UNION BEACH, N.J. – In the days after Superstorm Sandy wrecked this blue-collar enclave on the New Jersey shore, 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 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, adorning it with handmade ornaments, lights and messages of hope, defiance and recovery.
A month later, Union Beach has rallied around the tree, a rare bit of encouragement in a difficult holiday season.
“It’s become the sign of our hope, that life goes on. 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 6,200 just across from New York’s Staten Island suffered major damage from the storm surge; a house on the bay front that was literally cut in half by waves has become one of the defining images of the storm.
It is devastation that may chase many of the town’s residents away for good. Union Beach’s median household income was $61,347; unlike wealthier Jersey shore oceanfront communities where many of the homes destroyed were summer getaways, most of the houses wrecked in Union Beach were people’s only home.
“People say that Sandy brought that tree here for us,” said Angel Barbosa, who works in a pizzeria just down the street.
County parks employee James Butler, the man who rescued the tree, says much of its appeal is that the community as a whole has taken ownership.
“It’s an amazing thing to see it keep growing,” he said.
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, so he bought one. He put up a handmade sign next to it, which read: “Dear Sandy: You can’t wash away hope. You only watered it so more hope can grow. Signed, Union Beach.”