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 in a town ripped apart.
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 storage bag, set it up in a vacant field — and watched in amazement as grieving residents made the tree their own.
A month later, Union Beach has rallied around the tree, a rare bit of encouragement in a holiday season depressing 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.
This town of about 6,200 just across Raritan Bay from New York’s Staten Island suffered major damage from the storm surge and resulting flooding; a house on the bay front that was cut in half by waves has become one of the defining images of the storm.
County parks employee James Butler, the man who rescued the tree, said much of its appeal is that the community as a whole has taken ownership. 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.
“I took it out of the bag,” he recalled. “It was like the rest of the town: It smelled bad, and it was sopping wet.”
He tried to set it upright, but it had no stand. He went to a store and bought a tree stand for a real tree, but the artificial tree didn’t quite fit right. To this day, it lists a little. Next to it, he put up a handmade sign that read: “Dear Sandy: You can’t wash away hope. You only watered it so more hope can grow. Signed, Union Beach.”
Then he got out of the way as the town started adopting this forlorn storm survivor, a Charlie Brown tree if ever there was one.
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 to the tree so it could light up at night.
The ornaments began getting personal, with hand-scrawled notes of support. One family wrote, “We believe! We have hope! We will recover!” on a flaming-red glass ornament. Another scrawled “We love Union Beach” on another.