By John Burton
Sandy – a year later – is still talked about in the Two River Area; its impact still felt; its effects still painful for some, as communities and their residents and businesses still look to address rebuilding and recovery.
When asked about how the last year has been for her and her community, Monmouth Beach Mayor Susan Howard answered, “For us the storm hasn’t ended. It isn’t over.”
“With a few notable exceptions,” Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long said when asked about these last 12 months, “it was the worst year of my of my entire life.
“I lost my town, I lost my home,” Long said of the storm’s effects.
“Sandy is not a demarcation in my life,” as in before- and after-Sandy, Long said.
For Highlands Mayor Frank Nolan and Peter McCarthy, unit coordinator for Gateway National Recreation Area (both of which were hit remarkably hard), the word that came to their minds was “challenging.”
“It really, really was a challenging year,” Nolan offered, adding the work will be continuing for the better part of a decade for his community that saw an amazing number of homes and businesses damaged and destroyed.
“The pace was at times grueling,” over the last year as he and National Park Service staff and contractors struggled to get the federal park in some sense of readiness for the summer season, McCarthy said.
Monmouth Beach was impacted dramatically by last October’s storm that smacked down much of the area (though less so than neighboring Sea Bright or Highlands), damaging many homes and other structures – including landing a severe hit to every municipal building. Howard explained that the storm’s impact continues to reverberate throughout the community, as local officials and residents attempt to address the frustrations of dealing with government bureaucracies, on both the federal and state level.
The good news is, “Many people are back in their homes,” having been able to rebuild and pick up the pieces. For others, though, living arrangements are still on hold. “Because of the long and arduous and contentious process that people have to go through with their insurance companies,” Howard continued, “many have not even begun the restoring their homes.”
“And that has been the most disheartening about the process,” she acknowledged.
People have been dealing with insurance companies, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with state organizations and often getting inaccurate, incomplete and, at times, contradictory information.
“That has been playing out across the state,” she said. “And that is why on Oct. 29 (the storm’s anniversary) many people will not be back in their homes.”
The emphasis for Howard, and the other members of the town’s elected commission, was to first work to return residents to their homes; second, came restoring a leading revenue source – its beach pavilion, which was completed and operating for the summer.
The next order of business for Monmouth Beach will be to rebuild its municipal buildings. All of them were damaged – the public library (all of its volumes were ruined), borough hall, police headquarters and firehouse. Only the pavilion has been repaired by the borough; the cultural center, on Ocean Avenue, was reopened after volunteers chipped in to do the repairs.
The governing body has taken some criticism for not moving quicker on its buildings, Howard acknowledged. But officials have been pursuing funding options and “will do a comprehensive analysis of our buildings and our facilities’ needs as we go forward,” she said. “We’re going to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
As she looks back over the last year and all the work and effort, Howard said she was reminded of the old adage about motherhood: “The days go quickly but the hours are long.”
“It’s been 24/7,” for Dina Long over the last year, as she, like others in her community and even elected officials here and elsewhere, address the loss of their homes and personal effects as the tidal surge swept these waterfront communities. And many residents have not been able to return, including Long, as they deal with the same issues that Howard raised. And that continues to be an emphasis for the governing body, working nonstop to get people back in their homes.
“People are extremely frustrated,” she observed. “Frustrated at the pace things are moving,” with the various state and federal programs. “Frustrated with local government,” Long said, “that things aren’t fixed, aren’t cleaner.”
One of the major fears is that many of those displaced a year ago won’t return, she acknowledged, which would be a true loss for the struggling community.
“One of the things that makes Sea Bright Sea Bright is the people,” she said, “and without them it’s not Sea Bright.”
Frank Nolan, like many who live in the Highlands’ lower area, and his family wound up spending weeks living out of the makeshift shelter set up at Henry Hudson Regional High School as their home was severely damaged and the they continue to live in a rental. Nolan and other officials and employees used the shelter as a base of operations to address the emergency needs of the community.
One lasting memory of his time in the shelter is walking outside in the evenings, where “You could literally hear people crying,” he said. “Because they were so devastated.”
Of the approximately 1,500 homes in the Highlands lower region, a good 1,250 of them sustained serious damage or were destroyed, with about 60 percent of them still unoccupied, he said.
“I guess people think once the water went out,” as the tide receded, “what’s the big deal?” observed Tim Hill, Highlands borough administrator. But the truth of the matter, he said, is that “most people don’t grasp the magnitude of the damage that water can do to a house.”
According to Nolan the first couple of months went quickly – and turns out to have been the easy part, thinking back. “You know what to do, cleaning up, ripping out sheetrock, throwing out,” he explained.
“After that, there is no game plan,” Nolan acknowledged. And since then it has been thinking long term – rebuilding, getting people back in their homes and businesses open and running, and finding ways to avoid or mitigate this kind of damage from future storms – that has consumed officials and employees.
The Sandy Hook 7-mile long park took much of the brunt of the storm, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Sandy Hook Bay on the other, smashing buildings, ruining infrastructure, drifting massive amounts of sand. And while unit coordinator McCarthy said it was a remarkable accomplishment to have gotten as much repaired as the National Park Service did, it is going to be a full three years before the park is back to where it was.
And like any of the other recovery projects along the shore, “it has its ups and downs,” with frustration among park employees and others that it hasn’t moved along more quickly, McCarthy said.
“You get to a certain point and its hurry up and wait,” he observed.
For Little Silver, “It’s been a long year but we’re getting there,” said Mayor Robert Neff Jr. His community did not have the kind of damage that struck other communities, but still has residents who haven’t been able to get back home – including Neff and his family.
“Even a year ago, as bad as it was, I thought we would have more back in their homes, back to some sense of normalcy,” Neff said. In large part he sees the delays the way other officials have. “The fact is that not everyone is back in and we’re still trying to help those who are waiting for grants, waiting for insurance settlements and still not quite sure what the next step is.”
Neff said he’s experienced the same weird feeling that others expressed: how the year has been so fast and dragged so long. “There is that amazing amount of work, of things that needs to be done and there is than anxiety of waiting,” to hear about insurance, government approvals and everything else, causing such frustration, Neff said.
“It’s not all gloom,” however, Nolan pointed out. “There are a couple of real good signs.”
People are getting their insurance settlements and grant money is moving along. Nolan is seeing “people actually making substantial improvements and repairs and getting back into homes.”
With the immediate crisis receded, officials are undertaking the necessary work on flood mitigation, Nolan added.
“I drive these streets every day,” Hill added. “And I see some wonderful things happening.”
Little Silver, too, is seeing a lot of activity, construction all along its riverfront property, Neff said.
The same is true for some in Sea Bright. “Numerous people have had happy endings or are working toward happy endings,” Long offered.
“Despite all the frustrations, it is a remarkably resilient community,” Long said of her hometown. “People are still working, fighting, are actually engaged in the life of our town,” she insisted.
“We’ll be back better and stronger than before.”