Operation: Greased Lightning – Personal Reflection from TR Volunteer Jeremy Wilkins

Jeremy Wilkins

There is no way to explain what I witnessed over this past weekend other than saying I have never witnessed first hand this type of destruction.  Lives were forever changed by Hurricane Sandy, and now it’s time to recover what we can. I vowed after Hurricane Katrina that if an event like this ever happened again I would find a way to help.

For most people, making a donation is the easiest way.  In our busy lives, we don’t always have the time or the means to visit the area and help.  In that matter, I am lucky.  I have the ability to take a day here or there and go to the site and help. But how could I make a difference?

After Sandy left the Northeast, I started searching online for organizations I could support.  I stumbled on an article about a team of retired veterans who were using their skills to help people in need.  Team Rubicon may only be three years old, but what they lack as an organization they have two fold in experience.

Most of Team Rubicon have spent time serving our country.  I wrote a note to the team leader for my region and got a quick response.  I explained that my skill was in photography, and they quickly grabbed at the chance to have a photojournalist on site. Now that I had a plan it was time to go help. I gathered my gear and headed for Union Beach, New Jersey.

What I found most intriguing is how I was within a couple miles of the area and honestly didn’t notice anything wrong.  You never know how to take what you see on TV, and we are so quick to forget what happened yesterday.

I made it to an area where the National Guard and other Federal agencies were setup, and it still didn’t quite hit me.  I was redirected to the Union Beach Police Station, and that’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Authorities and volunteers were everywhere.  It was what the military refer to as “organized chaos.” Volunteers must have approached me two or three times and asked if I needed a hot meal.  People wanted to help, but didn’t know where to go to volunteer.

After about a half hour of driving around I finally made contact with Team Rubicon.  It turns out the reason I couldn’t find them is because they had access to an area that was blocked off by the police. What I saw next was just horrifying. Peoples homes totally gone, vehicles tossed around like toys, roofs torn off, trees toppled over, and debris everywhere. In just a few blocks, I had gone from what looked like a normal area to what looked like a war zone. I met the leaders of my group and jumped right in to help.

Team Rubicon is made up of 80% retired military and 20% civilians. What almost all of them have in common is the desire to help people and work together as a team. My job was straightforward compared to this team. I was here to document everything and show that the volunteers can certainly make a difference.

We worked together to help a family who had a safe in the basement which was now entirely covered by debris.  The odds of actually finding anything in the bottom of the debris were slim, but we wanted to help. I was amazed that the father and mother actually had things together. Here, they had just lost everything, yet they had a positive attitude. I asked them if they were going to rebuild their home, but at this point they were still so shell-shocked that they could barely think of anything, but making it day by day.

Throughout the afternoon, our team split into separate groups and continued to help as many families as possible. We did anything from moving heavy debris to looking for sentimental items that were spread out in the rubble. At about 4 o’clock, it was time to start wrapping up for the day. We needed to be out of the area by dusk as the police still had a curfew in place. We left the area and headed for theRed Cross command center about one half hour away.

When we arrived at the command center, the team got a chance to relax and unwind from a day of hard work. That evening, Team Rubicon bought dinner for all of the members and coincidentally it was the eve of Veterans Day. Not being in the military, I had no idea what to expect, but was told that there was going to be a ceremony that evening.

We arrived at the restaurant at about 7:30 PM.   After sitting down and getting to know some of my fellow teammates, the birthday celebration began. After the oldest Marine and the youngest Marine in the room shared a piece of cake, each person was asked to say what they were thankful for. The theme was common that night.   To the members of the team, they were happy together. Most of them had not known each other long, but they had the common bond of being in the military together. After dinner, we headed back to the Red Cross shelter to get a decent night sleep to prepare for the next day.

Having never slept in a Red Cross shelter before, I was a little uncomfortable, but I think I was also pumped up to help these local residents.  On the way to Union Beach, we made a stop at a food shelter calledElijah’s Promise.  It reminded me of when I was in high school and volunteered in a shelter, but had never gone there to eat.  Because of the work our group was doing you were offered breakfast and the staff at the shelter could not have been any nicer. This was just another way I witnessed people helping others.

When we arrived at Union Beach, the residents seemed genuinely happy to see us. We were able to help multiple families clear out their yards, tear drywall down from in their homes, and move lots of debris. I noticed more families had come to the neighborhood to help.

There was a mother and her two boys walking down the street with the wagon filled with sandwiches and drinks for all of the workers. Neighbors were truly trying to help each other, and the residents pushed forward so they could put this nightmare behind them. I can’t imagine how long it is going to take for the residence to rebuild.

I saw signs of hope as I ran into four or five insurance adjusters while cleaning up debris. What I saw in New Jersey during my brief two day visit left me with polar opposite feelings. On the one side, I had never seen anything in person that resulted in this type of destruction. On the other side, I saw volunteer groups, business owners and residents helping residents to get their feet back on the ground. We’ll be revisiting Union Beach, New Jersey in the months to come.

I would like to thank the members of Team Rubicon for welcoming me with open arms and I look forward to working with this talented group again.

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