Hurricane Heroes Take Recovery Efforts By Storm

September 17, 2017
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Anne Marie and Mark Elia of Long Branch were among those who responded to a call for donations to the residents of U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. They live part-time on the island and plan to fly down on Sunday to assist residents. Photos by Bernadette Hogan

By Bernadette Hogan |

SEA BRIGHT – Cars packed with cases of water, canned goods and toiletries, some carrying chain saws and generators, rolled through the parking lot of Woody’s Ocean Grille throughout Tuesday afternoon.

Two trucks on loan from Builders’ General Supply Company were loaded with recovery donations for Hurricane Irma victims in St. John, the U.S. Virgin Island devastated by 150 mph winds and torrential rain last week.

The scene evoked a sense of déjà vu. Almost five years ago, Woody’s was the epicenter for Super Storm Sandy relief efforts in Sea Bright, after the Category 3 storm decimated the tristate area.

“It’s heartbreaking, but the bottom line is we need to have patience. We still have things to do,” said Chris Woods, Woody’s owner and former board member of Sea Bright Rising, the nonprofit organization that distributed more than $1.6 million for Sandy recovery in Sea Bright.

“They (St. John) are in a very unique situation because there is no major airport or bridge to connect them to the mainland. They can’t go to Walmart, Home Depot or CVS for supplies,” he said, as donors walked by shaking hands and saying thank yous.

Janet Shaheen, Woods’ sister, and her husband Phil, are frequent visitors to St. John. Their friend Ben Steed, boat captain and owner of Born to Rhumb Charters based in St. John, has kept them updated concerning the devastation on the island.

Volunteers from Woody’s, Builders’ General, and Sea Bright Rising came together Tuesday to collect resources for Hurricane Irma victims on St. John Island.

Although stateside during the storm, Steed and several other St. Johnians immediately started Virgin Islands Relief,, and have been collecting supplies and posting updates for islanders.

Steed sent the Shaheens a list of items needed and the couple contacted Woods, asking him to partner with Phil’s family business, Builders’ General Supply Company. Friends of Woody’s and Builders’ General received a Facebook blast on Sunday, Sept. 10 with a detailed list of supplies needed, asking for items such as lanterns, flashlights, first aid kits, pre-charged cellphone chargers, work gloves and sneakers.

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Builders’ General donated around 20 generators and Woody’s promised 15 percent of the day’s proceeds would also go to the effort.

“It’s wonderful we have connections to people who are actually getting these supplies to the island,” Janet said. St. John is 1,106 miles southeast of Miami, but only 4 miles east of nearby St. Thomas.

“These trucks are going straight to the Philadelphia airport tomorrow,” Janet said. “FedEx donated one of their planes to take the supplies to St. Thomas or St. Croix, depending on where they can land, and then they will go to St. John on a barge.”

Dave and Sue Beil of Middletown gratefully watched as about 20 volunteers filled the trucks. They have a timeshare in St. John and Dave first visited the island 52 years ago.

“I was a little kid and St. John had the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen,” recalled Dave. “But right now, those people are going through a nightmare. The pictures reminded me of Sandy’s devastation. A totally green island is now brown.”

Three-year-old Alec Urbina and his sister Stella of Atlantic Highlands pose with their mom after donating money to the cause and having dinner at Woody’s.

The couple’s property manager told them not to return for at least four months, but in March 2018, they plan on traveling to the island to live and help.

“I’m hopeful that the green will come back, but for the people who live there, what are they going to do?” Sue said. “They lost their homes and source of income…everything.”

Other businesses, like Waterlily of Manasquan, Bare Wires Surf Shop of Spring Lake and Miles Ahead Sports in Wall Township, asked customers to donate items. Bruce and Sharon Robinson of Manasquan are good friends of the Shaheens.

“During Sandy we lost power for 10 days. Our home and business was fine, but those barely a quarter mile away from us weren’t as lucky,” Sharon said. “You have to help people no matter what, but this is something that really touches home.”

She recalls local churches spearheading cleanup crews canvassing the area in the wake of Sandy.

“Initially, this is what they’ll need to start their cleanup, but eventually they will need school supplies and other items for kids,” she said. “Those are top priorities. Let’s keep doing this.”

Ann Marie and Mark Elia of Long Branch live in St. John part-time, and are still waiting on word about their home on Bordeaux Mountain. The mountain is the highest peak on the island at 1,277 feet.

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“What people don’t know is you have Coral Bay on one side and Cruz Bay on the other. Cruz Bay is the hub where all the boats come in, so they will get water and electric first. The other side probably won’t get electric until 2018,” said Ann Marie.

They plan on going to St. John this coming Sunday to try and reach their home. They want to visit as many of the 100 or more houses on the mountain to take pictures and send updates to their owners.

“There have been rumors of gunpoint holdups and we can’t speak to friends because of limited cell service,” Mark said. “However, everyone we have talked to says they are safe. That’s all everyone seems to care about.” He said the islands need monetary donations sent to

Three-year-old Alec Urbina and his family stepped outside after dinner at Woody’s, where he and his baby sister, Stella, handed bills to volunteers.

“I want to help,” Alec said and tugged at his mother’s hand and pointed at the boxes of cans.

His grandmother, Margaret Fagen, said last week her grandchildren raised around $430 at a lemonade stand for their parish, St. Denis Church of Manasquan. The church sent relief donations to a sister parish in Texas to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Phil Shaheen estimates around 75 cars dropped off supplies before 5 p.m., and they planned on filling the 25,000-pound trucks to capacity.

“We have about 100 cases of water, eight generators, 20 chain saws. And the greatest thing is that everyone really stuck to the script. We didn’t want to collect a pile of junk. This is all useful stuff,” Shaheen said.

Ilene Winters, Highlands, former board member of Sea Bright Rising, said the situation reminds her of Sea Bright after Sandy because, like the beach town, St. John is isolated.

“Sea Bright was unique in that every structure in town was affected. No one could go home or open a business. People from all over the world donated to us, that’s why we need to pay it forward and give back,” she said. “This is just a small part of a larger effort.”

David Beil said he posted a picture in the Facebook group “Stateside St. Johnians Alliance for Hurricane Irma” of the day’s recovery efforts for his friends in St. John.

“Tragedies in a weird way can bring people together and the petty stuff melts away,” he said. “The community in St. John is strong, they will bounce back.”

This article was first published in the Sept. 14-21, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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