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Volunteers spend Black Friday cleaning up devastated Westerly beach

By Greg Smith

Publication: theday.com

Published November 23. 2012 2:00PM   Updated November 24. 2012 5:25PM

Westerly — Linda Billiel scooped up a shovelful of sand Friday morning to expose a few inches of artificial turf. She had uncovered part of the Bayview Fun Park at Misquamicut Beach, buried nearly a month ago by Hurricane Sandy.

Billiel, from Colchester, had volunteered her time, opting not to get caught up in the deal-hunting and shopping madness that accompanies Black Friday.

"I don't need the craziness. Black Friday brings out the worst in people. This brings out the best in people," said Billiel, who was among dozens of volunteers who chose shovels over shopping bags to help restore a summertime destination popular among Connecticut and Rhode Island beachgoers alike.

"What a good way to work off the Thanksgiving dinner," said volunteer Donna Daigle.

Daigle, from East Hampton, boarded a school bus Friday morning at Rotary Park in Westerly in the ongoing volunteer effort coordinated by Serve Rhode Island, the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce and Misquamicut Business Association.

Nearly 1,000 people to date have helped in some way.

Surrounded by piles of debris, mounds of sand and the rumble of heavy equipment, Friday's group worked along Atlantic Avenue, the main beachfront route that was buried under several feet of sand after the historic storm surge.

The businesses along Atlantic were badly damaged, waterlogged, filled with sand or washed away. The same tide that moved tons of sand exposed septic systems all along the beachfront properties.

Jelane Kennedy of Albany, N.Y., traditionally travels to the Mystic area each year and enjoys a Thanksgiving walk on the beach with her partner, Eileen. "This year we made the decision, because it's in such bad shape, to come and help," she said.

Barbara Stillman, owner of the Atlantic Beach Resort, praised the volunteer effort as she watched from the front of her office building. Last week volunteers showed up at her business to remove sand, stones and debris that filled her indoor swimming pool.

"Without the volunteers this beach would be a mess, more of a mess," she said. "Appreciative isn't the word."

As owner of one of the few year-round businesses in Misquamicut, Stillman said she's losing as much as $6,000 a week by not being able to rent her time-share properties. Like others, she said she still needs electrical and infrastructure work done but is waiting for state inspections and permits.

The uncertainty of what the state will require in the rebuilding process is a growing frustration among business owners.

Landmark institutions such as the Andrea Hotel, Maria's Seaside Café and Paddy's — family businesses that have been here for generations — continue to wonder if they have to demolish what remains, said Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce.

"They're playing beat the clock with the cold weather," Konicki said. "As it stands now, unless we get help with sewers it's going to be a significant challenge over the next several months. I can't overstate how devastating this is for our town."

Misquamicut Business Association Executive Director Caswell Cooke, a Westerly Town Council member, said answers need to come from the state Coastal Resources Management Council and Department of Environmental Management. On Friday he pointed to a pile of sand that used to be the site of Sam's Snack Bar, which, until Sandy hit, had stood at the same location for three decades.

"We're not getting answers quick enough from the state," Cooke said. "It's just frustrating, because I think the rest of the world has gone back to business as usual. I don't think they understand the gravity of the situation here. We've got to be ready for May."

A meeting with state officials is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Westerly Town Hall.

Konicki said the chamber, in addition to enlisting volunteers, has been selling T-shirts bearing the slogan "Bring Back the Beach." The chamber has sold more than $8,000 worth of the shirts and raised more than $50,000, she said, a tribute to the "unbelievable support of the community."

g.smith@theday.com

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