SEA BRIGHT: OPERATION SHEETROCK TRIMMED

The rebuilding of a public access stairway over the sea wall is among the projects in the scaled-back volunteer outreach, says coordinator Frank Lawrence, below. (Photo below by Wil Fulton. Click to enlarge)

By WIL FULTON

Last month, Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long offered college students an altruistic alternative to the traditional debauchery-laden spring break: come help residents hang wallboard and make other repairs to their storm-battered homes.

Operation Sheetrock,” she dubbed it.

But with spring break now underway or rapidly approaching, few residences are ready for wallboard hanging, and won’t be for at least a few more weeks, according to borough volunteer coordinator Frank Lawrence.

“So many homes don’t have heat or electricity yet,” Lawrence said, “so a lot of the walls inside these houses are holding moisture. If we hang sheetrock over the walls right now, the moisture will be trapped inside, and when the weather warms up, mold will inevitably grow inside the walls. It’s the perfect environment”

“We need to have the heat on inside buildings and get the walls to dry,” he said. “If we don’t do it the right way, it will just be a waste of time and money.”

Lawrence also cited the uncertain impact of new home-elevation regulations, as well as slow payouts on insurance claims, for putting Operation Sheetrock on hold.

Still, volunteer help is needed in town, he said. In an interview with redbankgreen, he stressed the need for groups of young people who would be committed to coming back on a regular basis.

“We need people with strong backs to do consistent volunteer work for us,” he said. “It’s not glamorous or particularly interesting work – moving sand, separating rocks and debris throughout town – but it’s work that needs to be done, and our public works department doesn’t have the means to do it by themselves.”

“We’re looking at the long-term now,” he said. “We’re trying to bring Sea Bright back to something that resembles the town that residents remember. What we really need are groups of people that will commit to specific projects and come back and work on them maybe once or twice a month.”

Lawrence said that one such project in the works is the rebuilding of a public access stairway over the sea wall, a job that the charity Jersey Cares has agreed to take on. Another is dune-stabilization: local gardening clubs have volunteered their services and donated about 8,000 hardy, beach-dwelling plants for planting, which will begin next weekend.

“It’s a large-scale project, but we have volunteers from garden clubs in Rumson, Fair Haven and all over the region coming to help us. Once we plant these 8,000 or so, they will repopulate to make tens of thousands more, and we’ll continue this dune planting process at least twice a year.”

Lawrence, who grew up in Rumson and “‘spent everyday walking to Sea Bright as a kid,” has a diverse professional background, including time spent in the space and aeronautics field, as well as a stint as athletic director at Brookdale Community College. That’s where he met Long – an assistant professor of English at the school – who appointed him to his current borough position.

Despite the setbacks for Operation Sheetrock, several colleges are lending their student’s abilities to the borough, both as a learning experience for the kids and to help the rebounding community, according to Lawrence. Harvard School of Business students are lending their knowledge to policy and sustainability issues, and Rutgers School of Social Work students will participate in outreach programs, as well as trying to address the emotional toll that Hurricane Sandy has had on residents. NJIT School of Architecture students will lend a hand on the practical side of rebuilding and reconstruction.

“Through the volunteer efforts of these colleges, we’re able to receive pertinent advice from some very smart people, without a hefty charge,” Lawrence said. “The students will get real world experience dealing with these types of problems, too. So it’s a win for everyone involved.”

“It’s important that we focus not on redevelopment, but on rebuilding,” Lawrence added. “I consider Sea Bright to be a perfect slice of Americana –  it’s a hard-working, blue-collar town where the residents care deeply about their community. We’re committed to bringing people back to the town they love, but we’re going to need some help along the way.”