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

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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."

***

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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