A year after Hurricane Sandy sent 7 feet of water rushing through the streets of Weehawken’s low-lying Shades neighborhood, devastating houses, cars, and St. Lawrence Church, life is all but back to normal, said Mayor Richard Turner last week.
Weehawken, undoubtedly one of New Jersey’s best Sandy-related success stories, banded together in the wake of the storm to provide comfort and relief to many of the residents. Evacuees moved first to the Sheraton Hotel in Lincoln Harbor and then to vacant residences around town. Turner said last week that all but one family were back in their homes, and that the only reason that one family hadn’t moved back yet is because they’re fully rebuilding their house.
“We actually just had a reunion down there, with all of the residents, to sort of celebrate everything we accomplished this year,” he said. “Sandy had a horrible impact not just on the Shades, but the community was tough. They hung together, and we rebuilt.”
“The community was tough, they hung together, and we rebuilt.” – Mayor Richard Turner
“It’s a very proud thing to be the mayor of a community where everyone, groups and individuals, have all contributed to recovering from something like Sandy,” he said. “
As Weehawken’s topographical low point, Hurricane Sandy hit the Shades harder than almost any other area of Hudson County. Most of the neighborhood’s basements, garages, and ground floor apartments incurred serious flood damage. Water heaters, laundry machines, and even cars were destroyed.
For weeks, a six-foot-tall watermark was visible on the exterior walls of St. Lawrence’s Church, the town’s primary Catholic parish. Inside the church, Bibles were strewn across the floor, and a piano lay toppled.
The night before the storm hit, Turner and other city officials went to that neighborhood and suggested, then insisted, that residents evacuate. While most left, some chose to remain behind.
Those who stayed said the flood came quickly and violently.
“I was sitting in my living room, and I could see the water coming slowly, and then all of a sudden it was gushing and it was 3 or 4 feet deep,” said Jack Biancamano at the time.
Many who did leave, such as Sarah Fishbein, returned later to a cruel reality.
“I carried my 3-year-old up the hill at night after the water started rising, and when I came back, it was like this,” Fishbein said, gesturing toward her neighbor’s garage, which was fully gutted. “It’s a lot of loss.”
Elsewhere, on the township’s waterfront, the garages of brownstone houses built less than 10 years ago flooded, causing damage to their electrical grids. Sandy also caused damage to the new waterfront park, which sported a line of debris almost 200 feet from the river that showed just how far inland Sandy had penetrated.
Despite the devastation wrought on the Shades by Sandy, Weehawken residents are not known for softness, and within a day of the storm they banded together to recover.
The storm had barely passed when recovery efforts began, with cleanup crews led by the Department of Public Works and assisted by local volunteers gathering debris, assessing damage, and assisting residents.
“The cleaner it gets, the better I feel,” said resident Joyce Higgins at the time. “These DPW guys have done an amazing, outstanding job. I don’t know what would be happening without them.”
In the days following the storm, St. Lawrence’s Community Room was transformed into a multi-purpose response center, providing hot meals, warmth, wi-fi, clothing, cleaning supplies and anything else victims required. But perhaps more than anything, it provided a place where members of the community could convene, organize, and support each other.
“We had Mass in here the Sunday after the storm, and it was standing room only,” said Richard Barsa, the president of Weehawken’s Board of Education.
At mealtime as well, the shelter became lively and almost cheerful.
Humanitarian efforts lasted well into the winter and even through the spring. St. Lawrence reopened in time for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and began its own fundraising efforts, while the Weehawken Police Department’s Police Benevolent Association ran a toy drive for kids. In March, all proceeds from the Taste of Weehawken, an annual event that usually benefits the public library, went to flood victims.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com