UNION BEACH, N.J. – In the days after Superstorm Sandy wrecked this gritty blue-collar enclave on the New Jersey shore, creating iconic scenes of devastation and loss, the artificial Christmas tree was just an inconspicuous part of tons of rubble, the detritus of people’s lives ripped open for all to see.
A local youth soccer coach drove past it for three days straight, on his way to volunteer by helping neighbors rip out the carpets, floors and walls of their flooded homes.
He plucked it from its waterlogged bag, set it up in a vacant field – and watched in amazement as grieving residents made the tree their own, adorning it with handmade ornaments, lights, and messages of hope, defiance and recovery.
A month later, Union Beach has rallied around the tree, a rare bit of encouragement in a depressing holiday season like no other.
It’s become the sign of our hope, that life goes on and you move forward. It’s just amazing, said Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, whose destroyed restaurant, Jakeabob’s Bay, was flashed across TV screens during Wednesday night’s telecast of the Sandy benefit concert in New York.
County parks employee James Butler, who rescued the tree, says much of its appeal is that the community as a whole has taken ownership.
It’s an amazing thing to see it keep growing, he said.
He came to feel the town’s despair – and the reason to be hopeful – while helping an elderly widow haul out the waterlogged contents of her flooded home, including all her furniture and mementos of her husband.
I took that same deep breath in that people whose homes are ruined take, when you realize that all the stuff that made that house a home is gone, he said.
She saw me do that, and she came over and gave me a hug. That was the spark I needed, the thought that things were going to be OK.
That night, in early November, he plucked the tree out of the debris in the curb. A few ornaments appeared within a day or two. Others followed. Then still more. A neighbor ran a string of extension cords from his house so the tree could light up at night.
People started surrounding the tree with pieces of driftwood; kids left toy trucks at its base. The ornaments began getting personal, with hand-scrawled notes of support. Ornaments from as far away as Tennessee and Florida now adorn the tree, mailed by relatives of Union Beach residents looking to show their support.