UNION BEACH, N.J. — In the days after Hurricane 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.
A local youth soccer coach drove past it three days straight, on his way to help neighbors rip out the carpets, floors and walls of their flooded homes.
Then he plucked it from its waterlogged storage bag, set it up in a vacant field — and watched in amazement as 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.
"It's become the sign of our hope, that life goes on and you move forward. It's just amazing," said Gigi Liaguno-Dorr,
James Butler recalled the night in early November when he took the tree out of the bag. "It was like the rest of the town: It smelled bad and it was sopping wet," he said.
He tried to set it upright, but it had no stand. He bought a stand, but it didn't quite fit right, and to this day it lists a little to the side. He put up a handmade sign next to it that read: "Dear Sandy: You can't wash away hope. You only watered it so more hope can grow. Signed, Union Beach."
A few ornaments appeared within a day or two. Others followed. Then more. A neighbor ran a string of extension cords from his house to light the tree.
The ornaments began getting personal, with hand-scrawled notes of support. One family wrote, "We believe! We have hope! We will recover!"