For the more than 150 volunteers who came out to the new Municipal Building on Thursday morning, their time spent talking to residents and helping to clear brush not only served as a way for them to get out of the house after sitting in the dark for several days but also as a chance to help their community.
For older Howell residents in places like The Villages and Surrey Downs, being without power since Hurricane Sandy hit on Sunday has meant many have not left the house and had no information about the storm. When the volunteers came to their door they were able to not only get the latest news but also share any concerns and get any help the township could provide.
For some, that meant getting a prescription filled by volunteers, others required medical attention while others were just happy to have a friendly smile from a person to talk to.
In addition to those that were charged with getting information out to residents, a second group went to the Candlewood section of town to help clear debris from the roads and homes.
Deputy Mayor William Gotto said the work that was started on Thursday and continued Friday was just the first step as the township rebuilds from Hurricane Sandy. "We know it's not even putting a dent in it but we're using the strength of volunteers to help make the town whole again," he said. "If they're out there picking up less than five percent of it (brush and debris) they're still doing something and it makes people feel like they're helping their neighbors."
Many of the volunteers came from the Howell Police Athletic League and Sgt. Chris Hill, the program's director, said he was glad his group was able to contribute to their hometown. "That's what we do best," he said of the volunteer work. The PAL members have travelled far and wide to help in disaster situations so being able to help their own town made it extra special.
Hill said his group included not only current members but also former ones as well who came home to help wherever they were needed. "This is home so they want to help home," he said.
He may not have been one of the PAL volunteers but Josh Zuckerman said after staying with his mother in The Villages during the storm he was glad he was able to do something to help her neighbors. He said he was not aware of the volunteer efforts until he saw the group walking through the neighborhood. "Just so I wouldn't go crazy I went out to see what I could do," he said with a laugh.
Zuckerman said the response the volunteers got was very positive. "People are just very happy to know that people are out there just caring for each other," he said.
Councilman Robert Nicastro, who along with Councilman Juan Malave went with the group clearing debris said he was proud of the work they did on Thursday. "People were very appreciative that we were there," he said. "It's going to be a slow recovery but we're out there. We got a lot done."
It was estimated the group collected close to 25 tons of debris from the neighborhood and they were ready to get back out on the road Friday morning. "It's a slow cleanup," he said, estimating it will take months to have all the roads fully cleared. "This is an astronomical amount of cleanup."
As she sat in the new municipal building, which was only under partial power thanks to a generator, Township Manager Helene Schlegel said Thursday was a good start to getting the town running again. "I think the volunteerism that came out was a testament to the fortitude of the residents of Howell Township," she said. "They care about their community and they're doing everything they can to assist the township in their efforts to clean up in the aftermath."
Schlegel said the goal will be "to take little pieces at a time until we can clean up the whole town." Getting the town cleared is now a top priority for Schlegel and the rest of the administration. "We're maximizing all our resources that we have to clean up the town," she said.
Mayor Robert Walsh said the way residents have responded to the catastrophic storm says a lot about the people who live here. "The citizens have been great," he said. "We've been getting a lot of calls from citizens asking what they can do to help. They've been very understand and there has been very little complaining."
In his time as mayor Walsh said he has seen a "100 year blizzard. We had floods that never happened before in Howell township and now we had a hurricane like we never felt before." But each time the residents have come together. "They're pretty much unstoppable the citizens of Howell Township," he said. "Even now you have people clearing debris, you have neighbor helping neighbor and you have people stopping in cars and helping. I couldn't be prouder of the people and I've seen them in action during tough times."