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For small township's police chief, Sandy's destruction hits home

October 31, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Emergency personnel in Seaside Heights, N.J., work on property and homes heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Emergency personnel in Seaside Heights, N.J., work on property and homes… (Michael Reynolds / EPA )

UNION BEACH, N.J. -- In this small township, officials said dozens of people lost homes to storm damage.

But lost doesn't begin to capture what happened on Front Street and Brook Avenue. Water surged from Raritan Bay, blending and churning like a cyclone, beating houses to a nearly unrecognizable pulp. Roofs sat in fields. Second stories perched on bare beams. A few houses were tossed onto nearby streets, and sat looking like Dorothy's home in "The Wizard of Oz."

Union Beach Police Chief Scott Woolley, who grew up here and has been with the department for 27 years, drove around town late Wednesday checking on neighbors and responding to reports of scavenging.

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It's already been a long week for Woolley. He worked straight through the storm, but waters rose so high, his nine-officer department was unable to access much of the 1.8-square-mile borough, even when some of the 6,700 residents called to report fires.

"This is the worst we've ever been," he said as he pulled out of the department, passing a motorcycle shop that burned after the storm.

The principal of a flooded elementary school called Woolley on Wednesday to say it will be at least three weeks before it can reopen.

"There was no way to protect for this," Woolley said.

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A woman flagged him down and asked if the municipal water would be shut off. He assured her it wouldn't. Another woman walked up to his car with a few New Jersey guardsmen trying to save three stranded kittens. He recognized her right off: Tinamarie Gaidus runs the hot dog stand at the beach, Tina's Wieners. She said she was injured during the storm when water washed over her mother's house.

"The water just took me," she said, crediting God with protecting her home. Her mother was not so lucky.

"Everything is muddy in the house -- devastated," she said. "My heart is heavy for everyone."

She asked Woolley about his house. It took on six inches of water, he said. "I'm lucky."

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He drove on past more destruction: Jakeabob's Bay waterfront restaurant, torn apart and stuffed with debris. The American Legion post: gutted. The yellow house with the whale on the side where a town crossing guard lives: first story erased. A woman nearby told him she was looking for her wedding ring. Then she asked after his wife.

Farther down Front Street, under a cloudy, darkening sky, officers told Woolley they had spotted a man attempting to scavenge scrap metal. They promised to be on the lookout.

Woolley was next called to Brooke Avenue, where residents sorted through several lots worth of debris, one woman wrapped in a quilt. Two roofs were all that remained of a pair of homes, one of them cast across the street in a field.

Woolley hopped out of his cruiser.

"Folks, you got to come off the rubble, please. It's not safe," he said.

They protested, but not loudly, drifting away from the remains of their homes. This is a small town and Woolley is one of them.

"I can understand their concern, but it's for their safety," he said, driving past a house blown onto the property of a neighbor, a woman Woolley knows.

"That's what she woke up to when she opened her front door. It's sickening," he said.

Woolley is overwhelmed. It's Halloween, which has been postponed across the state until Monday, but he can't even think about that.

"I don't even think we're going to have it," he said, waving at residents walking away from Brooke Street with fishing poles and other salvaged belongings. "Half these people have no house."

Before he returned to the police station, where he'd been working the front window, Woolley swung by his house. He'd lost some steps. Somebody said they saw them nearby.

He passed a wooden bridge and a backyard deck, both uprooted and set atop guardrails, but found no steps.

Joyce Fallon was at the police station looking for help, having lost her home of 56 years, the childhood home of her late husband.

"I lost everything on the first floor. I was in there today getting some things. ... Garbage. It stinks," she said. "You don't know whether you want to rebuild or not."

Fallon is staying with her daughter and granddaughter. She had heard about damage in nearby Keyport and Kingsburg. She has seen the lines for gas, heard about price-gouging for food and other essentials nearby.

"They got hit hard -- the whole shoreline. And of all times, when the economy is so bad. We're going to see how much the president can help us," she said.

When she tried to say more, Fallon began to cry.

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