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As Sandy's floodwaters recede, the recovery is on

10:55 AM, Nov 6, 2012   |    comments
Floodwaters fill the streets of Little Ferry, N.J. in the wake of superstorm Sandy last Tuesday.(Photo: By Mike Groll, AP)
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LITTLE FERRY, N.J. -- When the power came back on, the Gallup family went out.

They didn't stay in their Wayne, N.J., home to enjoy a leisurely family meal or watch a football game on TV. Instead, Christy and Matt Gallup loaded up an RV with coffee, soft drinks, soup, water and pasta - as well as their four kids - and headed to the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. They arrived in Little Ferry, N.J., a small town that took some of Sandy's worst.

Once there, they parked on the lawn of St. Margaret of Cortona's parish and taped crayon-drawn signs that said "free soup" and "free food and drinks" to their windows. The family then spent the day feeding flood victims who gathered at this makeshift relief headquarters.

"It's neighbors helping neighbors," Matt Gallup said.

"We try to make a good example for our children," Christy Gallup added.

As the floodwaters from Sandy recede, the recovery and rebuilding efforts are starting to swell.

Folks who were dramatically affected by the storm, as well as others across the nation, are offering time, food, clothes, money and lodging to storm victims who need help. Businesses have supplied disaster recovery areas with food and beverages, as well as pledged millions to help the affected towns rebuild.

In St. Margaret's recreational hall, there are piles of donations for flood victims. Rectangular tables line the perimeter of a basketball court, stacked with cleaning supplies, baby food, cereal and blankets. Volunteers hand out goods, as well as restock with donations that stream in.

Kathy Frato, a Little Ferry resident of five years, left with a coat for herself and dog food for Gizmo, her teacup Chihuahua. She was headed back to her sister-in-law's home, where she has stayed since she was rescued by boat from her flooded street Monday night.

"I would be sleeping in my car" if her sister-in-law hadn't opened up her home, Frato said. Her own place had no power and "stinks of sewage," she said.

"I feel despair," Frato said. Yet she knows she is fortunate that her sister-in-law provided housing.

"Some people have no place to go," she said.

St. Margaret's overflowed with donations Sunday evening. That wasn't the case Saturday.

"At 6 p.m., we had to shut the doors because we had nothing left to give," said volunteer Sister Maureen Sullivan, who worked a table at the hall entrance. Yet even with the short supplies, there was enough to help about 350 to 400 families, she said.

Sunday afternoon, the donations were bountiful. Restaurants dropped off hot food while residents from Little Ferry and other areas brought in a wide array of packaged goods.

The volunteers - many of whom were flood victims themselves - were in full force.

"They are all affected by the storm, but they all are giving back," Sullivan said.

Even those taking supplies pledged to return the charity. "So many people that came in to get stuff said 'I'll be back to help,'" Sullivan said.

Little Ferry, a town of 11,000, was hit hard by rushing floodwater. About 80% of the town - which has 1.5 square miles of land - was flooded, Mayor Mauro Raguseo said.

The town's streets are lined with discarded chairs, carpets and mattresses. Stacks of bloated black garbage bags sit next to items that once filled a home.

Men in hardhats empty debris out of elementary schools while commercial trucks painted with slogans such as "National Catastrophe Response Team" drive the streets.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came to the town Saturday to tour the damaged neighborhoods.

Mayor Raguseo personally felt the pain of the storm. His home is pretty much destroyed, he said. Raguseo, who got married this year, said his shower and wedding gifts were ruined as well. "We lost everything," he said.

He is staying at his mother's house, which had no electricity.

But looking across the room of volunteers Sunday, he was optimistic.

"This gives me hope," he said. "I know we are going to rebuild."

The mayor and other officials first had to figure out how to navigate in a waterlogged town.

"There was no place where we could stage this (recovery effort), because every place had water," said Raguseo, a resident of about 30 years.

The recreation hall had originally been a shelter for residents, but it was soon flooded, and all inside had to evacuate to another area.

The church moved fast, hiring workers to quickly clean out the hall. The town's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) mobilized its members to help man the charitable operation. The Army National Guard arrived to assist, as did the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Little Ferry resident Alex Quiroga, 15, had bruises on his forearms from carrying so many cases of donated water from a truck to the hall. He and fellow volunteer Chris Braitsch not only unloaded water, they also delivered goods from the hall to those who were too old or weak to carry them home.

Those who took supplies directly from the hall only gathered what they needed, said Regina Coyle, a 55-year Little Ferry resident, St. Margaret church trustee and CERT member.

"People aren't selfish," she said.

Sunday, Coyle choreographed dozens of people. She sent those dropping off donations to various areas, while getting help for others who carried heavy bags of supplies out.

"It's minor chaos," she said. "But we'll be fine."

Throughout the week, the needs of Little Ferry spread by word-of-mouth, via local news reports and by social media.

At 6:40 p.m. Sunday, a camouflage-covered National Guard truck headed out from the recovery hall. In the back were Guard members, volunteers - and five trays of hot rigatoni donated by a local restaurant. Soon after the food came in, the volunteers took it out to a part of town that had no electricity.

The truck settled into a parking lot that was filled with water a couple of days ago.

Volunteers set up a table of pasta, water, bread and bananas. Others knocked on doors to let residents know hot food had arrived.

Gerry Cappelluti, a 15-year Little Ferry resident, walked over to get some for himself and his girlfriend.

He had been without power for nearly a week but stayed at his house because he "didn't want to abandon ship."

Just before the storm hit, he headed over to the volunteer ambulance squad to help them distribute sandbags to other Little Ferry residents. The night of the storm, his basement filled with 7 feet of water.

"It came in like Niagara Falls," he said.

Afterward, the volunteer ambulance team returned the favor he had given them. It came by to help pump his house out, as did the volunteer fire department.

That type of reciprocity is common in this community, Coyle said. It shows that many folks are "limitless" in their generosity.

"There are people out there who are wonderful," she said. "There are people who give from their hearts."

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