Editor's note: Jim Rostron, 57, of Lindenhurst made two trips to the East Coast to help Hurricane Sandy victims and was so moved by what he saw that he's telling his story at several upcoming events in hopes of inspiring others to help. Here's an edited version of his story.
I was laid off from my union construction job this past September. Times are hard and I have to compete with approximately 500 other sheet metal workers to find a job. Eventually I did find another job, but it only lasted six weeks. About that time, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast.
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I watched a lot of the coverage on the news, more than I would have if I'd been working. What I saw made me feel really bad for the people affected.
I made a lot of calls trying to get hooked up with a relief organization. Most of the time I would leave a message but wouldn't get any return call. Finally, I talked to a woman who was excited about my qualifications. She told me that within 24 hours I'd hear from somebody with a name, address and phone number of where I could report to.
I left the next morning at 4:30 with warm clothes and the tools I thought I would need. In Pennsylvania, I tried to call the woman so I'd know where to go. That's when I found out she was just a person with a phone, a computer and the time to try to help.
With no place to stay, I got a $79 motel room east of Somerville, N.J. It was the worst and dirtiest motel I've ever stayed in. I started making calls and found FEMA had set up its main headquarters in Tinton Falls.
Even with my GPS, I missed a turn and saw that I was headed toward Union Beach, one of the towns I'd been told was hardest hit. It looked much worse than what I'd seen on the television.
I found city hall -- a hectic scene with residents picking up food, clothes, water and cleaning supplies. Also, I found a table marked "volunteer signup" manned by young people from AmeriCorps.
A resident named Drew was passing by, heard I needed a place to stay and offered his home. He had no heat or hot water because his basement had had seven feet of water in it. His home was without any furniture. He did have a single mattress and a sleeping bag that I could use.
The first couple of days, I helped move massive quantities of heavy bags full of donated clothing. I also helped a group of volunteer firemen move cases of bottled water. A couple of days later, Drew had heat and hot water, but still no TV or furniture.
Most of the volunteer work would end at 5 p.m. But because Drew rarely stayed at his home during his remodeling and there was nothing for me to do there, I'd be among the last to leave and then be the first to sign in, usually about 7:30 a.m.
I spent most of my time out there moving materials. At first clothes, food and water, but later building materials like drywall and plywood. I kept on reminding people at the relief center that I was a sheet metal worker.
One day, a local woman named Pat told me that they finally had a furnace for me to remove. From the outside, the home didn't look very damaged at all. But the owner said her home and most of her neighbors' homes would be torn down. The mixture of seawater and sewage had forced the health department to condemn those houses.
The owner had just installed a new furnace and air conditioning unit in her attic 16 months prior to the storm. I disconnected them and got them out of her house so she could use them when she builds a new home.
That woman, like all of the residents, expressed her gratitude. There was also the guy, near tears, shaking my hand and thanking me and the other volunteers after we finished tearing up the floor from his home.
Among things I learned:
• Television cannot show the true full extent of damage.
• Everyone can help.
• Habitat for Humanity is working out there and accepts volunteers.
• Americans come together in times of need.
• It made me feel real, real good to be helping.
I hope my story inspires others to help. Whether it is collecting supplies or actually going to the scene, our help is still needed. And your decision to help will make you feel good.
• Jim Rostron stayed for seven days, then returned in December for five days. He will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, at Prince of Peace Church, 135 S. Milwaukee Ave., Lake Villa. He's also speaking in March to Chicago Region BMW Cycle Owners and in April at Lake Villa Library. Donations can be sent to: Union Beach Disaster Relief Fund, 650 Poole Ave., Union Beach, N.J. 07735.