On Sunday morning, Mike Michaels woke up early to search online for a town still planning to hold its regular Veterans Day ceremony.
Hurricane Sandy has taken his home, he said, and most of his belongings. The Seaside Heights restaurant where he works as an executive chef has been all but destroyed, too. But, at least his family is safe, he said. A chance to honor his fellow veterans and return to a bit of normalcy for a few hours at least was something he was very much looking forward to.
Displaced and temporarily living with his in-laws in Marlboro, Michaels and his son, Chris, attended Red Bank's Veterans Day ceremony Sunday. Despite the personal tragedy, Michaels took the opportunity to reflect and thank those who have helped him through his recent struggles.
"It's kind of been emotionally overwhelming," the Waretown resident said. "We've gotten so much support, but there are people so much worse off than we are."
Michaels, 39, is a retired and disabled U.S. Marine who served in Kosovo. The house he's been living in with his family will likely have to be torn down following Hurricane Sandy's wrath, he said, as the flood waters caused the house's slab foundation to crack. The floor buckled and the house shifted. Repair isn't possible, he said.
Before the storm hit, Michaels said he tried to secure his belongings that couldn't be loaded into the minivan during the evacuation. When he returned to his home and saw how high the water had been, he realized that was a fruitless endeavor. The loss of personal effects has been near-total. Even the uniforms from his active military days have been destroyed.
When word of the devastation to his home spread, Michaels said he and his family received immediate support from two former Marines who traveled to Waretown to help salvage what they could from his home. His family has also gotten plenty of donations, too. The generosity of strangers has been so great, he said, that he'll actually have to donate many of the items back to local churches and outreach organizations because he's gotten so much.
"People have just been coming out of the woodwork to help us," he said, appreciatively.
Michaels was recognized by Red Bank Parks and Recreation Director Memone Crystian during Sunday's ceremony and was invited to salute the flags on behalf of Disabled American Veterans. He said Red Bank's dedication to preserving its Veterans Day tradition despite the effects of Sandy was "amazing."
Though he's not sure when his family will be able to return home, or what they'll eventually return home to, Michaels is thankful, thankful that he and his family, including his young daughters ages 3 and 8, are safe. And while the outpouring of support has been tremendous, Michaels said the biggest help has come from his 15-year-old son Chris, who stood with him during Sunday's ceremony.
"I've tried to be strong, but it's been difficult," he said. "He's (Chris) been my best friend through this. Without him I wouldn't have been able to get through."