This Is Real: How Superstorm Sandy Changed My Life

Community, Good News

Above: Marina with Marina’s Mission donations at the Manahawkin United Methodist Church.

Story by Kelly Schott

Five years ago, on October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, changing the lives of many Jersey Shore residents. One of those people whose life was changed is Marina Milia, an EMT from Manahawkin, who saw the effects of Superstorm Sandy on the Long Beach Island coastal communities first-hand. She spoke with us about how Sandy changed her life.

The Storm

A self-proclaimed Piney, Marina grew up in Manahawkin, where her family has lived and worked for generations, running both Lucille’s Own-Make Candies in Manahawkin and Oh Fudge on Long Beach Island. The family businesses helped connect Marina and her family to the Island, but the Island is also home to Marina. She remembers Captain John’s before it re-opened as a Surf Taco and she also remembers timing “the traffic lights to hit the greens.” It’s this home that also connects Marina to Superstorm Sandy and why she so vividly remembers the storm’s fury.

In June 2011, Marina started working with Stafford Township EMS, the organization she was with when Sandy rammed into New Jersey a little over a year later. With Stafford EMS, she helped evacuate those in Beach Haven West who waited until the last minute to leave before Sandy. Stafford EMS also continued to help as Sandy came and went: assisting those with pre-existing medical issues to get their medications or to get medical care, as well as just generally keeping people safe.

It took Marina three weeks to go back to her family’s store on the Island for the first time after Sandy. She vividly remembers the visit, saying it smelled deplorable and thinking, “this is what it is now.”

On a personal standpoint, the Easter season is the busiest season for Marina’s family’s businesses, so they only had three months to get back on their feet in order to make it time. The stress and struggle culminated into one feeling for Marina: “this is real.”


Sandy’s Effects on First Responders

Marina wasn’t the only one who struggled to accept the outcome after Sandy. The first responders that put themselves on the line and worked tirelessly to help locals in need were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, Marina said. While we hear stories about victims of natural disasters having PTSD, we also need to mention the first responders in that same conversation.

Marina specifically mentioned how she and her fellow first responders were physically and mentally exhausted after Sandy. That meant that debriefing was all the more important. Marina mentioned that finding a way to debrief, or decompress, through whatever way they could, became an important part of staying healthy. A specific moment she remembers is when the Army National Guard (whom she says were “a vital tool in all efforts during [Superstorm] Sandy”) and guitarist Julie Fudalik (a fellow EMT with Stafford EMS who also responded during Sandy) visited and played “uplifting music to boost everyone’s spirits

As a first responder needs to be a rock, or a stable presence, for the patients that they assist, Marina says that first responders also have to find ways to decompress that work for them. After the stressful experiences before, during, and after Sandy, Marina found solace in photography. She remembers walking down to the bay to take pictures, especially of the swans, in order to clear her head and find calm.

Because of her experience, a cause that’s near to Marina’s heart is the awareness and support for first responders and their mental health. She mentioned several organizations that work specifically with first responders to help those with PTSD or who struggle with the effects of their work including the Code Green Campaign, which is “a first responder oriented mental health advocacy and education organization [and serves] all types of first responders, including firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, dispatchers, police, corrections, air medical, and search & rescue.” New Jersey also has state- and county-wide programs that are meant to help first responders specifically with working through their experiences. What is the goal for talking about this? Marina hopes to continue raising awareness for first responders and for the organizations doing this kind of work.

Marina’s Mission

As an EMT, Marina has an innate desire to help people. Within a week after Sandy, Marina started getting into relief work, first by helping to sort donations that were gathered to help local communities in need. After finding her stride amongst the logistics and management duties, Marina realized that this is what she wants to be doing. She has a strong love for this side of relief work and has followed that passion to where she is now.

After seeing the devastation of her home, Marina decided that she wanted to continue helping other communities in need, so she launched Marina’s Mission. Based on Rachel’s Challenge, which focuses on performing random acts of kindness, Marina was looking for a way to make a difference in the world, and she found that in Louisiana in 2016.

August 2016 saw catastrophic floods sweep through Louisiana, a place that sent many of its people to help New Jersey residents after Sandy. Marina remembered this aid and wanted to return the favor and say thank you for the kindness, so she started collecting and coordinating donations at the Manahawkin Methodist Church. Marina used social media to connect with people who wanted and could donate and ended up filling two box trucks with donations to bring to those in need in Louisiana.

Working with the Trach Mamas of Louisiana, as well as Marina’s Mission Logistics Manager, Katy Kempe, Marina took a trip down to the southern states to deliver some donations herself, a trip that proved to be a deciding factor in how she’s looking at her future.

The Career Path

Marina has taken one trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, and that’s all it took for her to fall in love with the coastal city which, not unlike her home, was ravaged by a hurricane. She loved the city so much that her next steps include a move to Tulane University for its emergency management program. Marina’s goal is to work in the management side of disaster relief, with an ultimate goal of working with an inner-city OEM program. While she loves being an EMT, she says that she’d love to continue with her EMT work on the side as she pursues this avenue for her full-time career.

Marina has nine months left of her paramedic school at the Virtua School of Paramedic Sciences at Rowan College at Burlington County before she can continue moving forward down her career path and is excited to see where this journey takes her. So far, it hasn’t been straightforward, but she’s found out what she loves to do and is ready to pursue it.

From Marina: “At EMS World, a class demonstration was conducted on how to efficiently treat multiple patients in a Mass Casualty scenario. I was assigned a team leader for this operation. There was a total of 4 patients (3 adult patients one of them being a police officer) and the fourth patient was a police K9 officer. The K9 and his police officer handler were priority in this operation to treat them and bring them back into the safe zone.”

Marina credits Superstorm Sandy as the reason for her not always straightforward career path. She was originally going to Drew University for anthropology but has since found herself furthering her career as an EMT after heart-to-hearts with her family. She moved away from her childhood dream job of being a doctor and focused more on being an EMT, a switch she credits to her family and friends. She especially thanks her mom who, when Marina was struggling to figure out her future, asked Marina to answer: “What do you love?” It’s a question Marina never really considered, but helped open her eyes and make the right decision for her.

After Drew, she gained much of her experience from Camden County College paramedic school and Bergen Community College and through on-the-job experience, including her current position as an EMT with the Ramsey Ambulance Corps in Ramsey, New Jersey, and as an EMT at Six Flags Great Adventure where she and her department work to ensure safety for all attendees through responding to all guest and employee medical calls as well as provide general park safety and basic first aid.

That is where she’s been, but what is Marina’s goal for ten to twenty years from now? Easy: she wants to be in management at an EMS organization and wants to still work with people, but she also wants to spent much of her time on the logistics of running the service.

Marina mentions that there is a significant difference between hospital-based medicine and “in the field” medicine. EMTs, first responders, and paramedics are the first to see the scene moments after it occuring, whereas doctors and nurses see the incident in the hospital an hour later. Marina’s perspective on the front line as an EMT and future paramedic is her greatest passion.

The last few years of Marina’s life have been focused on bettering her career and helping others, so I asked Marina what perspective she’s gained from working through Superstorm Sandy in her own communities. She had great thoughts to share, with this one particularly sticking out: “We learn from our past and we can only become stronger from our next storm.”

All photos courtesy of Marina Milia.