Dispatch from NJ: Private Citizens, Businesses Providing Aid in Government's Stead

New Jersey is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy. The politicians and celebrities have come and gone, but residents still struggle for basic necessities. One thing I’m learning first hand is that our best hope here in NJ is the generosity and help of other people and of private enterprise.

Some here have lost everything -- their homes and their loved ones -- while others remain without heat and power. Temperatures have been in the low 30s and a Nor'easter is now on its way for Wednesday that is expected to knock out power to areas still recovering. Heat is of the utmost concern. As of this morning, nearly half the state remains without power -- in my county alone, only 37 percent of homes have had power restored. JCP&L, the local electric company, estimates that many homes' power may not be restored until next week.

I was lucky enough to have my power restored just yesterday (for now, at least). A week without heat and electricity will teach you how much we take things for granted. You spend the days figuring out ways to get more food and supplies and, most of all, trying to keep warm. No matter how prepared you are in advance, needs will arise. Ice melts during the day and food spoils, batteries and firewood run out, and information is hard to come by. A local radio station, NJ 101.5, has been the primary lifeline here in the state to find out what's going on. Without regular internet, there’s been no way to visit websites to find Red Cross locations, private shelters, where you can get gas, or where to get ice to stop food from spoiling.

In the entire week that I was without power, I was surprised that not a single official or volunteer from my town or county came to knock on doors and check on people. I have friends and family in nearby towns, and they’ve also heard from no one. There are frequent reports on the radio that shelters are providing food and supplies, but many cannot get to such locations. Neighbors might check on each other, but they’re all in the same boat when it comes to basic necessities. When a disaster this catastrophic hits an entire state, the help needs to be brought to the people.

If you are lucky enough to have a cell phone and a car with some gas in it to charge it (as I was), you can occasionally get text messages out to people or get onto social media sites like Twitter to communicate. Even that has been spotty.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that government is not prepared for things like this. People have been left in the cold and the dark, hearing nothing from the local government. While I appreciate the leadership Governor Christie has displayed during this crisis, he was right about one thing: it’s people helping people that will save NJ, not government.

I was overwhelmed this week by the outpouring of support from folks online. Some of them were people I know in real life, some I’ve only known online. Throughout the week, on the occasion that I was actually able to access Twitter, people who knew of my situation checked in regularly. They sent me information on shelters, where to get gas, where to find supplies, and where to get more food. Some of them monitored hashtags and keywords for my town and sent me any relevant tweets with updates on power restoration, where grocery stores were open, and where to try and find ice nearby. Many offered to overnight or personally deliver to me blankets, coats, batteries, virtually anything I needed. Some offered their homes to me, once the roadways opened up. When I was able to get out a message that other people around the state were running out of gas and supplies and couldn’t get help, some posted the message at their blogs. And when I finally resigned myself to relocating to a shelter just before my power was restored, I texted others to look up the information and find a church shelter close to me.

Later in the week, I learned that several people were able to get deliveries in from private companies like Amazon. One called into the local radio station to say that he’d even ordered a generator through Amazon and successfully had it delivered the next day. Many small business owners called into the same station to offer their services and even their homes and offices for free. Others told me that companies like Walmart were bringing in free water. There are countless stories of private enterprise coming through for people stranded without heat and power, their supplies dwindling, or trapped in areas by downed trees and power lines.

Reports are finally surfacing that victims in NJ are saying they feel abandoned and are begging for help. Yet, as surprised and dismayed as I’ve been that local officials haven’t sent anyone over to knock on doors to check on people’s well-being and provide information, or that aid hasn’t been brought directly to immobile residents, there is a silver lining to the experience. It provided incredible peace of mind to know that, should I actually have needed anything, help was only a tweet or a text away. I was lucky to have such access, even if only occasionally. Others didn't have that capability; some don’t even own cell phones. It’s been up to people who do have such access to do all they can to keep others informed and connected. To see so many hands extended in the last week to me and to others I know has just been absolutely heartwarming and promising for the fate of NJ. I believe this is where our efforts in planning for disasters need to be focused in the future -- how people can connect to and help one another, not on faraway facilities that take days to organize and that few can reach. This week has been a testament to the good that capitalism can do.

This isn’t to say that government doesn’t have its place during a crisis like this. Some problems are beyond the capabilities of people, counties, and states, and that is the proper role for federal government. But as we’ve witnessed throughout the aftermath of Sandy, that assistance is usually a broader and longer-term solution. In times of immediate need, it takes people and private enterprise to lend the greatest helping hands.


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