Two days before Halloween, the Northeast was hit by a storm of mammoth proportions.  In the week leading up to the storm, it became a part of our daily lives and conversations and, because of its unique nature and timing, was dubbed “Frankenstorm.” The name itself suggested that we were going to face something very unfamiliar, yet the feeling for many was, “I have lived here for forty years and seen many storms. This won’t be any different.”  The Friday before the storm hit, Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey, where I teach, held an emergency meeting to see what strategies we should implement in case a significant amount of class time was missed. Even then, most of us thought, how is this going to be any different than snow days or storm events that forced the school to close in the past?

Brookdale faculty and Team Jersey

Brookdale faculty and Team Jersey. Photo courtesy Barbara Jones

Each of the possible storm paths had the potential to generate storm surges and flooding for coastal New Jersey and New York. The timing of the storm matched a full moon and high tide, so with the hurricane coming from the south and a cold air mass positioned to the north, those living along the shore were faced with potentially serious damage and extensive power outages. By Sunday, schools across the region were closing. Brookdale was no different. We closed on Monday, October 29, not to reopen until Tuesday, November 6, and even then we weren’t open for more than one and a half days before we had to close again. It wasn’t until Monday, November 12 that our entire institution re-opened. During that time, some students, faculty and staff suffered injury, lost their homes, cars and, in many cases, were still without power.

The storm now called Hurricane Sandy shocked our coastal communities. The damage was frightening in that houses were washed off their foundations, whole neighborhoods were burned to the ground and, for many, pieces of their lives floated out to sea or were buried in sand. The most iconic Sandy photograph became a picture of the roller coaster from Seaside Heights, home of Snookie and her team of Jersey Shore entertainers, sitting in the ocean.

Without power, most of us could not communicate with our students or our institutions. Brookdale was without power for over one week, while other schools were much longer. Cell phones did not work, the Internet was out and even many landlines didn’t function. Power crews came from all over the country to assist our communities in getting  their power back.  To help ease the unbelievable anxiety that permeated our region, emergency plans were soon posted on our school website offering community members information on the role the school would play and assurances to our students that Brookdale would help them get through both the semester and the trauma of their situation.

Maureen Murphy, our college president, had recently arrived at Brookdale after leading San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas in its recovery from Hurricane Ike. On our school website, she posted her recognition of these concerns:

I know many students, faculty, and staff are experiencing hardship. Please let us know what is going on with you; we want to help. Our goal is to support the entire Brookdale community as much as possible throughout this time.

Brookdale Community College was not alone when it came to offering its students and the greater community a place to go for information, counseling and recovery assistance. College officials also encouraged everyone to volunteer their time or donate money (and many of us did various tasks from performing demolition work to volunteering at sites sorting and distributing donations). Our BrookdaleRebuild webpage included tools to help small businesses recover, as well as a “swap central” location where people could find a sofa or a place to stay. In addition, Brookdale held a Hurricane Resource Fair and assisted the Humane Society by sheltering over 100 displaced dogs and cats.

Nassau Community College in Garden City, Long Island served as the largest evacuation center in Nassau County. Although many people at that college were victims of the storm themselves, they still helped organize donations, and in many cases provided clothes and toiletries to the evacuees sheltered on their campus. Posted on the school website were comments like this one from Michael Duarte, NCC Shelter Manager for the American Red Cross who said, “The College has been terrific. It has helped us in so many ways. We recognize the sacrifice that Nassau Community College has made for us.”

Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ posted a Disaster Relief Fund link on their website and listed places to volunteer at soup kitchens and food pantries. They identified shelter locations and suggested opportunities for long-term housing for those displaced by the storm, while, throughout December, the college hosted special events to raise funds for disaster relief. Mercer County College in West Windsor, NJ served as a federal Disaster Recovery Center, one of 31 set up in the state.

These efforts reflect positively on the contributions our community colleges made during a time of extreme need, as well as to the resilience and generosity of those living within and outside the region. How people responded to Sandy’s destruction varied from something as endearing as one of my students who lost both his car and his anthropology textbook in the storm surge only to replace his textbook before I could lend him one, to a couple of individuals who joined together to create Team Jersey and now have 2,200 helping hands working to rebuild our wounded communities. We learned what our strengths are and what we need to do better next time, but certainly our region’s community colleges played an important role in helping us all begin to recover.

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