The yellow posterboard, stamped with green toddler handprints and bordered with children's photos, once reflected a safe, happy home. Now it is a relic among the ruins. Just below the posterboard, the walls were ripped away, insulation spilling out, electrical cords dangling. The floor was heaped with wet sand and trash.
Pasco sheriff's Sgt. Billy Lawless and two retired lawmen, Rich Williams and Steve Madden, saw the destruction from Hurricane Sandy first hand when they spent a week in Beach Haven, N.J., helping their fellow officers deal with one of the costliest disasters in American history. The Fraternal Order of Police sent out the call for help shortly after the Oct. 29 superstorm, and these three members of the Pasco FOP joined a Florida delegation that headed north.
"I'd seen how people came and helped in Florida when storms hit," said Steve Madden, a retired detective and FOP director of marketing for the Pasco FOP chapter. "There was no way we could not go."
The Florida crew — which included three FOP members from Pasco, two from Charlotte County, one from Miami Beach, three from Orlando, one from West Palm and one from Hillsborough County — took four Disaster Response Trailers equipped with generators, tools and even paper towels.
The FOP is like that. When "brothers" face trouble help is fast.
"We can respond immediately," Madden said. "There are no forms to fill out, no questionnaires, no bureaucracy. We're ready to go to work right away."
The Florida group arrived late Nov. 8 to Beach Haven, a small town along a barrier island about 50 miles north of Atlantic City. Normally bubbling with tourists and seasonal residents, the town was eerie, dark and silent.
The New Jersey FOP took the Florida crew to the Emergency Operations Center, an old Coast Guard station with sleeping bags on the floor and portable toilets, but no showers. The Washington, D.C. Metro Lodge FOP had brought its mobile kitchen and gave the group a meal.
They crawled into sleeping bags and woke a few hours later to face the storm's havoc.
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As Sandy barreled toward the northeast, Beach Haven residents fled inland under mandatory evacuations. The storm and the 11-foot surge tore up much of what they left behind.
Beloved bicycles and Barbie dolls. Family photos and precious mementos. Homes loved by generations — the storm didn't discriminate. Many lives and homes — some of them uninsured — were changed forever.
In the aftermath, the police officers of Beach Haven were so busy securing their town that they couldn't tend to their own damaged homes. That's where the Florida crew stepped in.
The FOP "brothers," as they called themselves, went to those officers' homes to haul away soaked items and remove ruined drywall, with the hope of preventing the damage from getting worse before contractors could repair it.
"We were the triage, so to speak," said Madden. "We grabbed onto what was needed to be done the most. We gave the first step and bought the families time until further help arrived."
The seawater had soaked everything: walls, furniture, appliances, flooring, personal items. As the water rushed ashore it pulled in mounds of sand. When the water receded the sand remained, knee deep in places, including in homes.
"It was total devastation," said Rich Williams, a retired patrol from Columbia, Missouri who now belongs to the Pasco FOP. "I had a plan going in, but it was a learning situation for everyone."
Work on the first house went slowly. The fellows sawed off drywall about 4 feet up, pulled out insulation and yanked up flooring. Problems arose, like drywall dust mixing with wet sand, making floors ice slick.
With the second house, things went smoother. By then the crew had their footing and a game plan.
"There was such camaraderie. No one complained," said Williams. "When we got tired we rested and went right back to work."
They worked from dawn to dusk for nearly a week, going from house to house, piling debris into mounds to be trashed later. By the sixth day, a cold blustery storm with snow and ice was bearing down. Knowing they weren't prepared, and with officers like Lawless needing to return to their jobs, the Florida group packed up Nov. 14, tired and dirty, and headed south.
"I think of those people every day," said Williams. "It was traumatizing for the ones who owned the homes and were there to watch what we were doing. People had lived in those homes 30 to 40 years and now they have nothing."
But the men felt like they were able to help in an hour of need. And next time there's another disaster, they'll head out again.
"You can't make it personal," Lawless said. "You know you'd do it all over again. You know you did something positive."