By Michele J. Kuhn
After the storm had passed and dawn was breaking, Mayor Dina Long talked to the Sea Bright emergency management coordinator to see how her town had fared.
“He said, ‘The town is gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean the town is gone?’
(Dan Drogin) said ‘It’s gone,’ ’’ Long said.
So began an extraordinary year for the Sea Bright mayor and her neighbors as they have been dealing with the decimation caused by an extraordinary storm, Super Storm Sandy, which brought destruction along the Jersey Shore that was both cruel and capricious. The wreckage has meant that to this day about 300 of 800 Sea Bright households remain out of their homes that were either destroyed or so heavily damaged that return has so far been impossible – including Long and her family who have been renting a house in the borough since Christmas.
It has been a year that has run the gamut of feelings, emotions, hard work and lessons learned.
Shortly after her conversation with Drogin on Oct. 30, 2012, Long, who had evacuated with her family the day before, headed to Sea Bright. With her husband Rob at the wheel, they drove with difficulty around downed trees and power lines to the Rumson side of the Rumson-Sea Bright bridge. There they were met by Councilman C. Read Murphy for a tour of the town on an all-terrain vehicle.
“It was devastation everywhere,” she said. “The first thing I saw was just piles and piles of sand. I saw the wreckage of the Sea Bright Beach Club. I saw the wreckage of our Dunkin’ Donuts service station. There used to be an Exxon station right there. That building had a hole clear through it.
“All the telephone poles were downed, sticking out. There were smashed up buildings and wood and debris everywhere. There were boats tangled in the power lines … Words just don’t do it justice. It was like a scene out of a movie. It couldn’t have possibly been real.”
When she first saw what was left of Sea Bright early that morning, Long “burst into tears … I just looked at everything. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! I think that was all I was capable of saying for the first hour. Then the other council members started to arrive and they saw it. There was really no time for anything because there was an emergency situation. There was (natural) gas leaking all over town. You could smell it. You could hear it and, in some places, you could see it bubbling out of the ground like a fountain. You knew there was a live gas line under there.”
Uncovering the gas lines, buried under 8 feet of sand in a once familiar landscape that overnight became unrecognizable, was just the first in a long line of issues that had to be dealt with during the days, weeks, months and now year since Sandy. It also was the first time the borough had to reach out for help and services it could not handle on its own when the Stavola family jumped into action with their heavy excavation equipment. The experience has led to the borough’s establishing a variety of partnerships to assist with planning and building as recovery continues, including with state, county and relief agencies, utility companies and such institutions as Rutgers, Harvard and NJIT. “In order to recover, we needed to develop strategic partnerships,” Long said.
Next the borough had to determine the structural integrity of its buildings. “Before we let anyone back into town, we had to make sure their structure wouldn’t collapse on them,” said Long, who was only in her 10th month as mayor.
Throughout it all, Long, a Democrat, has been one of the constant faces of Sea Bright, whether speaking through a bullhorn at community meetings, giving interviews to journalists or standing with Republican Gov. Chris Christie as he offered support, needed funds and expertise. Christie has been “very helpful to us,” said Long who has gotten some heat from her endorsement of the governor. She admits to channeling her “inner Chris Christie” when getting the runaround from others.
During those first few weeks, Long didn’t have the luxury of absorbing what was happening to her and her town. “There was no time to reflect. There was no time after that initial ‘Oh my God;’ it was, ‘OK, what’s the game plan?’ I have to say one of the best things to come out of it was a really solid partnership between all the elected officials and borough employees. Everyone came together, divided up the work and got the work done.”
She calls the “worst day of her life” the day shortly after the storm when she had to tell borough residents she didn’t know when they could return to their homes. “No one thought we’d be evacuated for more than a day or two,” she said. “Imagine telling 1,400 people they can’t go home and you don’t know when they can go home and you don’t know whether their house is there.”
It was earlier that day that Long “lost it” and went out behind borough hall to weep. She looked down at the ground and saw a shard of the Donovan’s Reef sign that simply said “DO.” She took that as her “message from heaven. Just do it,” and used that to motivate herself and others.
“For me, the challenge was (communicating with) the residents because all I had was my little iPhone. There was no communication … and residents wanted to know what their homes looked like.” Long began taking photos as she went through town and then posted them on her Twitter account while residents were still barred from returning home.
Like many of their neighbors’ homes, 5 feet of water swept through the Longs’ house. Though it has been stripped to the studs now, they have determined that it will be cheaper to elevate and rebuild the house than elevate and renovate. And, again like many of their neighbors, they aren’t sure how they will pay for it.
Long says Sea Bright was as prepared as possible when the storm hit. Borough officials actually began watching Sandy when it was forming and initially designated as Tropical Storm 18. “We had been keeping a close eye on it. But once they started calling it ‘Frankenstorm,’ we knew that this was something out of the ordinary.”
The town, which already had a set of disaster plans, had five days to prepare for Sandy and did things such as berming sand on the beach, checking the sewer pump station and securing items that could become airborne. Officials began meeting “every couple of days, then every day, then every couple of hours … Of course, we found out later that there wasn’t much we could have done to have prevent that kind of damage,” she said. “We knew it would be bad, we just didn’t think it would be that bad.
“Nothing prepares you for having a Category 1 natural disaster delivered to your doorstep,” she said.
“As soon as the governor declared a state of emergency – within 5 minutes – I followed suit and ordered an evacuation,” she said. Trying to set an example for residents, Long, her husband and their and 10-year-old son, Sam, evacuated – with their dog and an Xbox – to her mother’s Neptune home on Sunday, the day before the Monday, Oct. 29, storm.
As the storm raged outside, Long was trying to keep her emotions in check.
The night of the storm was also the birthday of her father who had died just the month before. “I was trying to keep strong for my mother,” she said. “We were talking about my dad, it was a family night … and then I’d sneak away to my phone.”
Long, 44, had been keeping in touch with Drogin and first responders who were sending her updates and photos throughout the night. But, as the storm gathered strength and the water rose from both the Atlantic and Shrewsbury River, even the borough’s first responders evacuated, though they made “some pretty scary rescues of people who had stayed as they tried to self-evacuate during the height of the storm … We had some real acts of heroism by our fire department and police department,” Long said.
“When the first responders evacuated, I knew we were in trouble. They never leave. When it got too dangerous for the heroes, we knew it was bad.” About 10 percent of the borough’s residents stayed in Sea Bright to ride out the storm. They had to be evacuated the next day because of the gas leaks.
Looking back, Long has high praise for borough employees and emergency responders; Police Chief John Sorrentino, who personally rescued residents’ pets and retrieved their essential medications; the business community that pulled itself up without the help of grants; and “all those beautiful beach clubs” that opened this past summer in varying states of repair or rebuilding.
The mayor saves special praise for her “awesome husband. When you think about it, he lost his home, he lost his town, and his spouse because I was just not present, especially in the beginning … He picked up the slack, took care of our son and maintained a sense of normalcy for him. He helped talk me off the edge when I was having difficulty dealing with my grief so I could help others with their grief. I never would have gotten through it without him.”
As she approaches the first anniversary of the storm, Long is a bit disappointed with how far Sea Bright has come. “I thought we’d be further along than we are,” she said. But experts tell her full recovery usually takes five to 10 years. “That makes me frustrated,” she said.
“We’re Sea Bright … Things are always moving in Sea Bright. The air is moving. The water is moving. The sand is moving. The land is moving. The people are moving. Stasis is not a natural state for us. We may not be where I would like us to be but we are relentlessly moving forward nonetheless.”
Long said she can’t really measure the borough’s recovery “until we get the people who belong in Sea Bright back into their homes. It is a huge source of pain and anxiety that so many people remain displaced – myself included. I would love to go in and help every single one of them, but there is just so much a local government can do.”
She is also concerned about her townspeople and all those impacted by Sandy. If the textbooks are right, many will be in for a difficult emotional time triggered by the anniversary. “The one-year anniversary is a big trigger for depression and anxiety,” she said. “ I think the rest of New Jersey is going to have to cut the Sandy people some slack over the next few weeks – big time!”
The lessons learned as both mayor and as an individual were many, including the forming of strong partnerships; that “home is where you love, not where you live;” and “when you stay in a place of gratitude, abundance comes … When we were grateful for the help, more help came.
“We also know, New Jersey’s got heart. You never saw a more generous people who dropped everything to help,” said Long, whose full-time job is as an assistant professor of English at Brookdale Community College.
While the year has been a tumultuous one for Long as she works to help her neighbors and family recover from much loss, she is looking forward to spending time on the Sea Bright beach on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the community-wide pot luck supper and bonfire. “We are just going to come together to enjoy each other’s company,” she said.