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Students on spring break aid in repairs after superstorm Sandy

Students from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison clear a site in Union Beach, New Jersey, March 13, 2013, where damaged homes were razed after superstorm Sandy. (Amy Newman/The Record/MCT)

Students from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison clear a site in Union Beach, New Jersey, March 13, 2013, where damaged homes were razed after superstorm Sandy. (Amy Newman/The Record/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

And the state’s public architecture school is bringing its expertise to bear in offering to help local officials and groups with research and design as the area rebuilds.

The project at the New Jersey Institute of Technology - dubbed Resilient Design - will look at lessons gleaned from other flooded areas, from Venice to New Orleans, and is setting up studios throughout the affected areas of the state, said Thomas Dallessio, the project manager.

In the meantime, more than 400 students from the school are among those spending spring break helping out on the state’s battered coastline. Others, from state schools including Fairleigh Dickinson University, Rutgers and Bergen Community College, are lending a hand, as are more than 500 college students from out of state, some coming from as far as Iowa, Colorado and Georgia throughout March and April.

The students are helping out with debris removal, painting, putting up drywall and whatever else needs to be done as cleanup continues from the monster storm that pummeled the region in late October.

Last week in Union Beach - a hard-hit town near Raritan Bay - a group of FDU students hauled debris from the site of damaged ranch homes that were recently razed on Raritan Street. There were physically heavy items - cinder blocks and metal piping - and emotionally heavier ones - like a waterlogged photo album and family Bible.

“It’s very sad,” said Cindy Rodriguez, 19, an FDU student from East Orange, N.J. “I can’t imagine how it must have been (for the homeowners) to come back here.”

Olga Carr, who lives across the street in a house that is more elevated, said her neighbors fled as the water from the bay and a nearby creek inundated the town. “Once the water reached the top of their kitchen cabinets, they were done,” she said.

Unlike the Jersey Shore’s barrier islands, where many of the damaged properties were second homes, the homes in this blue-collar town were primary residences. Carr said she wasn’t sure where her neighbors had gone or if they would rebuild.

“It’s tough today, because there are so many personal effects here - it’s heart-wrenching,” said Matt Krayton, a residence life coordinator at FDU’s Florham Park-Madison campus.

He said the school and the students plan to maintain a relationship with the people of Union Beach after the debris is hauled away, helping to raise money for building supplies and other needs.

Farther south, another group of FDU students, from the Bergen County campus, was helping out in Ortley Beach, one of the hardest-hit communities on the Atlantic coast.

Jessica Harris, director of student life at the Teaneck-Hackensack campus, said she was gratified that she got to nail in planks for the new boardwalk.

“A lot of us are from New Jersey, so it was only right that we worked here and ‘took care of home,’” she said.

But help came from afar, too. A former plumbing supply warehouse on Fisher Boulevard in Toms River was converted into sleeping and eating quarters for more than 500 out-of-state students slated to arrive throughout the month of March, said Steve Boisvert, director of Community Collaborations International, a group that coordinates alternative spring break programs in the United States and abroad.

Students were coming from Ohio State, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, to name a few, said Candace Linn, coordinating the Toms River site. They were hauling debris, painting houses, putting in drywall and helping with after-school programs in the counties of Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic, she said. “We try to support the work the local non-profits are doing,” she said.

Boisvert said community service spring breaks, which provide an alternative to traditional beach bacchanals, are a growing movement. About 80,000 students participated in such projects this year, compared with 10,000 in 2004, he said.

Boisvert’s group has worked with thousands of students from nearly 70 universities, putting them to work at disaster relief and other locations.

“I always say it’s the spring break you’ll never forget instead of the one you can’t remember,” said Boisvert.

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