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Kean Panel Discusses Anniversary, Impact of Sandy

Panelists spoke about the impact of Superstorm Sandy, in an event at Kean

Panelists, (l-r), Mary Piasecki, Trudi-Ann Lawrence, Millie Gonzalez and Collette Kennedy discussed the impact of Superstorm Sandy. Standing behind them is Kean Associate History Professor Abigail Perkiss, Ph.D.

Ten years after Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey, causing damage across the state, panelists at a Kean University event held to mark the anniversary described how the storm changed their lives.

The panel discussion, Stories from the Surge, was organized by Kean Associate History Professor Abigail Perkiss, Ph.D., who led Kean students in an oral history project on the storm and authored a book about the impact along Sandy Hook and the Raritan Bayshore, Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey’s Forgotten Shore.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what happened 10 years ago,” Perkiss said, “and to think about what we as a community, a state and a country can take from that in preparing ourselves.”

Collette Kennedy ’08, ’16 MPA, mayor of Keyport and Kean alumna, said the storm gave rise to a new electronic lifeline – as residents turned to social media to communicate.

“Facebook was to Sandy what Zoom was to the pandemic,” she said. “It was a way for me to still feel connected to the world.”

Kennedy had owned her home for just four weeks when the storm struck. “That was my welcome present to the Bayshore,” she said.

She volunteered at a shelter for Sandy victims, and after the storm earned her master’s degree in public administration at Kean and entered local politics. 

The panel held at Kean's Human Rights Institute included three additional Kean graduates: Mary Piasecki ’14, and Trudi-Ann Lawrence ’14, who worked with Perkiss on the oral history project, and disability rights advocate and Kean communication strategist Millie Gonzalez ’02, ’07 M.A., of Union Beach.

The storm that made landfall in New Jersey on October 29, 2012, swamping coastal areas and knocking out power, changed their lives as well. After graduation, Piasecki served a year with FEMA Corps, a federal disaster-relief service program, and is now a teacher.

“It changed the trajectory of my life,” she said.

Lawrence is now also a teacher. After interviewing storm victims, she said “I am more aware of” what others are experiencing.

Many residents were not prepared for Sandy’s ferocity. Some 43 New Jerseyans died as a result of its effects. The storm compromised 346,000 primary residences in the state, destroying or significantly damaging 55,000, according to Perkiss’ book. Many survivors spent months or years cleaning up and rebuilding.

Gonzalez returned three years after Sandy to her rebuilt house, now raised 10 feet. A wheelchair user, she has a residential lift for access, but said she cannot visit neighbors because their houses have also been raised, but they have only stairs for access.

“Nobody thought of that,” said Gonzalez, adding that more must be done to recognize the needs of the disabled in areas such as emergency management. “I hope by sharing my story, things will turn out better for someone else.”

In the decade since Sandy, Perkiss said the raised homes along the Jersey Shore, lifted to meet new federal flood insurance guidelines, are one of the most visible reminders of the storm.

Despite the measures taken so far, she said the state is “increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic weather” as coastal populations increase, and sea levels across the world rise.

In closing, Perkiss asked panelists and attendees to consider how communities and government at all levels can create policy together.

“How can we create meaningful change?” she asked.