising, she collected a truck full of donated materials and she herself drove them own to Mississippi.
Sally James, the director of the Pass Christian Public Library contacted Martha after Sandy hit and asked to pay it up to a library of Martha’s choice. She chose Upper Shores. Miss Bowden was in the midst of relocated to the barrier island from northern New Jersey and would eventually become a customer of our library. Miss James is 74 years old and has worked for her library system in Mississippi for over 30 years. Her branch sounds to be a true community center and her lifelong work has been a gift to the people she serves. Like myself she started out as a children’s librarian. Pass Christian raised funds on our behalf in way of a book sale and solicited cash donations; they just reached out and it just meant so much to my staff and myself. They sent us a picture of themselves with their staff in front of the table of their book sale and she wrote:
Miss June, we hope all is well with you. We are sending to you a picture of us ladies from the Pass Christian library. We had a lot of fun taking the picture. It’s always a good time when librarians are around.
They raised $2,166.25 which was sent to us as a donation. But even more so the emotional help was priceless. We were sent a link, they were actually on the television down there and it was just such a moving news broadcast. I shared that of course with all my staff and also with our management team. That was a wonderful, wonderful positive thing.
Do you have any other stories associated with the storm that you would like to share?
We were able to save a few really important pieces here in our library branch. One is our baby grand piano, which luckily sits on a dolly so it was out of harm’s way. We were able to, to keep the piano and it’s really important to me that that was successful because the piano was purchased with a memorial donation fund for a woman who resided here in Lavallette. When she passed away, her family, in lieu of flowers, chose us as the recipient. Well I’d never met this woman- her name is Linda Longo Vizzoni. So much money came in through that memorial donation I knew I had to do something really special with it and so I took my time and tried to learn more about her and tried to think what we could have that would serve as an ongoing memorial in honor of her. It turned out that the piano was the perfect expenditure and I held a really amazing event in her honor to unveil that piano, we had a live musical performance after the dedication of the piano. And so this piano means an awful lot to us here and thank goodness it was not destroyed.
Also we have some 3D artwork, that was purchased after the storm, with memorial funds that in our children’s department. This artwork is made by a company on the west coast that is the coolest teensy – family run and operated company. Nobody makes their furnishings but their family so you might have to wait for the products but it’s called Big Cozy Books. Some of that furniture in our children’s area was sadly was damaged by Sandy. We were able to use donated funds to replace all of that.
The artwork on the wall was high enough that it wasn’t ruined, so that’s still from the original purchase and it gives us great pleasure. We have a really special library here for our community, summer residents and visitors. Many spend a lot of time here and attend our programs; many end up almost in tears at the end of the summer season saying that they wish they could bring us home, they love our library so much– they wish they had us year round, and that gives us a lot of pleasure. Also with donated funds we were able to purchase a beautiful mural, it is on the wall in our young adult area, on the east side of our library. It’s a 3D mural that was created by two local artists, one is a painter and the other is a ceramic artists and she makes 3D fish. And they’re amazing! She is in her 80s her name is Florence McLaughlin, she’s a resident of Brick and her fish hang on this mural that is created by Seaside Park resident Beverly Golembeski. It’s outstanding and it can’t be more meaningful to the shore as a great piece of art that gives us and all of our community great pleasure.
What has this experience been like for you, personally?
October 24th, just days before Sandy hit, we celebrated National Friends of Libraries Week here in Upper Shores with the coolest live game show called Brainwash — Eric Dasher was the host. It’s a trivia game show with video and music, facts, pop culture and puzzles. We had so much fun in our library and less than a week later Sandy hit.
It took me about two weeks before I actually went onto OCL Connections, which is our live blog. One of our public relations staff Larry Meegan had posted on November 14th two photos of the Brainwash event, and he put a little blurb about the event that brought tears to my eyes. Below the photo was written “Jersey Strong! We’re rooting for your return Upper Shores!” and so my entire staff, even though we were spread out all over the library system saw the support that we were getting from our colleagues; it just meant so much to us. It was just unbelievable. That was the start of a long wait to get back here.
During the ten months we were closed I held dinners in my home for my staff to get together and to share our stories and realize what we were each going through, to help keep us connected with volunteers around our country and connected with our local government, friends groups, individuals, and customers who are so important to us.
In May of 2014, I was given the Grace Under Pressure Award at our annual Staff development Day and this is what was written about me.
The Grace Under Pressure Award is given to:
June Schneider, Branch Manager of Upper Shores
This award is given to someone who has handled a difficult situation or emergency for the Ocean County Library in a calm, professional manner without fanfare. This award winner has taken on difficult responsibilities, or had the courage to take on a project that was out of their comfort zone, or taken quick action which prevented an emergency situation from getting worse.
Both Bay Head Reading Center and the Upper Shores Branch of OCL were hardest hit by Super storm Sandy. June was a consummate and true servant leader throughout these challenging times. During the entire time the Branch was closed June kept the staff(s) connected, & maintained her connection to the devastated communities these 2 locations serve. June did this with care, diplomacy and true grace.
She never stopped being the leader of these two locations, maintaining caring and concerned contact with all her staff. June stayed in touch and kept the Friends connected to the library with news and progress updates on the buildings. June made it a priority to keep the Upper Shores “Family” staff, Friends, & customers connected and supported during this time.
It is quite an honor and I was very proud to receive that but my entire staff really did an amazing job keeping together and offering comfort to the customers they saw in the many locations in which we all worked during the ten months. And we’re just so happy to be back here now.
Interviewed by Allison Jones
Assisted by Meghan O’Brien
Edited by Allison Jones
Lavallette, New Jersey
Recorded April 14, 2015