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Citizen heroes: Restoring life to Hurricane Sandy victims

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    Cassandra Vitale dropped everything at her home in Melbourne, Fla., to rush to the Jersey Shore and help with relief efforts. Seven months later, she runs the Bucket Brigade, a vital volunteer service for Sandy victims. (FoxNews.com/Perry Chiaramonte)

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    Jeannette Van Houten on the empty lot where her family's home used to stand. Union Beach was one of the hardest hit communities when superstorm Sandy the NJ coast last October. (FoxNews.com/Perry Chiaramonte)

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    Jeannette Van Houten looks at recently found photos in Union Beach, NJ. To date, She, along with her volunteers, have found an estimated 20,000 photos over the past six months. (FoxNews.com/Perry Chiaramonte)

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    StopFEMAnow supporters picketing in the Jersey Shore region of new Jersey. (facebook.com/stopfemanow)

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    George Kasimos of Toms River, NJ started Stop FEMA Now out of frustration from getting a lack of answers from the Federal agency. (Courtesy of George Kasimos/Stop FEMA Now)

Seven months after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the New Jersey Shore, destroying homes and dramatically upending lives, the tourist towns dotting the coast have ramped up repairs which are nearly complete as the summer tourist begins. But for  many of the residents in surrounding areas, still embroiled in a morass of loss and red tape, it has been their neighbors and ordinary citizens who have stepped in to provide vital help and support.

From a “bucket brigade” offering food from repurposed shipping containers to an operation that returns treasured photos blown away by the storm to a movement to overturn last year’s Flood Insurance Reform Act, people have stepped up to help each other as well as themselves.

Some were not even living in New Jersey when Sandy ripped through October 29. Cassandra Vitale, 26,  who had lived along the Jersey Shore as a child, was at her home in Melbourne, Fla. when the epic storm hit.

“I just couldn’t imagine sitting by and not doing something while this was happening.”

- Cassandra Vitale, Bucket Brigade

“I think people in this [N.J.] area didn’t realize what could happen,” Vitale, who had weathered Hurricane Wilma in 2005, said in an interview with FoxNews.com.

As she reached out to old friends in New Jersey, one mentioned that she was stranded far from home due to a flat tire, Vitale posted a message on Facebook to see if  anyone could help. Before she knew it, Vitale was posting and reposting messages of  people along the Shore and appealing for help.

“I just started posting things that I thought would be relevant information, like where to get gas. Then I wound up coordinating things,” she said.

 “I just couldn’t imagine sitting by and not doing something while this was happening.”  

Within days, she was on a flight to Atlantic City.

Once Vitale arrived at the Jersey Shore, she borrowed an SUV and started filling it with supplies left at churches and other makeshift relief centers and headed for Bayhead. Once there, she handed out buckets filled with cleaning materials, toiletries, and other supplies for homeowners. Her creative delivery method soon earned her the nickname “The Bucket Lady.”

 Before she knew it, Vitale’s relief project grew and she began receiving surplus items from the Red Cross and other response agencies. Her efforts quickly became known as the Bucket Brigade.

Now she is at the helm of a makeshift command center in an Ortley Beach parking lot. The outpost, made from repurposed shipping containers, serves as an office and storage for thousands of items and a core team of five volunteers who help with daily duties.

 “I thought I would be home by Thanksgiving,” Vitale said. “Six months after the storm and I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”

Other hero volunteers were New Jersey residents who saw past their own devastating losses to aid others.

Jeannette Van Houten, whose home in Union Beach was destroyed,  is a memory keeper.

In the days after the storm, as she walked through what had once been her hometown, she began finding photographs strewn around the rubble and began collecting them.

Each day she discovered more, bringing hundreds to the relief center set up in the town hall.

"It’s a piece of their home and that’s all that matters,” Van Houten told  FoxNews.com a week after the storm hit, “People have been very grateful to have their family photos returned. It’s their life, so you have to give them hope.”

Six months later, with Union Beach on the mend, Van Houten is still collecting precious photos.

 “We’re still finding (them),” she recently told FoxNews. “As the real clean-up has gotten underway, people are finding more and more photos in the wetlands or under debris.

“Many of them are little more damaged, but some actually look brand new.”

Van Houten estimates that in all, more than 20,000 photos have been found and returned to their rightful owners.

 “It gives (residents) hope that things will get better,” she said.  “When you connect with a photo it’s more than a piece of paper. All these memories come back with it and how you now have something from the past to move forward with.”

Other residents have turned to grassroots organizing to improve things for themselves and their neighbors.

George Kasimos, 46, of Toms River, has taken on a goliath opponent: FEMA.

Due to FEMA’s recent remapping of flood zones, he said, he and many others face a costly decision: elevate their homes or face costly insurance premiums for years to come.

“We had already started to rebuild when we found out that we had to raise our homes,” Kasimos said to FoxNews.com. “But they are releasing new flood zones this summer. Right now I would have to spend $150,000 to raise my home ten feet and bring it up to code. But why would I do that if they will change it again in the summer?”

Frustrated with a  lack of answers, Kaisimos started what has become a growing movement along the Jersey Shore called Stop FEMA Now.

“The main reason I started was because I needed info,” he said, “You cannot get a straight answer. This is something FEMA should have been ready for 20 years and they act as if they just started last week.”

By last January, Kasimos had gathered nearly 4,000 supporters on his Stop FEMA Now Facebook pagehttp://global.fncstatic.com/static/v/all/img/external-link.png and obtained 3,500 signatures on an online petition calling for overturning the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which required changes to flood insurance, flood hazard mapping and grants.

 “I personally have lost $300,000 in value on my home not because of Sandy but because of the flood insurance premiums,” he said.

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