What I Found at My Jersey Shore Home in the Aftermath of Sandy

On Long Beach Island, the push is on to rebuild before Memorial Day. But with restaurants in shambles and insurance payments trickling in slowly, it will be tough to meet the deadline. 

lbi-top.jpgAfter Superstorm Sandy, the author found the garage doors of his family home blasted through, with debris and furniture scattered through the sand-filled interior. (Timothy Bella)

"Born To Run" is on the radio as I make the right at Exit 63 on the Garden State Parkway two weeks after Hurricane Sandy. It is raw and rainy, a classic winter's day in South Jersey, and Long Beach Island -- a place my family has called our summer home for almost 40 years -- is a mess. Signs for contractors from across the state, as well as from Alabama and Louisiana, cover the shoulders of Route 72 in Manahawkin.

Driving over the causeway and heading down the island, I pass boarded-up storefronts with visible water damage, most of which have been spray-painted with optimistic messages such as Open when it's over and No fear. Hummers are camped out on side streets, keeping watch for potential looters coming by boat. Signs reading, "Unite. Rebuild. Thank you," are littered across the island. Piles of rotted wood line the streets. You see people's lives strewn there - mattresses, couches, chairs, bikes, tables, grills, children's toys, and the occasional crucifix.

The local establishments are in shambles. Joey's Pizza and Pasta has always been known for its "occasional waterfront dining" due to the poor drainage in the area. Now the windows are boarded up, and the wet sand around it has turned into thick mud. The marquis reads: "WATER UP TO OUR EYEBALLS." At Fantasy Island, the park is even more eerily empty than it is usually during the offseason, with more spray-painted signs encouraging a fun summer next year.

At the popular Chicken Or The Egg restaurant, the seating booths have been removed from inside, the carpet uprooted, and the wooden panels on the wall ripped apart due to water damage. The kitchen, where I spent several summers working in as a food runner, looks like it has been hit by the Tasmanian Devil, but there's nothing cartoonish about the shattered plates and spoiled food that's caked on the floor. My friends look tired, doing what they can to clean up a restaurant that, like others on LBI and other shore areas, has created a family atmosphere for its employees.

But the worst is yet to come. As I head further south, Long Beach Township Police Captain Anthony Deely accompanies me to Holgate, the restricted area. Deely, whose own family and house were affected by the storm, drives passed compromised homes, still shaking his head at what has become an almost unrecognizable place. Like the other police officers, National Guard troops, local officials, and volunteers, Deely hasn't slept much in the days since Sandy. The ride is becoming a bit bumpier, as the bulldozers have yet to clear out all the sand that blocked the roads for days.

Approaching the Sea Spray Motel at the beginning of Holgate, the southernmost part of the island, the white-and-red sign neon vacancy sign is lying face-down on the sand. A National Guard Hummer and police car serve as a checkpoint for entry into the town.

"This has been banned since the event," Deely says, escorting me into the Holgate area.

It has been more than a month since Hurricane Sandy left its mark on close to half the states of the U.S., leaving thousands displaced from their homes and at least 85 people dead. The storm has become the second-costliest storm in U.S. history with $62 billion in damages. Recently, Governor Chris Christie estimated that in New Jersey, where Sandy damaged or destroyed 72,000 homes and businesses, damages could close in on $40 billion. In LBI, which took the storm's first and hardest punches, officials estimate that the recovery effort will cost about $750 million, about $600 million of it spent in the upcoming year.

With the winter arriving, the push to rebuild by Memorial Day is on in shore areas like LBI. At the same time, residents, officials, and experts are waiting to see if normalcy can come back, or if Sandy has set off a multitude of economic and individual problems that will take years to resolve.

***

Eileen Bowker, who runs Bowker's South Beach Grill with her husband and children, describes her life before Sandy as the American dream: running a small business and raising a family on a tiny piece of paradise. When the storm hit, her husband was in Indiana visiting one of their daughters, and her other daughter, a firefighter in nearby Beach Haven, was on call for the expected recovery effort. Before deciding to stay behind in Holgate, Bowker made the reality of the situation clear to her sons, ages 16 and 13.

They made the decision to stay, Bowker said, because a lot of their friends were leaving and they felt like they had keep a lookout on their homes. "God protects people," she told me. "I felt that if we had left, the home might not be there."

The three Bowkers spent the Saturday before Sandy getting ready - preparing food and gathering sleeping bags, a tent, a water purifier and wet suits. The family's kayaks were tethered to the side of the building. Before they lost power, Bowker made sure her sons had charged their cell phones and laptops. With high tide approaching Saturday night, Bowker began to see waves crashing on to the streets, but the worst was yet to come. On Sunday morning, the mother prepared a big breakfast for her sons as the oceanfront houses in front of the family's home and deli began to be compromised. Her sons had walked around to survey some of the early damage before coming inside to do their homework.

That morning, it was time for the second high tide. On nearby West Avenue, the flooding rose as high as five feet. Bowker got a worried call from one of her daughters, who was watching TV. She reassured her daughter that they would get through the storm unscathed, but by 3 p.m., the rain was intensifying. As Bowker was baking chocolate chip cookies around 4:30 p.m. on that Sunday, the waves were breaking onto the parking lot on the southernmost part of Holgate. Sandy was near. "You could see the surge coming," she says.

Fifteen minutes later, waves began to break on the wooden public restroom area in the parking lot. A few minutes after that, the water carried the public restroom from the parking lot down to nearby McKinley Avenue. By now, it was almost time to flee the home. "Nobody was panicking, but my 13-year-old turned to me and said, 'That could be a sign,'" Bowker says.

Almost immediately, the driveways in the three oceanfront homes located directly in front of the Bowker home and deli were breached with feet of water. At around 5:05 p.m., the family decided to go to a friend's vacant home. With dry-bags, backpacks, and a kayak, the three Bowkers and their French mastiff, Otis, began the trek down the street, amid rising floodwaters. Otis floated in the kayak as the rain camedown sideways and the waves continued to wreak destruction on the oceanfront homes in front of them. It was a slow, cautious approach, the water rising with each step. At the beginning of their short journey, it was knee-deep water; after just a few minutes, it was waist-deep. By the time they reached their new home base, the water was chest-high. "My boys, in a lot of regards, became men that day," Bowker says.

Around 6:30 p.m., Bowker and her started watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off to pass the time. The power went out at 8:10 p.m., before the end of the movie. Shortly thereafter, a garage window burst open from the water and wind. Unable to fall asleep, Bowker listened to the flooding in the garage, the water and wind picking up force through another high tide under the full moon.

"I am a very faith-filled woman and from that point on, I did as much praying as I could," she says. "I said as many rosaries as I could. If it was a bad decision to stay, I was praying we survived it."

***

Almost seven miles away from the house where the Bowkers took shelter, LBI Mayor Joseph Mancini waited out the storm in town hall on 68th Street. Mancini, Deely, and Police Chief Michael Bradley spent the night reviewing the island's emergency management plans. After surveying the damage on the island on the Tuesday after the storm, they proceeded into Holgate, which was "absolutely destroyed." To the mayor's disbelief, almost 1 million cubic yards of sand had been displaced from the beaches and dunes. "It looked like we had a major blizzard," Mancini says. "We had three to four feet of sand everywhere. It looked like snow, but unfortunately, it's not going to melt."

Inside the Long Beach Township Building a couple of weeks later, officials were constantly on the move, tending to their daily duties amid the most sizable cleanup effort in the island's history. Mancini, walking up and down the halls of the building at a brisk pace, headed to his office for a few minutes. He wore a blue windbreaker and khakis and a light blue button-down with raindrops showing on his shirt and jacket.

The National Guard's presence was unmistakable, from the Hummers scattered up and down the island to the dozen-plus troops taking a break in a large meeting area by the mayor's office. Deely said that by the time the National Guard first arrived, the water had gotten so high that a Coast Guard boat monument that sits close to the Township Building looked like the real deal. By now, the troops looked exhausted, the dropping temperatures and sideways rain taking a physical and mental toll on their recovery efforts. (The male troops did get a reprieve in the form of a visit from three New York Jets cheerleaders.)

It had been a week since Obama's reelection, but Mancini still had a Romney-Ryan sign leaning up against his desk, as well as a photo collage featuring his late father, James -- a former LBI mayor himself -- with Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, former Sen. Bob Dole, and former N.Y. Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Still, he declared that this was no time for politics. It was, however, a time for money. On November 9, FEMA pulled its 100-percent funding of the recovery efforts in LBI, which Mancini said was about a week too soon, given the nor'easter that came through the Northeast.

The funding decision left the island and the county hamstrung in the days immediately following Sandy. "The majority of the work completed that previous week had been compromised or washed away," Mancini says. "We weren't starting over, but we were starting on the 40-yard line instead of the goal line." The volume of the damages remains staggering. About 8,000 homes were breached by water and another 1,000 homes suffered gas leaks, Mancini said.

And more storms of Sandy's magnitude may well be on the way. Richard Schwartz, author of Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States, has been tracking hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean for 45 years. Seeing the current devastation, Schwartz fears that Sandy was just the beginning of a storm period that could alter the Jersey coastline for good during the next two to three decades. "There were some unprecedented aspects of Sandy, but the destruction from it was a result of the enormous development over the last 50 years," Schwartz says. "It wasn't because it was the most powerful coastal hurricane in history, because it wasn't. And there will be worse."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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