Chris Bate stood in his yard, unpacking crinkled family photos that had been stored in his Weehawken basement years ago. Laying them out on a makeshift drying rack, Bate reflected on the past week.
“The things you don’t think are going to happen, huh?” he said.
Bate is a resident of Weehawken’s small downtown neighborhood known as The Shades, a nickname derived from the close-knit neighborhood’s location beneath the cliffs of the Palisades hills.
As Weehawken’s topographical low point, Hurricane Sandy hit it hardest last week. Most of the neighborhood’s basements, garages, and ground floor apartments incurred serious flood damage. Water heaters, laundry machines, and even cars were destroyed.
A six-foot-tall watermark is visible on the exterior walls of St. Lawrence’s Church, the town’s primary Catholic parish. Inside the church, Bibles are strewn across the floor, and a piano lies toppled.
“All of a sudden it was gushing and it was 3 or 4 feet deep.” – Jack Biancamano
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.
Many who did leave, such as Sarah Fishbein, returned later to a cruel reality.
“I carried my 3-year-old up the hill on Monday night after the water started rising, and when I came back, it was like this,” Fishbein said, gesturing towards her neighbor’s gutted garage. “It’s a lot of loss.”
The road to recovery
Weehawken’s spirited response to the disaster stands in stark comparison to the difficulties this neighborhood faces. 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. “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 has provided a place where members of the community can convene, organize and support each other.
“We had mass in here on Sunday morning, and it was standing room only,” said Richard Barsa, the president of Weehawken’s Board of Education.
At mealtime as well, the shelter becomes lively and almost cheerful.
“Less people come around during the day because they’re working, but we’ve been serving dinner to a few hundred a night, both people who live here and are volunteering,” said James Marchetti, the township manager.
According to Mayor Turner, the town moved 105 families to the Sheraton Hotel in Lincoln Harbor, about 85 of whom were from The Shades.
Regarding the families who were relocated, Turner said, “The Sheraton has been fantastic throughout all of this, and Messina’s Trattoria, on the first floor there, has also contributed food and is feeding families there.”
In a whole lot of crazy, a bit of normal
Volunteers, including the mayor’s wife Eileen, have spent nearly every waking hour at St. Lawrence’s, working to restore some sense of normalcy to the once-quiet neighborhood. On Monday, the day on which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stated Halloween celebrations would take place, Mrs. Turner reflected on The Shades.
“This is the place you always brought your kids trick-or-treating. This was the best place in town for it,” she said.
That night, a school bus carried dressed-up children from The Shades up the hill to other Weehawken neighborhoods, where they trick-or-treated unencumbered by Sandy’s aftermath.
“This is what we do, this is how Weehawken works,” said Turner. “We pick each other up, we look out for our neighbors, and we help each other.”