By Jelane A. Kennedy
It is the things taken for granted that become obvious. Shelter, food, electricity and water are part of daily life. Those resources when gone can change so many things. During this thanksgiving season that became more apparent as we made our way to Misquamicut Beach in Westerly, Rhode Island. We have visited this area three out of four of the last Thanksgiving holidays. Eileen’s family spent numerous summer vacations playing in the sun here. Walking the beach on Thanksgiving Day and witnessing the grandeur of the ocean has been centering the last few years. This year we knew our trip would take a different focus.
Before leaving Albany a quick check was done to see if Hurricane Sandy had impacted the campground in Mystic, Connecticut. For weeks there has been pictures of New York City and New Jersey in the news but there had not been a thing about Rhode Island. While making a check on the net to see how Westerly, Rhode Island had fared, we discovered some news stories about the relief efforts going on along the beach. After more digging into the net we found out how we could volunteer through a group called Serve Rhode Island. They have been organizing work details every weekend since Sandy and were also collecting donations to help with the relief efforts. We signed up immediately and hoped we could join the efforts to reclaim the beach. We were excited to see an organized group at work.
Thanksgiving afternoon we found the rendezvous point for our work detail on Friday. After which we drove down to the Misquamicut Beach or what was left of the beach. The Misquamicut State Beach parking lot where we usually park Abbey was full
of mounds of sand that towered at least 10 to 30 feet high along with multiple construction dumpsters full of debris. As we drove down the recently sand cleared Atlantic Avenue, we saw debris piles approximately every 10 feet. Many of the piles contained shredded lumber, fabric, plastic distorted from it’s original shapes, and broken porcelain. Further down the strip we discovered a cleared spot to pull into and park. Walking beyond the buildings out to the beach we found barely a strip of sand. The ocean waves crashed with speed and rough force. How often we forget that nature is wild.
From the street many buildings looked in pretty good shape, until one ventured to the beach side to see facades collapsed and falling down along what was now the water’s edge. Driving both in and out of the area, the water’s path was marked by debris piles near homes. While the homes may have appeared intact on the exterior the debris outside each house told another story. It gave us pause as winter fast approaches and the thought of Nor’easters crackled in our heads.
Friday morning brought out a crew of about 25 people of all ages, the organizers had hoped for 50. The oldest was 75 and the youngest looked to be in high school. We all came to work; it was the anti-black Friday experience. Many came with the suggested shovel, work boots and gloves to board the school bus into the worksite.
At the volunteer check-in location we were welcomed by a small group of folks and told about our potential work details. Eileen and I went with the city officials to help excavate sand on the sidewalks and around telephone poles, buried several feet deep. Armed with our shovels we set to work. The officials were careful to tell us the areas to use caution due to hazardous waste potentials. About a half hour into the project, the group was broken in half and I went with a cluster to help a local business owner. Our ultimate destination was a miniature golf course across Atlantic Avenue between the beach and Winnapaug Pond.
The business was buried under at least three feet of sand. Earlier weekend work crews had managed to dig out and find the back half of the miniature golf course near the pond during the prior weeks. Our job was to begin the process of digging out the front half of the course near Atlantic Avenue. It felt a little bit like it must on an archeological dig, as we stripped layers of sand down until we could finally see the outline of a hole. The owner worked
with us, helping us to decipher where to try to pile sand so that we weren’t further burying where we were headed. He knew the shape and size of each hole and how they were laid out in a particular pattern. There was also a bobcat operator and his partner meticulously lifting sand out of the way and helping to take the sand to other locations. I had never seen such a large machine do such delicate work. As I shoveled next to the large hunk of metal I grew to appreciate the craftsmanship of the driver who gently worked to help excavate the sand as I shovel along beside him. An overwhelming sense of the task ahead at times was daunting.
As I quietly dug out my hole, I thought a lot about the courage the men and women of this area had to have to keep plugging forward while finding places to put the unbelievable amount of sand that was every where. To not feel overwhelmed in the midst of what was ahead seemed unbelievable. Just before noon the other half of our group joined us.
When talking to the owner near the end of the day he told us stories of seeing one of his storage sheds floating in the pond behind us and of the big sifting machines used to separate the debris from the sand so that it was safe to relocate. We asked him how they would re-create the beach and he sort of just stood and looked out to where the beach use to be with a shrug.
The day was long, the sand was heavy and by three in the afternoon we were all tired. The bus ride back was quiet as people exhausted rested in their seats. It was good to know that we were headed back to Abbey and a hot shower. That we were just temporarily overwhelmed by the sand was sobering. We had only made a small dent in the scope of all the work yet to be done, had only partially dug out the rest of the miniature golf course, one business of many yet to be found. We know we will be back.
(c) 2012 Jelane A. Kennedy & Eileen A. McFerran