Picking up the pieces

Union County residents share in a mutual hope of a speedy recovery

Photo Courtesy of Jim Lowney/County of Union
Near Echo Lake Park, workers progress on clearing the road of downed trees and piower lines.

Although many Union County residents had their power return this week, many others have not been as lucky. For those still struggling without heat or electricity, the only thought as the sun goes down on another day is how to get through the long night without heat.

In hard hit Rahway, where winds in excess of 70 miles per hour tore 100-year-old oak trees from the ground and tossed them like toys across power lines, residents tried to comprehend the damage to their town while expressing both frustration over their plight.

For Harry Towns, who lives with his wife in Rahway Plaza apartments, a high rise complex, each new day is another opportunity to take to the streets to find out information. On this day, more than a week since Sandy hit the city with a vengeance, Towns made his way to the Rahway Office of Emergency Management on Cherry Street, where he hoped to hear when power might be restored to his building.

“We live in an all electric building, so we can’t even boil pots of water to get some heat,” the resident explained, mentioning that his daughter and his 2-year old granddaughter also moved in because they had no heat either.

Although Towns said he had hoped to be able to glean some new information about power restoration at the OEM office, a police officer told him all notifications were posted on the window and they had no updates about power restoration.

Obviously disappointed, Towns respectfully thanked the officer and tried to express optimism about the situation, but admitted that being without heat or hot water was beginning to wear on his family.

“It’s real bad,” he added, “but we will hang in there. What else can we do?” Towns said.

Omar Campbell, availing himself of the charging station set up outside the OEM office, huddled down in his coat, hoping to ward off the cold while his cell phone charged. Admitting his spirits have yet to get down, Barnes explained that his family had banded together in one house to wait out the power outage.

“We are in a two family on East Stearns Street,” he said, adding that initially his grandmother was distressed about the storm and power loss, but with the entire family all together, the stress of the situation had lessened.

“We actually are all sleeping in the living room, which is warmer,” he said, explaining that boiling pots of water on the stove did generate enough heat to quell the cold.

“We’re keeping our spirits up,” Campbell added, smiling despite the biting chill in the air. “Everyday we have hope the power will go back on.”

Meanwhile at town hall, a few residents sat in the administrator’s office, hoping to talk to Mayor Rick Proctor about the fact that they were receiving little information about the situation they were in as a result of the storm damage.

“I live in a three-floor apartment building on Grand Avenue and its all electric. There are elderly people in our building who have no way to keep warm,” said the woman, who declined giving her name. “I’m here for the elderly, they need help.”

Another woman, who also admitted she was angry about receiving no information, said trees were down all over her area on the east side of Rahway.

“There is no communication, we have no power, how can we go on the computer to get the information the city is putting out?” she said, adding that “someone should be putting out flyers or going through the city on a bullhorn.”

In back of Roosevelt school at Pierpont and Bryant streets, Public Service Electric and Gas employee Jason Giroud stood guard as a tree cutting crew from South Carolina attempted to untangle toppled oak trees from mangled telephone poles that came down during the storm.

Giroud, who grew up one street over, explained that while he no longer lives in the city, when a storm of this magnitude occurs, “it’s all hands on deck.”

Actually an environmental analyst, the former city resident noted that regardless whether a PSE&G employee is an engineer, secretary or vice president, everyone is called to duty.

“Because I previously lived in Rahway, they sent me here to oversee this crew and make sure everything goes okay,” Giroud said, adding that while growing up in Rahway, there never was a storm that leveled such destruction of trees and power lines.

“We have crews coming from Missouri, Florida, all over the country,” he said, mentioning that the South Carolina company working on this site, Lewis Tree Service,  brought six trucks with them when they drove through the night to reach New Jersey.

Giroud also pointed out that while many people may believe the power lines are dead, many are not.

“These lines are very dangerous because there are live lines among all these trees,” he said.

Michelle Sutton, whose home is at the intersection of Pierpont and Forbes streets,  explained that she had been walking throughout her neighborhood everyday to see if any progress was being made. Not daunted by the twisted wires that remained entangled in the row of oak trees, she thanked Giroud and said she had hope power would be back on soon.

“We are using lots of blankets and boiling water on the stove,” she said.

“I believe in God and the fight is not ours,” Sutton added.

Over in Linden in the Tremley Point section, spirits were not as high. According to Mayor Rich Gerbounka, this area was hit by a 13-foot tidal surge from nearby Arthur Kill which left many homes uninhabitable. One resident, who stood in front of a home that leaned to one side precariously, sighed and confessed that he did not know what to do next.

“What do you do?” he asked, adding that the shock of water filling his home and destroying everything in it was almost more than one could comprehend.

“I’ve lived here a long, long time and I have never seen anything like this happen,” he said. His neighbor, he said, had to be taken to the hospital the night of the storm.

“I guess it just was too much for her to handle,” he added, imploring that his name or the street not be in the newspaper.

“We don’t want people coming down here to look or looters taking advantage of this situation. We have been through enough,” he said.

Gerbounka was saddened by the loss in the Tremley Point area, expressing concern  for residents and the fact so much heavy industry had suffered damage.

“We had boats on South Wood Avenue the night of the storm. That’s how deep the water was that night,” the mayor said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Several blocks away, a woman struggled to haul soggy carpeting from her home, waving away any interruption, saying “sorry, sorry, I just have to keep working. If I stop I will cry and there is no time for crying now.”