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The People's Pantry

Edward Burke

Edward Burke is a resident of Toms River, New Jersey. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, he served as the Director of Operations for People’s Pantry Relief Center. The People’s Pantry, founded just days after the storm, helped to support affected families by providing food and basic essentials as well as access to a host of recovery agencies. It has since grown into the largest and most comprehensive relief center in the state. In this narrative, Edward recalls the night of the storm as well as the many challenges that faced those involved in the recovery process.


What kind of work does the People’s Pantry Relief Center do?

We needed a way to get food to the people. They mix in normal grocery shop, they get food, like they’re grocery shopping. That’s what my job really entails. I keep track of the clients themselves, we have about a couple thousand of them.

Where were you when Hurricane Sandy hit?

When it was occurring, I actually went for a run.

There was a lot of wind. I couldn’t go halfway through my route because power-lines were already down. This was around, 5 o’clock, so I came back, went over my friend’s house, who lives by the water, and hung out there until his power was out. You could see the traffic lights going horizontal.

So I sat there, at his house for a while, and we were watching shutters going flying past us. Water rising. It wasn’t flooding yet, but it was a bad storm. His power went out, then I went back home.

Did you stay at your house the whole night? What were the emotions during the night of the storm?

Throughout the whole night. I was watching the chandelier in my house just going back and forth because the wind was so strong it was actually pushing on our house. I live in a condominium; it was the whole row of houses being swayed. And we’re just watching trees, going, “ uh that’s probably going to collapse”. But, luckily, none fell on the house.

It was a little terrifying. I actually went from my room, downstairs, thinking, “If that tree falls it’s going straight through my window” and I’m not going to deal with that. So, I went downstairs. Eventually, you kind of got rocked to sleep because you just heard the constant howling of the wind. Then, we woke up in the morning, that’s when I got to explore, see how it was outside.

I went back to my friend’s house and saw somebody rowing down the street. It’s a good thing that I did go home; otherwise my car would’ve been destroyed. Yea, most of the roads were blocked off because of trees, power-lines, and boats. Parts were still flooded so it’s a very interesting time. There’s no power, so it’s cold.

How did you prepare for the storm?

Irene was not that bad. They worked it up to be really big, and ok, it was a bigger storm then we were accustomed to, but there was no flooding, power went out for a day and then came back on, there was no real need to prep. We’ve been through Nor’easters. We’ve been through hurricanes before, so we figured we could handle it. And I actually laughed at that. That’s why I went to my friend’s house. My family was making up it to be a big storm and for me it was, “eh, whatever, I’ll be fine”. No amount would prepare for what I was about to experience that rest of the year.

So you’ve experienced many storms before?

Yea! We’ve had big Nor’easters growing up; we’ve been snowed in for a day or two. We’ve had hurricanes before. We’re accustomed to the big wind, the big rain, but this was a whole lot different. This was actually kind of unsettling while we sat there, watching chandeliers in your house move back and forth that are a new thing. Nobody expected flooding. I’ve never seen streets blocked off. But I’ve seen water rising, a little bit, on the road, but not to the point where I have a boat blocking my road, that’s different. You go to turn down the one road and there’s all of a sudden a boat just blocking your way.

Did your house experience any flooding?

No. I was lucky enough; I just dealt with no power for the weeks. So that’s why I went to the shelter ‘cause I needed to do something to help those people. I was fine. I got a lot of stories from people that aren’t fine. A lot of them are hysterically crying. There was a lot of concern about their pets because they would have to leave their pets behind because I guess they didn’t have a carrier. A lot of them were just trapped in their attics. I was working the front desk, registering people, dealing with what they were telling us and trying to help them out. There, there was this one cop who would go back onto the island to rescue animals, and he came back with the dog in his arms and the person would just burst down in tears. There were a lot of stories like that.

How have you assisted in the recovery process?

I work at the People’s Pantry Release Center. The shelter closed 9 days after the storm, and the Pantry opened right then. It was just a continuation of what we were doing, getting food out to the people. About March, we moved in to a bigger facility and we were able to get multiple organizations with us. That’s when we were really able to help. People would come in upset because they have no way of rebuilding, putting in dry wall, painting, gutting their houses because insurance is slow or they’re just not getting any money. We brought in organizations like Americorps or Jersey Cares to be able to deploy volunteers to rebuild that house. It was really nice when I was able to say, “Hold on guys, go in the back corner, do an intake form, let’s see what they can do for you”. We also have snap agents from the food bank on site because all those people that were well off before now devoted all their money into rebuilding, they actually had to for get food stamps and utilities assistants and all these state programs that they weren’t even aware existed because this wasn’t something they’re accustomed to. So we can get them through, give them some sort of supplement. And, of course, we have mental health on site, too. You know how people get when they’ve been through much.

What did you think of the government’s response?

I didn’t like it in the beginning. In the shelter, there was a lot of confusion. We have a lot of elderly people, people that haven’t really worked on computers for a while. And you’d have people that don’t speak much English. It’s just this huge mixture of people and the way their form was, it was very black and white. When it comes to FEMA, most people that applied right away got rental assistance because they can’t go back home. Their houses, the whole island was uninhabitable so they got some sort of allowance so they can rent in a hotel without spending out of their pocket. So many people were stuck at waiting to see if they were approved or unapproved because they didn’t fill out the form properly.

If FEMA would’ve sent their agents directly to the shelters, people would have been out of their shelters so quick. Eventually FEMA came and there were just death stares from everyone working there because we were fed up with their system. I remember it was during Election Day. So on top of all the people voting at the school, on top of people staying, now we had this line wrapping around the hallways because this was a shelter. FEMA came to work people back through the system, go back into their applications, and fix the errors, and it took pretty much nine days for them just to get approved to go finally stay in a hotel. After that moment, I get what FEMA was trying to do. They, they wanted to get them out, just temporarily, they were just dealing with the emergency stuff, where they’d find a place to stay for a while, and then they were hoping that the insurance would then pay enough money for these people to start rebuilding, get back into the place. But it didn’t quite work that way.

So the people that didn’t have insurance actually got help, most by FEMA, and they were the ones that tended to say really good things. It’s the other people that aren’t happy with how the government handled it. I like how our state government did things. They weren’t trying to get people in as fast as possible and fast track a lot of the funding. I mean, there’s probably questionable ways they funded things, but overall it wasn’t that bad of a job. My complaints lie mostly with the insurance companies for dragging their heels with things. The more I’ve talked with people, the more they complain about insurance companies over the government, because they paid into insurance for so long and insurance was going “well, that’s a basement, see that step, that’s a basement, I’m not covering that. And that roof, yeah, that’s not flood, because it’s a roof, so I’m not covering that. Oh and that foundation, I think that was wind damage so I’m not covering that.” Then you go to your homeowner’s insurance, and they’re like “no no no, that’s all flood damage, we’re not covering that, and flood insurance should cover that.”

And you have the homeowner just sitting there. I would put more fault to those people then the government. They didn’t have the funds to help everyone. I understand their mentality. After Katrina, they just gave people money. Those people didn’t have mortgages, and the houses were not good to begin with, so they just relocated. So I know they didn’t want to get burned again. I understand why they wanted insurance to do most of the work; because most of these people have insurance. I mean if you have a mortgage; you have to have flood insurance, especially when you’re by the water.

How do you think the hurricane has shaped the community?

While I was at the shelter, I had people pouring in donations. We turned people down one of those hallways; it’s like this little hallway with few classrooms, completely filled with donations. Toiletries, clothing, toys for the kids. It was basically like a shopping mall. We had so many volunteers, that they actually made it look presentable. There was one day where I walked around the cafeteria and we had chefs that came in donating their time. We had restaurants donating food, so these people feasted. And it was good food. A string quartette started coming in, it was like a folk band, which every day grew by two members. So we had this huge band set up. A hairdresser came in to give their time. Vets came in to checkout all the pets. Nurses came in to help the people down the block. Social workers, case managers, pretty much every sort of background somebody had that could be useful, they came and said, “hey, I want to help.” Most of these people they never met before, but they really came close together, to the point where I’ve seen people that became friends from the shelter and now they’re living together because we’ve sent them off the same hotels, they bonded there, and then they came back. Even now, we’re getting tons of donations from the community. Even though we’re shifting out of the Sandy stuff and more to hunger relief, this community is giving so much love. I’ll come to the door and there is just a cart filled with donations from just somebody that decided to drop it off. It definitely brought us closer. I guarantee 20 years from now there’s going to be that mind where you either lived here before Sandy, or you lived here after Sandy, and those people before here would have that badge. Basically, you know, that they survived it and they rebuilt it.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the people right now that are still rebuilding?

Well, you have the people that still aren’t back in yet, and for them it’s a matter of funding. A lot of them have to raise their homes, which is kind of challenging. It’s expensive, and a lot of the people that were affected are in their sixties. They don’t have a huge bank account that they can put money into, and really, they don’t see the point of it because by the time the house is finished being raised they got the stairs in that they have to climb up and it’s not worth the whole issue. But even then, the amount of money that they had to shell out for their mortgages for the rebuilding, its set them back a while. These are people that had already had tight budgets to begin with. When I dealt with FEMA, I dealt with all the other charities that have gone through hurricanes before; their estimates are always about 5 to 10 years, fully recovered. Because, even though you get back in your home, well now you have this huge debt that just got placed on your shoulders you weren’t ever expecting. And, if that’s the same for the homeowners it’s the same for all the business owners. So now the business owners are trying to get their heads above the water with the business, and so they’re not likely to spend money on other things. So it’s just a horrible ripple that goes through the entire economy of this town. On top of that, taxes had to go up. So, that’s why the pantry was needed. It’s why other charities were needed. There are some people that are better off than others, and it’s going to help those people to kind of boost everybody else up so the community can recover.

What lessons do you think can be learned from all these experiences for the future?

There was this lack of knowing what’s going on. No one’s expecting it, no one’s prepared. After the storm, nobody knew what was available. Nobody knew what was next.

So yeah, that’s the big issue: the lack of knowledge, the lack of case managers. If you address that right out of the gate like, how I was saying with FEMA, when the people didn’t even know how to fill out a form and they got to the shelter and they mess up the form and then they couldn’t even find rental assistance. You change that it could be a little bit more proactive with guiding the people so they actually can pretty much get rebuilt right away. No down time, get the grant; apply to everything they need to and they just kind of wait.

Are there any other stories you would like to share?

Doing what I’m doing is definitely hard because there are a lot of people unloading on you, and you see a lot. You definitely second-guess sometimes. It’s those moments that I’m not going to forget all the way until I die. I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff during Sandy. I went on the island right after the storm. One of the cops we were working with took me, and it was during dusk. I’m seeing houses that are just completely destroyed. Like, a whole bottom of it just ripped out. Boats were sticking up out the ground there’s just holes in the ground. And there are no lights, just darkness. Everything was just illuminated by the red siren. You see cats shuttering by and it’s unsettling. It’s those sights that I still have nightmares about. But then on the opposite side, I have these awesome memories about making such a big difference to someone’s life.

Interviewed by Rich Levenson and Paul Duarte
Edited by Megan Moast
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013