By Jonathan Phelps firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — It was a last minute decision, but Paul Boulanger and Kathy Gallagher of North Andover found themselves in one of the hardest hit areas by Superstorm Sandy last weekend.
On their way home from an evening in Boston on Friday, the couple decided to get up early the next morning and head to New York to help with the relief efforts. They brought along a couple hundred dollars worth of diapers, food and cleaning supplies.
After the five-hour drive, they helped sort through “mountains” of donated clothes stacked 15-feet high inside the gymnasium at the St. Francis de Sales Church and school in Belle Harbor, N.Y., which is part of Queens.
Much of the community was flooded and devastated by intense fires, Boulanger said.
“You see people walking around and they just don’t know what to do,” he said. “They can’t go to the supermarket, they can’t go to the gas station, they can’t even start to rebuild their homes because there is no electricity for power tools.”
Boulanger, 41, said they were touched by the grassroot “neighbor-to-neighbor” relief efforts and decided to pack a rental truck full of supplies and head back down this weekend.
“There are no stores, there are no restaurants, no gas stations, no power, no heat,” Boulanger said. “It is incredibly surreal.”
At the church, one man told them he had been wearing the same clothes for eight days.
“They are just hoping to stay warm and dry,” Boulanger said. Many people are staying in their homes without heat and electricity out of fear there houses could be looted, he said.
He said clothing items and cleaning supplies are needed the most. There is a lot of concern over mold because of the flooded homes, he said.
While Boulanger and Gallagher run the non-profit Turtle Lane Maple Farm and Men with Heart, a breast cancer organization, this was their first “hands-on” relief effort, he said.
Boulanger spent much of this week getting supplies and asking for donations for their second trip. This time they will be joined by two friends.
Gallagher, 47, said she didn’t expect Boulanger to suggest they go down to New York with such short notice last Friday because they already had the weekend planned.
“Our lives can be temporarily put on hold,” Gallagher said. “These people have to live with destruction until they fix it.”
She said she didn’t expect to see so much destruction, such as houses damaged by fire and debris everywhere.
“It was overwhelming emotionally, physically and mentally,” Gallagher said. “I didn’t want to leave. I just knew there was a lot more I could do.”
They left New York on Sunday an decided on Monday to return this weekend.
The images on the news does not do justice to the devastation, Boulanger said.
“Nothing really portrays what is going on down there,” he said. “It is almost indescribable.”
The couple are collecting items at their home at 25 Turtle Lane until 5 p.m. Friday. Items can be dropped off on their farmer’s porch anytime day or night.
They are looking for warm and comfortable clothing, hand tools and cleaning supplies, such as bleach, sponges and mops.