Facing the Storm

21 Apr
This home in Union Beach belonged to one of Murphy's relatives.

This Union Beach home belonged to one of Murphy’s relatives.

NOTE: From April 11th, to, well, sometime in July, Serving the Story is taking a road trip from coast to coast, exploring the role of service in people’s lives. Below is the third post from the trip so far — although actually it’s about the first day of the trip, when I visited north Jersey Shore.

Stacey Murphy looks back on the beach and the cottages of Jersey Shore. If she were to turn her gaze to the right, she could easily see the skyline of New York City.

But her attention, and mine, is drawn to matters closer to home – the pretty but malicious lady bugs, which, at least along the Jersey Shore, bite.

“Gosh, the ladybugs of New Jersey have attitude!” I proclaim, swatting as we hurry down the walk toward her black sports utility vehicle.

“In New Jersey everything has attitude!” she jokes.

Her observation seems to be undermined by her example – by which I mean the example of Stacey Murphy herself. The mother of one of my students back at Assumption College, she was quick to offer to meet, and continued to offer even as my plans kept on shifting and I gave her every out I could offer.

My plan was to ask about her work with the Run for the Fallen, a race held in tribute to military veterans; only when I asked if we’d be close to damage from Super Storm Sandy did I discover yet another compelling contribution Murphy makes to New Jersey – working for the state’s Director of Risk Management, she handles mitigation between people who’ve lost their homes after natural catastrophes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In other words, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Murphy helped determine who gets relief money, a job that means telling some people good news and other people bad. Even though the storm ashore a year-and-a-half ago, on October 29, 2012, she’s still working to help folks get their FEMA aid, among other things. Even though it ultimately came ashore as a subtropical storm, Sandy pushed high seas inland to the north of the eye, causing, in addition to wind damage, massive flooding in New Jersey and New York.

When I tell her how a 2011 tornado in my hometown almost seemed to target those least able to afford to rebuild, she only says, “Well, this storm did not discriminate.”

As we drive through Union Beach, she points out the homes still not repaired, the water lines still visible … and the empty lots where homes once stood. One of the most famous – a house cut almost in half by either winds or floods – belonged to one of her relatives.

“Some people lost everything,” she told me as we drove along Union Beach, a mostly blue-collar area. “There was nothing salvageable for most of them on the waterfront, Some of them are still living at a [closed military base in Monmouth County, they only have a couple of more months and they have to be out. It’s horrible. They can’t go back to their own homes; FEMA money isn’t coming in fast enough for them.

“I can’t imagine it. I was displaced for two weeks, no gas, no electric, but I still had my house, I still had my stuff.”

In her work, she’s in the middle between FEMA and those who can’t go back home – as well as those scared to approach the government.

“They’re angry, they’re scared – some of them are not here legally, so they’re reluctant to come forward, and they’re renters, but they lost stuff, too. It took a lot of work to persuade them that we weren’t about deporting, we were about helping. They wouldn’t come to shelters. A lot of them went back to damaged houses. They were breaking in and living there because they didn’t have anywhere to go. Sad.”

Murphy looks back at Union Beach shoreline.

Murphy looks back at Union Beach shoreline.

Because of environmental regulations designed to help with future storms, some properties – many of them small – wind up designated as parks that allow water to flow through easily. She gestures at a couple such properties, noting that the towns don’t always approve of this – the town has to pay to maintain the lot, and meanwhile no money is being made from the property, eroding the tax base. That’s just a couple of the dilemmas: In a storm-related simulation the agencies just ran, one situation involved a grocery store offering to donate its perishables before they spoiled. The knee-jerk response is to say yes, of course folks can use the food. But the correct answer is usually the opposite. You have take into account that with power out, there is no way to refrigerate the perishables, and with workers scrambling elsewhere, there would be no one to pick it up.

She’s long accepted that people aren’t always going to like the answers they get from governmental agencies, even though the government is obviously in better position to coordinate than individual charities. “They see the government as very bureaucratic; they think that we’re all paid really well, that we’ve got these huge pensions and we’re just there to put in our eight hours and go home. And emergency management doesn’t work that way – you HAVE to care, you spend every waking moment on the job, sometimes for weeks, sleeping on a cot, sleeping on the floor, eating emergency rations, which are gross!”

Others, of course, let her know they’re grateful.

“People do say thank you; people do send letters and cards. After they scream at you, they are thankful later.” But because the process means that they are then referred to others for the next step, “you don’t always see end product. You do your part, then you have to let them go. It’s like raising a child: You hope you’ve done the best job you can, then send them off to college and hope they’re OK.”

She wishes she could do more. “You can’t make everyone happy, but you try little by little to chop away, to get people the money they feel their homes are valued for, and keep them safe, that’s really what we do.”

Along the Union Beach shoreline.

Along the Union Beach shoreline.

It was partly through her work connections that Murphy, having proven herself a networker extraordinaire, was approached to help with another heart-rending effort – the Run for the Fallen, a race along most of the length of Jersey Shore, from Cape May to Homedel, a distance of roughly 120 miles.

The run isn’t a garden-variety fundraiser, in which people pledge donations per mile; in fact, it’s open only to select members of the military and, on a limited basis, family members of New Jersey soldiers who have died in action during what the organization website calls the War on Terror, including Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn.

The participants run from one “hero marker” to the next; at each marker, there is a tribute to a fallen soldier, including a flag that the participants salute. At most stops the runners meet the family members of the fallen soldier.

“Most of time the families of soldiers are there at that hero marker, we do make sure that one of the groups honor soldiers when families aren’t there. They have pictures and flags that fly, we line the streets with fire trucks and flags and people.” Her tone becomes more emotional as she describes it. “It’s amazing, really amazing.”

Held every fall, the run has expanded to a three-day event, even though the distance is more or less the same. “We don’t want to grow,” she says. “Each marker is added because another soldier is passed.”

The event pulls on Murphy’s abilities as a networker, a coordinator and, being in emergency management, her ability to solve problems on the spot when reality interferes with her well-laid plans. But one of the biggest challenges is how much the event taxes her emotions.

“It’s probably the most emotional thing I’ve ever been a part of, because you spend your entire day with these families. You hear the stories they tell, the pictures they show you, You can go on-line [at www.njrunforthefallen.org] and see pictures and bios, but unless you meet the families, then the soldier is just a picture. If you have lunch with them or have a drink with them or see their hero marker, that brings a whole different perspective.

“To lose a child … I can’t imagine anything worse.”

The participants inspire strong feelings as well.

“We’ve had wounded soldiers participate. One lives in Union Beach; both of his legs were severed. We worked to get him better prostheses. He was in a crank chair and he did the entire race. He was in front of our runners, and they said, ‘hey, you’re making us look bad.’ “

How does Murphy feel afterward?

“Exhausted. You don’t get over it, [but] you appreciate everything a lot more. You appreciate your family a lot more, you hug your kid a lot more. There’s a lot of crying; it takes a couple of days for the eyes to stop swelling. But you do it because you can.”

War dog memorial in Homedel.

War dog memorial in Homedel.

Even though it exposes Murphy to sadness, she feels it’s important to remember the loss of others. She doesn’t hide from the storm of emotions; she faces into it. She got her first experience with deeply emotional volunteer work as a student at Syracuse, when she helped prepare young swimmers with disabilities to participate in the Special Olympics.

“They didn’t know they were different: They were who they were and they worked within their handicap and they kicked butt,” she said, smiling. “One child from a very, very poor family made me a [model of a] diving board and painted it purple, because purple was my favorite color, and put together with wood and glue.”

“That was in 1973, and I still have that model.”

She laughed. “It’s broken into 16 different pieces, but I still have that diving board, and I’ll never throw it out, because that child touched me so deeply. Would I do that again? I probably wouldn’t do that again, because that was so heart-wrenching, but this has just gotten under my skin and this is just absolutely amazing.”

As if to drive the point home, we pull in at the Homedel Vietnam Memorial. She shows me a plaque her organization placed on the lawn to acknowledge more recent soldiers that gave their lives, the war dog memorial on the sidewalk, the rotunda in which you can step down to study a heartbreaking sculpture: The body of a dying male soldier splayed on the ground, while a female soldier, perhaps a nurse, kneels over him. A second male soldier looks on anxiously. This is where the three-day Run for the Fallen concludes.

We ponder the curved wall with the names of the soldiers, the displays inside the building. I ask her if there’s one exhibit she tends to linger over; the truth is that she’s usually too busy to take them in.

“We get 40-50 volunteers here, I’ll use them and take time to kid around a little bit and start working with them to find out where we can put them. I’m never going to say no, don’t volunteer, because there’s always a way to use people.”

Before we leave she notes the odd contrast, the natural setting of the park in which she’s seen deer and raccoons, vs. the Garden State Parkway, plainly visible. We can hear the whoosh of traffic as rush hour approaches. On the way back to my car, she tells me I should take the time to drive the length of Jersey Shore, down to the run’s start in Cape May. “It’s beautiful down there.”

I take my new friend’s advice, drive the length of Jersey Shore, and walk a quiet beach near Cape May in Wildwoods. I press my hand into the cold Atlantic surf, then gather a few seashells; I tell myself I’ll relocate them to the Pacific Coast a couple of months from now.

Driving back to the Parkway, I pass the sign for another Vietnam Memorial. It never really ends.

The rotunda sculpture at the Homedel Vietnam Memorial.

The rotunda sculpture at the Homedel Vietnam Memorial.


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