One house, swept by the sea, sits in the middle of an intersection a half-mile from its foundation; another is a pile of rubble mangled by Hurricane Sandy’s powerful winds and waves.
Those are some of the images seared into the memory of the leader of a group of Massachusetts state troopers sent to New Jersey to help with storm relief.
“You could look at a picture, but you cannot comprehend the amount of devastation that this storm caused. It’s overwhelming,” said Captain John Byrne, commander of the 24 troopers sent to Toms River Township. The troopers expect to return home to Massachusetts on Sunday.
The troopers begin their days at 4 a.m., waking in their barracks at Fort Dix and driving an hour to Toms River to start their 12-hour shift at 6 a.m. Each day they are given a mission — usually to help residents retrieve items from their destroyed homes.
“Residents are bused to a certain area to retrieve items,” said Byrne. “They’re allowed to bring two suitcases and are given about two hours to do that.”
Some residents returned to where their houses once stood to find only piles of debris and sand. One woman pleaded with troopers to help her locate something — anything — from her storm-ravaged home.
The troopers, who also patrol the desolate streets to prevent looting, have crawled through debris and helped retrieve bulkier items, including refrigerators and pianos. “They can’t stand there [and do nothing] and watch people face what they’re facing,” Byrne said.
Beaches are almost completely eroded and 12-foot dunes have disappeared, Byrne said. Many streets were covered with sand, requiring extensive cleanup efforts to make them passable.
The days may be long and draining, but Byrne said many of his troopers asked if their volunteer work would be extended, because they feel that their work is not yet done.
“Are they tired? Yes, they are. But would someone other than their supervisor know that? Absolutely not,” he said. “They see what these people are going through and that energizes them.”