The “Princess Cottage,” a yellow home torn in half by Sandy’s fierce winds and floodwaters, has become an emblem of the destruction on the Jersey Shore and especially in the tight-knit community of Union Beach, where families have lived and worked year-round for generations.

Front steps leading nowhere mark the locations of dozens of buildings that were washed away completely. Roughly 200 homes there are now uninhabitable, and about 400 were flooded by six feet or more of water. These are not vacation homes, but modest bungalows on lots of 20 by 80 feet, some 1,000 square feet or less — their owners still coming to grips with immense loss.

On December 21, the historic “Princess Cottage” was demolished by a crew of volunteers from Burners Without Borders (BWB), a network of participants in the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada. To date, BWB has cleared away 43 ruined homes, and plans to work at a pace of two to three teardowns a day, six days a week, through February.

Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier reached out to BWB after learning of their volunteer work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some volunteers left jobs, flew from California, rented machinery, and started doing demolition and cleanup as soon as the roads were clear. Supported in part by a gift from an anonymous donor-advised fund at the Princeton Area Community Foundation, this work will save Union Beach an estimated $1.6 million.

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A time-lapse video on the Burners Without Borders Sandy Relief Blog shows the iconic house being razed.

“This is some of the best leverage of donated dollars that I’ve ever seen,” said Community Foundation President Nancy Kieling. “It’s an example of philanthropy working quickly and in creative ways to help out where other forms of aid are unavailable or slow to arrive.”

In addition to their financial support of BWB’s efforts, Community Foundation donors are also giving their time to provide financial and legal services and logistical support to help the town rebuild.  The process is extremely complicated and the challenges that Union Beach faces are unprecedented — but there is passionate optimism that with the right planning and expertise, the community can clean up, rebuild in smarter, stronger ways, and be restored.

A major milestone is expected by Valentine’s Day, with the donation of the first new home to a 75-year-old couple that was born and has lived their entire lives in Union Beach.

The pre-fabricated structure will be built at the extremely competitive cost of just $110 per square foot in Pennsylvania and trucked in to speed the process of inspections and permits. Raising the home four feet from the ground will double compensation from FEMA to the homeowners, and will prevent flood insurance premiums from going up 1000%. The new home will be high quality, energy efficient, and built to withstand an even stronger storm.

This first new home may be an appealing and efficient model for other Union Beach residents, and the town itself may even be a model for its neighbors along the shore. Perhaps this act of philanthropy will inspire others.

“People like to give, it just feels good,” Kieling remarked. “But they also like to see something happen as a direct result, and they don’t always know how. The Community Foundation can be a helpful guide — and when necessary, we can be instrumental in preserving a donor’s anonymity and facilitating the work of collaborative giving by family members and friends.”

“Here’s a chance to see a lot of good come from an act of generosity,” she added. “We must all work to keep the spotlight on these communities in need, and follow through.”