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

***

In the 30-plus years that Michael Lasser's family has had a home in Holgate, they'd occasionally joke that they'd finally have an oceanfront home if a big storm were to sweep through LBI. But Lasser, the second of three sons, recalls his heart dropping when he saw the first photos of Holgate starting to roll through Facebook and Twitter.

Having been knocked off its foundation, the house now leans up against its neighbor's home. The trees that Lasser helped plant with his grandmother when he was 5 years old are no longer upright. The inside of the home looks like it was hit by explosives, with doors, tables, wall panels, and sofa cushions lying on a floor covered in sand. Playing cards are scattered in the living room. The staircase to the second floor is sideways. The backside of the house has come undone, and part of the roofing is now pointing toward the sky. The sunroom area, used for beer pong with friends in the boys' younger years, is leaning forward, about to collapse.

"We took care of it our entire lives and we hoped to have had our kids grow up there," says Lasser, medical director for the Center for Robotic Surgery at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. "And now, it is destroyed. It is not something I ever thought of as being a possibility."

An insurance adjuster determined the house to be a total loss. Soon, the home will be demolished. FEMA has estimated that 10 percent of structures in Ocean County were totally destroyed, according to Moody's analytics. But before distributing funds, FEMA is requesting blueprints. Even though the Lasser home has been in the family's name since it was built, there are no records of blueprints, either among the Lassers themselves or at the county clerk's or township offices. Because of requests like this from FEMA and insurance adjusters, the timetable to demolish and move forward on households such as the Lasser home could become a serious issue moving forward.

According to Mancini, not a single LBI resident has yet received a check for damages. "The only thing slowing us down now are the insurance adjusters and FEMA inspections," Mancini said. "If they would step up their activity here, we'd be recovering a lot more quickly." Instead, he said, "The negative and combative approach of adjusting is putting the burden of proof of replacement cost on the homeowner." He calls this approach "pure intimidation."

In response, FEMA spokesman Richard Gifford said, "The restricted access to the island has presented challenges to flood insurance adjusters who are making every effort to provide timely and accurate claims settlements." He added, "Across New Jersey, almost 71,000 claims have been received from NFIP Policy Holders with nearly $304,000,000 paid in both final, advance, and partial payments."

But the delays remain one of several key economic concerns in the county. Even before Sandy swept in, Ocean County and its surrounding towns were in dire economic straits. The county has been dealing with foreclosure rates double that of the national rate, and projections of greater gains in employment numbers during the first part of the year proved to be false.

In Ocean County, the unemployment rate remained at a little more than 10 percent last year, according to data compiled by Moody's Analytics -- higher than the current 9.7-percent unemployment rate throughout the state and much higher than the current 7.9-percent national unemployment rate. This year, the county's unemployment is expected to spike to 10.47 percent, with an almost-identical projection for 2013, according to Moody's.

But the speed of rebuilding will also depend on how much of a priority it is to individual homeowners. In LBI, as in other beach towns on the Jersey Shore, there is an influx of seasonal residents from New York, Connecticut, and other surrounding states, many of whom are dealing with damages to their primary residences as well.

"Since the majority of homes in the [Ocean City Metropolitan Statistical Area] are secondary or vacation homes, the rebuilding process will be slower than areas further inland and in New York City," says Kyle Hillman, an associate economist for Moody's who focuses on Ocean County and the Ocean City Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes the Jersey coast. "Damages to commercial buildings will likely be quickly repaired, as many small businesses close during the winter and owners will want to be ready for Memorial Day. However, I wonder how many homeowners and landlords will rush to get their properties taken care of, especially if their primary residence was also damaged."

This, combined with the rise in unemployment, has substantially raised the foreclosure rate. From the second to the third quarter of this year, the rate climbed from 15.97 to 26.5 per 1,000 households, according to Moody's. Heading into the second quarter of 2013, that foreclosure rate is expected to climb to more than 28.

"Homes already in foreclosure will likely be the last to be repaired," Hillman says. "Neither the bank nor the homeowner has any real incentive to spend money on maintenance. In some instances, it may make more sense for the banks to simply demolish the homes and sell the lots without a structure."

Back in Holgate, questions linger for Lasser and his family about what's next following the demolition. For Lasser, the sadness of the situation, coupled with his father's health concerns, has been a lot to process in the month since Sandy.

"It's similar to losing a family member," Lasser says. "It's weird to say that about a house, but it's true."

***

With Deely at the wheel, I ride past more than a dozen consecutive houses that are now supported only by stilts and additional X-shaped wooden braces, their garages washed away. The beach is totally flat, with nothing separating the homes from the ocean. Several houses have been marked as condemned until further notice. Cars left in the driveways have shattered windshields, many of them submerged in feet of sand.

"Let's make sure your family's house is okay," Deely tells me.

Approaching the house, I am anxious. The rain is picking up again. The car pulls over to the left shoulder of the road in front of my grandmother's home, the seventh oceanfront house from the end of the island. The pebble driveway that seemed so long when I was a kid is buried under three feet of sand. I trip on my first attempt to walk up it.

After making it over the hump, I see that the garage doors have been blown through. A couple of miniature cars, favorite toys among my cousins' kids, stick out through the openings. The backside of the garage is totally demolished, and debris and furniture are scattered throughout the sand-filled interior. The staircase that once led to the upstairs living area has collapsed, lying sideways in the area of the garage where I'd watch Yankees games in the summertime.

The wind blows through the gaping hole in the back, making it look like there's a fan on inside. The sand is pushed up so close to the house that the sizable backyard is now only a couple feet long. The dune that once separated us from the sea, 40 years in the making, is now as flat as it was when my grandfather bought the property, back when it was a parking lot in the mid-1970s. If he could only see it now.

Leaving the island, there's hope. A makeshift soup kitchen feeds the volunteers and troops with hot meals. Contractors are removing sand at a fervent pace and building up temporary dunes. But everyone is exhausted. More than ever, the push to Memorial Day of 2013 is on and it is the most important in memory - a fact that won't be lost on anyone on the island as they push through the months ahead.

"Holgate is our home," reads one of the signs in front of Bowker's South Beach Grill. "We'll get through this TOGETHER."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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