Hurricane Sandy: Reporting One Year Later

It has been one year since Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. Wounds from that epic storm are healing, but deep scars remain evident on the landscape. Sandy’s one year anniversary was a sobering reminder of the destruction and financial hardship the monster storm left in its wake, especially since in some places, the rebuilding process has been glacial. But it was also a reminder of how resilient New Jersey residents are and how well they pull together in times of tragedy and need.

The Jersey Shore, pounded during the storm, is slowly recovering—much too slowly. The stretch, which spans 217 miles of the New Jersey coastal area from Sandy Hook in the north to Cape May in the south, includes the easternmost portions of Monmouth, Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean Counties.

“People wanted to help. They needed to help. This was personal for so many,” Phil Villapiano, former NFL Pro Bowler, Superbowl XI Champion and co-founder of The Foundation to Save the Jersey Shore told “The Suit.” “I’ve been involved in a lot of charities. Raising funds and getting volunteers is hard work – but this was easy. People gave what they could and they gave up their nights and weekends to help. Businesses of all kinds were generous. An executive friend of mine from Amway donated $1 million worth of Amway products to distribute as needed. And Modell’s Sporting Goods donated tons of Little League and Pop Warner equipment so that kids didn’t miss a season.”

A 501(c)3 charitable organization, The Foundation to Save the Jersey Shore raises funds and organizes volunteer efforts to help homeowners and businesses rebuild, renew and recover from Sandy. Its scorecard is as impressive as Villapiano’s football stat sheet. Programs run the gamut from installing subfloors, to replacing playground equipment, to buying lifeguard equipment, to collaborating with Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan on a fundraising event, to a partnership with Live Nation and rock band O.A. R. creating “The Concert to Save the Jersey Shore.”

“We’ve done a great deal in a year, but there’s still a great deal left to do,” Villapiano stressed.

The Storm

To understand the devastation caused by Sandy and the daunting task of rebuilding in the aftermath, it’s necessary to understand the storm and its magnitude.

The largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded at 1,100 miles wide, Sandy smashed ashore about 8 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2012 near Atlantic City, NJ with winds howling at 80 mph. Combining forces with a nor'easter, Sandy’s storm surge was further amplified by a full moon, making high tides 20 percent higher than normal. At one point, Sandy’s winds hit 175 mph from its center. Meanwhile, its tropical storm force winds of 39 mph stretched out over 485 miles. The tenth hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, Sandy’s strength and reach earned the storm a number of monikers including: Frankenstorm, Blizzacane and Snor'eastercane. 

Streets flooded, trees toppled, power lines dropped, fires burned and famed boardwalks up and down the East Coast were ripped apart. The death toll was a painful 149, with confirmed deaths in eight states, Canada and the Caribbean. Scores of people were left homeless. Millions more were left without electricity, heat and water for months. Gas and groceries were in short supply. Schools and businesses shuttered for weeks. A good portion of the Eastern Seaboard was shredded.

“Frankenstorm Sandy devastated our coastline. Those of us who have a keen sense of the ocean and know how significantly it impacts our world knew the storm would be bad,” Scott Thompson of Rumson. A year-round surfer for 44 years Thompson continued, “It had been a long time since a major storm hit the area. As my family and I sat in the dark in our home, listening to the trees bend and break in the wind on that stormy night, we knew the effects along the beach front would be catastrophic. And they were. We felt the ground shake as transformers on neighborhood line poles caught fire and exploded. Debris flew around them from all sides. We were lucky and the only impact personally was losing power for 15 days. We had each other and no one was hurt in our local area.”

One of the costliest U.S. natural disasters on record, the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight estimates that Superstorm Sandy caused some $60 billion in damages. However, a fresh study from US Strong (a nonprofit formed after Sandy) titled “Extreme Weather, Extreme Costs – The True Financial Impact of Superstorm Sandy on New Jersey Homeowners, Businesses and Municipalities” says costs to-date have exceeded $70 billion. More than half of that amount is attributed to damage borne by New Jersey. Insurance companies working with the federal government have processed approximately 144,000 claims filed with the National Flood Insurance Program since Sandy. The Associated Press reports insurers have approved $7.8 billion in flood program payments to policy holders. Nearly 92 percent of all claimants were awarded at least some money, with the average check for $54,754, according to FEMA.

While billions in government aid have been promised to those affected by Superstorm Sandy, scores of New York and New Jersey homeowner have seen little of the money. FEMA has provided more than $1.4 billion in assistance to some 182,000 individuals and homeowners across five states (mostly in NY and NJ), yet many are still depending on another $1.7 billion in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ($150,000-$300,000 per household).  To date, little of those funds have been dispersed.
In addition to long delays in distributions of the HUD grants, mostly in hard-hit New Jersey, the department stopped accepting application for the program on Aug. 1, a mere two months after the program was launched. Residents are growing increasingly frustrated and despondent. 

While the Garden State is expected to receive $35 billion in aid, New Jersey homeowners and businesses have and are reportedly shelling out $8 – $13 billion in expenses, an amount most residents say is well short of true out-of-pocket outlays.

Furthermore, that number is expected to swell in the months and years ahead. “It’s impossible to quantify the true coasts,” Sean Dixon, Coastal Policy Attorney for NJ-based Clean Ocean Action (COA), a national organization pioneering in protection for waterways using science, law, research, education and citizen action, explained to “The Suit.” “Fisheries, eco-systems and tourism will suffer for years. And, the pollution aspect is intimidating. How can you measure the damage caused by millions of gallons of raw sewage that spewed into waters up and down the coast? That seepage will plague wildlife and waters for decades. Additionally, mountains of crucial data were destroyed. There’s no way to measure the lost intellectual value.” 

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. “COA’s expertise is in getting the power of the people moving. Following Sandy, we started the Waves of Action program aimed at connecting volunteers with recovery projects. We’ve placed 12,000 volunteers in Waves of Action Saturday workshops that include cleaning beaches, planting trees around dunes and rebuilding for our future,” Dixon continued.

COA, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in February, has built itself into a globally recognized advocate for clean waters and beaches over the span of three decades. From truly humble beginnings, COA has grown precipitously, receiving a number of prestigious awards. “We got our oceans clean and we never stop working to keep them clean. Every $1 spent on prevention saves $9 down the road,” Dixon detailed.

The Victims

In the first summer following the horrendous hurricane – a summer that included the wettest June since 1895 with an unprecedented 10 inches of rainfall in NJ – beach revenues were down $3.5 million compared to the summer before Sandy hit. According to a Wall Street Journal survey of 24 towns in the four coastal counties that make up the Jersey Shore, revenues slipped 13 percent to $24.2 million from $27.7 million.

Among the hardest hit communities was Sea Bright, NJ. Formed by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Shrewsbury River on the other, this quintessential shore town is about an hour and ten minutes from New York City. A sandy stretch along the Jersey coast, Sea Bright is sleepy in winter. But from Memorial Day through Labor Day, it’s one hopping place.

Locals and a diverse group of tourists come to Sea Bright for its beckoning beaches and alluring New Jersey attitude. An indelible aroma of salt air, suntan lotion and pizza – Jersey Shore perfume – add to the town’s unrivaled ambiance that’s best described as unpretentious, relaxed and welcoming. The same could be said of the town’s proprietors, all hit hard during Sandy. Resilient bunches, without a doubt, all credit their upbeat attitude to the generosity of locals and vendors—not to government assistance. A few share their experiences and thoughts.

Chris Wood (aka Woody), co-owner of Woody’s Ocean Grille, opened his popular restaurant in August 2011, right after Hurricane Irene. “Since our building is made of concrete, we didn’t suffer damage to the exterior structure. But, we had three and a half feet of water soak our interior. Since most of our equipment was new, it was relatively easy to replace. We were closed for three months and reopened in the usually slow winter months. However, since we were the 'only-game-in-town,' so to speak, business was brisk. People made it a point to come out and support us. Our numbers are up year-over-year,” Wood said.

While closed for three months, Wood helped feed the waves of first responders who came from all over the country and as far north as Canada. “Over 12 weeks we dished out more than 200,000 meals to gas workers, electricians, engineers and the National Guard,” Wood added.

It was during this time that Wood co-founded Sea Bright Rising, a non-profit organization devoted to providing relief to the needy, the displaced and the recovery of Sea Bright. “Since our inception, we’ve raised $1.3 million which went to 250 families and 17 businesses. We also helped the town’s infrastructure. For example, we purchased the flag pole for the fire department, lights for the police station and planters, benches and trash receptacles for the town. Our mission is to get families back in their homes, businesses up and running and to improve the town of Sea Bright. Everyone in Sea Bright was affected. It doesn’t matter to us if they have $2 dollar or $2 million.  Everyone needed help and we’re here to help,” Wood continued.

Frank Bain, owner of Bain’s Hardware, a Sea Bright institution for more than a century, was quick to get his store up and running so that he could help by carrying the kind of supplies that people needed for cleanup and rebuilding. “We suffered a tremendous amount of damage. There was over 4 feet of water in the store. We reopened in stages and had one side of the store opened after one and a half months. Customers have been great and people have been going out of their way to shop here. We also got great assistance from our vendors. Benjamin Moore took back all of my ruined paint and gave me a credit. I really want to thank those who have helped us and all of Sea Bright. We here at Bain’s take great pride in our store and our town. We are the epitome of small town America. We are Main Street USA,” Bain shared.

Family-owned Harry’s Lobster House, a Sea Bright staple since 1933, was closed for six weeks following Sandy. “Our building is concrete, unlike a lot of the wood ones around town. That was a blessing and allowed us to get back to business fairly quickly. We had a pretty good summer and hope that next summer will pick up even more,” new owner and chef Lou Jacoubs said.

Beach clubs are truly Sea Bright’s bread and butter. All being situated just yards from the ocean – all sorely suffered. The rebuilding continues, and yet the summer of 2013 was good, according to Chubby Marks, general manager of Edgewater Beach Club. “We completed two years of work in six-and-a-half months,” Marks explained. “When we opened on Memorial Day, we were 99% done. We had just embarked on a $2 million renovation project and had nine of our roughly 100 cabanas refurbished before Sandy struck. That actually played to our advantage. The new structures were stronger and we were already planning to rebuild. This past summer was very good for us. And we expect an even better season next year. We get about 250 inquiries weekly about memberships or wedding availabilities.”  To be sure, the phone rang non-stop during this interview.

A One in 700 Years Storm?

Debates continue about the likelihood of another such biblical storm. Speculation grew in the months after Sandy that its steering winds were some sort of “new normal” caused by climate warming.

A new study in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” set out to determine if the winds that drove Sandy straight into the East Coast are more or less likely to happen again over the next 100 years. “We wanted to test that idea, and what we have found is that the steering winds actually look less frequent in the next century,” Elizabeth Barnes, lead author of the study told “USA Today.”

Previous estimates came to a similar conclusion, suggesting Sandy’s westerly motion into the Jersey Shore was a once-in-700-years occurrence.

“My interpretation is that Sandy was a rare event and this looks like a reasonable approach to say some of the mixture of conditions that led to it look less likely in the century ahead,” Tom Knutson, a climate model expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, NJ, told “USA Today.”

While that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again, the Jersey Shore will gladly take those 1-in-700 odds. Marks said that Mother Nature has been kind to Sea Bright since the storm. “We’ve enjoyed a stream of west winds which help build beaches and bring in soft, natural sand,” Marks explained.

Yet a pressing question hovers. “In the haste to rebuilt and restore the Shore, have we learned anything about the incredible power of Mother Nature?” Thompson asks. “The ocean will be back to reclaim what is hers.”

For now, the Jersey Shore is staking out its own idyllic seaside claim. Sandy was one heck of a storm, but Sea Bright is one heck of a town – like the small towns up and down this area. It has so much heart and soul, and it’s immensely significant to all who live, work and visit here. Those who know this small community know its world is very large indeed.

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