Charlie Pico of Ogunquit felt helpless when Hurricane Sandy pounded New Jersey last week, leaving his family and millions of others without electricity.
He loaded a portable generator into his car, ready to drive south, but his family told him to stay in Maine because of the poor road conditions and the shortage of gas in New Jersey.
Now, a week later, Pico and more than 20 other business owners in Ogunquit have teamed up to offer help to storm victims through Operation Ogunquit: Hurricane Sandy Relief.
The goal is to offer a week of free lodging, food and entertainment to 50 families from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut who have nowhere else to go as relief efforts continue in their region.
Organizers aim to bring families to Maine next week, having decided that the week after Election Day and before Thanksgiving would be best.
“We hope to provide respite and the chance to regroup, rebuild and help them heal from the tragedy,” reads Operation Ogunquit’s Facebook page. “It will only be a few days in our beautiful place by the sea, but we hope it will allow these families to begin to feel whole again.”
Pico, who owns the Bourne Bed & Breakfast with Ross Klisart, said he jumped at the chance to participate in the effort organized by a local hotel owner, Sarah Diment, and the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce.
He will open all of his empty rooms to people who have been displaced by the hurricane. The bed and breakfast has seven rooms, and none was booked as of Monday.
“People are going back to homes that don’t exist, or are still standing but need to be knocked down because they’re not safe,” Pico said. “We just want to help out where we can.”
Diment, who owns The Beachmere Inn, said the idea for Operation Ogunquit developed last week, after her hotel got cancellations from guests in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The idea was simple: Put people who need places to stay in hotel rooms that would otherwise be empty.
“We wanted to give them a little bit of time to regroup from the misery of no power, no house, no clothes, or whatever it may be,” she said. “We would love to just give them some time here.”
Diment contacted Karen Arel, president of the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce, who immediately sent an email to chamber members asking for help.
Within days, nearly 25 businesses offered rooms, meals and entertainment. Northeast Charter & Tour Co. and Amtrak offered to transport people from New York to Maine.
As word began to spread via Facebook and Twitter, community members began contacting organizers with offers of help. “The response was overwhelming,” Arel said.
While it was easy to find people to help, Diment and Arel ran into obstacles finding families who need a week away. They hoped the Red Cross could find families in shelters, but the organization said it couldn’t help because that isn’t part of its mission.
Now Arel is contacting chambers of commerce and first responders in New York and New Jersey to find families who need help. She also is trying to find families through social networking and referrals from people here who know of families who might want to come to Maine next week.
“Our big thing is finding the families who really need to be here,” she said.
Organizers said they will do all they can to help people who have no homes to return to. That could include helping them find short- or long-term rentals, distributing donated clothing or offering counseling from a pastor, Arel said.
Students at Berwick Academy plan to make cards to give to children who have been affected by the hurricane.
Jeffrey Porter, co-owner of the Five-O Shore Road restaurant, didn’t hesitate to offer food when he heard of Operation Ogunquit. A native of Long Island, he said he knows “the folks from New York are suffering through this.”
“I can’t imagine the loss and the devastation they’ve had to endure,” he said. “We’re looking forward to having the people here and hopefully making things a little bit better for them.”
Arel said she isn’t surprised that Ogunquit is so willing to help.
“We are doing what we can to bring some peace to the families that have had their lives uprooted,” she said. “It’s great to know that Ogunquit stands ready, willing and able to help.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: