Evan Mooney remained in Point Pleasant, N.J., during Hurricane Sandy to help protect marine life at the boardwalk aquarium where he works.
And even though the 19-year-old Hanover Township native's car was totaled by the storm and his life was at risk, he doesn't regret staying one bit.
Mooney said it was gratifying to know his and other employees' decisions to stay and care for the creatures at Jenkinson's Aquarium made a difference.
We had minimal loss of animal life, very, very little, and that's because of the staff members who stayed. There were eight of us, Mooney said.
Before the storm hit land, preparations included stacking sandbags against lower-level doors and moving animals from the basement to an upper floor. It's a good thing they did, because the brick basement wall facing the Atlantic Ocean blew out and ocean water and sand flooded in.
Mooney and his seven co-workers thought they were going to die. They didn't know the wall was designed to give way under certain conditions to protect the integrity of the building. We thought the building was going to collapse, he said.
After the storm passed and generators arrived, Mooney said he and the others spent much of the past couple weeks doing a lot of digging. It took four days to get 4 feet of sand out of the aquarium basement. I thought it was going to take them a month, he said of the construction company hired to do sand removal.
Aquarium staffers had to dig through the sand to remove equipment and determine what was salvageable.
While his belongings in his second-floor apartment were safe, his car was destroyed. He bought another one on Monday with help from his mom, Sheila, who made the trip from Hanover Township and got a glimpse of some of the devastation her son had described to her by phone.
It just takes your breath away to see it, especially a place you're used to visiting, Sheila Mooney said.
She said her son seems to be coping OK and is in good spirits, although the experience is something he won't ever forget. I think it made a lasting impact on him.
Mooney said he hasn't had time to really reflect on the experience, spending his time the past couple of weeks working another part-time job and helping friends and neighbors as well as at the aquarium. And he can't even begin to describe how traumatic the storm and the aftermath have been.
I don't know how you'd put a word to it. Maybe ‘devastation' is the word. It's terrible, Mooney said.
Sheila Mooney believes her son was meant to be in Point Pleasant at this time in his life. In addition to helping protect the marine life at the aquarium during the hurricane, her son and his landlord had previously talked down a man who was planning to jump to his death from a fire escape.
He's always been very caring to any kind of animals. He's been very interested in them most of his life, Sheila Mooney said. Of course I'm very proud of him.
Donations to help the aquarium recover can be mailed to Cindy Claus, Jenkinson's Aquarium, 300 Ocean Ave., Point Pleasant Beach, NJ 08742.