St. Andrew's Church volunteers clean up after Superstorm Sandy and nor'easter
The sun rises, but it's still that soggy kind of cold that seeps through jacket seams and into shirts and under skin until it burrows deep into a guy's muscle and bone.
It's nothing compared to where these men are headed.
Fourteen guys in rain jackets arrive, many fresh from 7 a.m. voting lines, to load vehicles with ladders, a wheelbarrow, tarps, water, rope, diapers, a massive chain saw and whatever else the folks devastated by Superstorm Sandy might need.
The volunteers from St. Andrew's church in Mount Pleasant don't know exactly where they're going — just that people are suffering in freezing temperatures without power, their damaged homes filled with muck and mud — and God has called these men to help.
So they came on short notice, work and family schedules quickly retooled so they could be gone for six days. Their ranks include a contractor, an electrician, a tree-cutting expert, a businessman, a spiritual leader and the bishop's 19-year-old son.
Kurtz Smith, organizer and spiritual leader of the group, calls them over. They'd planned to stay at a church near Atlantic City. Instead, they'll be going farther north to Toms River, N.J., an especially hard-hit area where they're needed more.
Oh, and a dangerous nor'easter should hit the area around the time they arrive.
Playing on strengths
Because of the guys' professional expertises, they'll focus on cleanup: Laying tarps and patching damaged roofs, cutting damaged trees, removing limbs and clearing debris.
Terry Brown downplays his presence here, although for this self-employed electrician, helping out meant canceling a job, which means losing money.
“Long as I'm still breathing, I've got next week,” the former Marine says. “I was called to do this. You got to put into the world what you take out.”
Smith, who is St. Andrew's men's ministry leader, calls the group inside for roll call and a quick meeting. He led a group into Hurricane Katrina's wake in 2005 and knows the stress a trip like this puts on people.
“Guys, we're going into a war zone,” Smith warns. “Toms River got hammered.”
The key is unity. No bickering, no complaining, no going off on your own.
Phil Sabatino will act as general manager, safety guru and work assigner of the team. Smith is spiritual leader. Brown is electrical leader. Dave Tisdale is the group's official chain saw leader. He works for Cox Tree Service, which will pay him while he's gone.
They pray for their own safety and for God's blessing of those in need.
“All right boys,” Smith hops up. “Let's get those trucks packed and hit the road.”
Heading north on Interstate 95, they stopped to pay a toll at Fort McHenry Tunnel in Maryland. The attendant noticed the hurricane relief car signs and passed the four vehicles in their caravan at no charge.
Excitement mixes with stiff legs and boredom as the hours pass. What will they find in New Jersey?
Granted, most of these guys lived through Hugo, not to mention the many other storms that have toured the Lowcountry, and some of them helped with Katrina clean up. So their idea of storm damage might not be the norm.
But the damage in Toms River area doesn't look that terrible to them. And the worst of it is out on the sea island towns, which are closed off.
At day's end, they settle in at a church's halfway house — 14 guys in a 2.5-bedroom house with no power. Temperatures dip below freezing.
Before bed, they pray. God, please put us in the right place to help.
That night, the snow comes.
First on the scene
Through the snow, they cruise around looking for damage and spot a sprawling development with 1,100 mobile homes, mostly housing low-income folks in their 80s and 90s.
John Carroll, a self-employed businessman who calls himself the group's “token Catholic,” watches an elderly woman cross her snowy street to greet her neighbor with the warmth of a hug. The woman then invites her neighbor, who is elderly and frail, into her home for the warmth of electricity. Some streets have power; many have none.
Many folks seem stunned that help has arrived with the blizzard still so fresh. “We inadvertently became first responders,” Carroll notices.
Some, frazzled by back-to-back storms, try to pay the Charleston crew out of sheer thanks.
“We can't take your money,” Carroll says. “But if you will allow us, we'll pray for you.”
At 6 a.m. Sunday, the men left New Jersey and headed home to a Charleston day that was reaching for 80 degrees. The sun sets fall leaves aglow with gold and green and russet against a blue sky.
This was Carroll's first mission trip. He tries to process it all during the long drive and wonders how the trip will feel when juxtaposed against the comfort of his own Mount Pleasant home.
“There's going to be a lot less complaining and griping,” he promises.
While driving, Smith gets a text from one of St. Andrew's pastors back home. A man called the church from North Carolina. He had been praying for someone to help his poor and elderly mother, who lives alone in New Jersey.
A crew of men from Charleston had shown up on her doorstep, miraculously, after the blizzard. He just wanted to say thank you.