New Jersey writer Jon Coen meets some local faces – surfers, musicians and families – who came together in Sandy’s wake.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore, she sank homes, bashed businesses and left the coastline in a mess. But what happened after the headlines stopped? New Jersey writer Jon Coen meets some local faces – surfers, musicians and families – who came together in Sandy’s wake.
“I saw a bright light in the ocean, thinking it could be a ship in distress.” William Huelsenbeck, the Mayor of Ship Bottom, New Jersey – the tiny town that I call home – is sitting in a trailer. His office and the entire municipal complex are gutted. “I called a friend and he saw the same thing. Just then, the moon broke through; the wind died, the flags dropped and the stars came out. An old timer had told my Dad and I back in 1959 that when you see the flags drop and the stars come out, get ready. We went out front. There were ominous clouds just circling around and then… all hell broke loose.”
The storm Huelsenbeck saw sweep in on 29 October, 2012, was far from your average gust of wind. What happened over the next twenty-four hours would change this storied coastline forever, as Hurricane Sandy – a raging meteorological beast that morphed with a nor’easter to become a circulating saw blade 800 miles in diameter – ripped right through town.
And while that storm surge and bastard full moon were detrimental locally, it affected millions regionally for whom this shoreline was the fabric of life. The boardwalks, summer shacks, beaches and piers weren’t simply infrastructure; they were iconic landmarks enjoyed by generations. When Sandy chewed Casino Pier and swallowed Coney Island, childhood memories seemed to wash away – the ice cream cones, mini-golf games, dawn patrol sessions, first smooches on the Ferris wheel swallowed like beach bungalows.
My grandmother went to Funtown Pier in Seaside Heights as a kid and later put three generations on those same amusement rides. This is where the culture of shore resorts designed for the common man originated. And while other beach towns developed in uniformity, ours felt timeless and unique.
One business badly hit was Unsound Surf, a surf shop founded in 1995 by friends Mike Nelson and Dave Juan. After Sandy sent the boardwalk in Long Beach splintering through the city, it took five months to get Unsound back open for business. To this day the lot behind the building – where they hosted athletes like Mick Fanning, Travis Rice and Carissa Moore – is still covered in debris.
“At first you think, ‘What are you going to do? Is that it for us? Are we gone forever? Or are we going to come back stronger?’ It turns your whole world upside down,” says Juan walking around the rubble, holding his three-year-old son Brody high above the mess.
Even though Juan’s Long Beach house actually shifted off its foundation, he stayed put while his wife, Ashley, four months pregnant, took Brody to her parents. They were still displaced when the couple welcomed their newborn into the world. “It was devastating to see the boardwalk at Laurelton Boulevard destroyed,” says Juan. “I lived right there for years. There were two ramps up there. If you were one of the crew you walked up my ramp and you’d socialise with everyone. Life revolved around that spot.”
Today, Juan and his family are living in rented accommodation, but the shop is open. And despite having to deal with the high cost of repairs, earning no income aside from $120 a month from unemployment, Juan and Nelson have made the most of having to start from scratch. They even used reclaimed wood from the boardwalk to give one wall a rootsy feel. And as one might imagine, the shop became a beacon of hope when it opened its doors in April. “It was cool, but it got to a point where I couldn’t even stand behind the counter,” shares Juan. “Everyone who came through the door just wanted to talk about the storm.”
If there’s one good thing about a crisis, it’s the caliber of people that seem to follow in its wake. Among the first to respond to Sandy’s mess was Waves For Water, a non-profit relief effort founded by former pro surfer Jon Rose, which has responded to natural disasters in Haiti, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Brazil. Describing Waves For Water as the “Black Ops of non-profit organisations”, Rose helped facilitate the initial outpouring of support in Rockaway. He worked to get Beastie Boy Mike D’s food truck, Rockaway Plate Lunch, up and running free meals; he helped bring the very first barrel of gas into Long Beach, which was still completely paralysed days after the storm; and he held separate roundtable meetings in both New York and New Jersey, assembling the folks who were already engaged in renegade relief work.
”As surfers, we learn early on about weather and the constant changes made by nature because it affects our sport so much – tide, wind, swell, etc. So we become comfortable with something that is always changing,” explains Rose. “The other key factor is travelling. Surfers travel. They’ve likely had more exposure to foreign environments and situations than most people – which teaches them how to think on their feet and ultimately, problem solve. And effective disaster relief boils down to just that – quick and efficient problem solving.”
Surfers weren’t the only community moved to action. The Gaslight Anthem and Bouncing Souls – two New Jersey bands that originated in New Brunswick and gravitated toward the Shore area – were also deeply affected. Gaslight was on tour in France when the storm thrashed their beloved home state. With lines down, folks back home were relying on spotty cell service to get the scope from friends and family elsewhere.
“We were watching the news in French, so we originally worried that New Jersey wasn’t even there,” remembers frontman Brian Fallon. “I talked to Pete [Steinkopf, Bouncing Souls guitarist] and asked him to go by my place and check it out. But I had internet, obviously. And I was actually giving them information because they were in the dark. At first, it was like, ‘Is everybody alive? Is everyone okay?’ It was more about my family and friends’ homes. But when I got home and saw it all, that’s when the severity of it all set in.”
What struck Steinkopf was the immediate reaction from people on the coast. “Me and our bass player, Brian [Kienlan], just got on our bikes and headed to Ocean Grove because we heard there were people trying to move the boardwalk out of the road,” he recalls. It was a disaster zone, the kind authorities normally block off while they bring in the heavy equipment. But the police and rescue services were overwhelmed. It was up to residents to start cleaning up. And the Souls jumped right in. “When we got there, it was six people,” remembers Steinkopf. “When we left it was more like sixty.”
Having witnessed the aftermath firsthand, both bands have tried to help mend what Sandy broke. Two months after the storm, Fallon played a solo acoustic set at On the Beach, a relief benefit headlined by My Morning Jacket put together by HUCK contributor Tim Donnelly in Asbury Park. The Gaslight Anthem also sold a Sandy relief T-shirt by noted punk artist El Jefe, donating $35,000 to Architecture for Humanity and Rebuild/Recover, while the Souls’ annual festival, Home for the Holidays, raised money for Waves For Water.
Kate Werner of Beach Haven, New Jersey, didn’t get to attend Home for the Holidays this year. Her father had just been diagnosed with an infection and admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital four hours away. This came after a particularly vulnerable period for the family. Not only was Werner’s apartment flooded in October, but her parents’ and brothers’ homes on the adjacent mainland got swamped as well.
Often when a hurricane hits the US, it bounces off the coast, weakening before the next whack. But Sandy grinded into South Jersey full steam. The worst of a northeast gale battered the coast first while a southeast wind finished off the destruction, the messy icing on a wet cake, which is why so many bay communities went underwater.
Before the height of the storm, Werner evacuated the Island and hunkered down with her mother and father. Although they relocated her ninety-three-year-old grandmother to an uncle’s home inland, they didn’t expect much damage; there had never been any water on their street since they bought their home in 1989. But on that fateful Monday night, the water swallowed her car – two-feet of water inundated the first floor.
”The house has reverse living so my childhood bedroom was on the first floor. That was where I stored all my photos, books, yearbooks and everything,” she remembers. “At one point my Dad’s boat floated off the cinder blocks and I went out in chest deep water and tied it to his truck.”
In February, Werner’s father passed away of liver failure. Her mother Pat, having lost her husband of thirty-six years, now had to rebuild their home alone. They found a contractor to finish the repairs and gain some semblance of normality. But one day in April, the police knocked on the door and informed Pat that the contractor, the one to whom she had just paid a deposit, had been arrested for stealing copper pipes from Sandy-ravaged homes.
For all the human spirit that has shone through, there certainly has been some douchebaggery. As the long desperate winter dragged on, and with copper fetching three dollars a pound, some savvier carpenters descended into opportunistic thieves. And while those crooks will now face jail time, the insurance companies who lost claims, failed to return calls and found every reason in the book not to pay hardworking people, will stay in business. Many insurers claimed their policies only covered wind damage from hurricanes, while the storm surge is what did the damage. And yet, despite leaving plenty of wet folks hanging out to dry, The Wall Street Journal reported that insurers still took a $25 billion hit. In New Jersey’s Ocean and Monmouth Counties, overall property value dropped by over $5 billion. With less homes available, rental prices jumped.
As if all this wasn’t enough for local families, collateral damage has come in all forms. Having continued her studies in Social Work throughout this trying period, Werner – whose doctorate focused on drug and alcohol treatment – has seen people slip into (or back into) addiction since the storm. “In any major tragedy or abrupt change in life, regression to addiction is often the first place that people in recovery find familiarity and comfort. I know a couple of locals affected by Sandy who were not able to find the support they needed to stay sober,” says Werner on an April morning. She and Pat are picking up sheetrock from a local Waves For Water relief station on Long Beach Island to start the work their incarcerated contractor won’t be finishing.
In New Jersey, which traditionally has the second lowest suicide rate in the country, a number of folks who lost everything took their own lives. The state set up a suicide hotline and saw heavy calls through the winter. But where professional help is unavailable, concerned citizens – like the Sandy Support Group in Werner’s hometown – are leaning on each other to get through.
While nearly everyone with the means to do so took part in relief efforts, some rallied support louder than most. The day after the storm, co-owners of Long Beach Island apparel brand Jetty, Jeremy DeFilippis and Cory Higgins, got on the phone with designer John Clifford. They worked up a ‘Unite-Rebuild’ t-shirt design and put it up on jettylife.com. That night, the site crashed. Buried with 1.5 million hits in two days, it crashed two more times before they were able to upgrade.
”Knowing that the town you’ve lived in your whole life looks like a war zone, complete with armed military guards, and having no idea when you’ll be allowed to go back to see what personal damage you have to deal with, is a weird dynamic,” remembers Higgins. “It’s a mental struggle of knowing there’s nothing you can do, but wanting so badly to get over and start helping. We channelled our energy any way we could in the short term. We just had no idea how fast it would explode.”
Thirty miles up the coast, another grassroots surf and skate company called Ergo, owned by Pete Dispirito and Rob Sickel, launched a benefit shirt as well. Intern Derek Koch’s ‘Restore the Shore’ became the rallying cry for the region. Ergo’s warehouse transformed into a relief distribution centre that would eventually move $5 million in clothing, food, water and tools. They donated $50,000 alone in ventilator masks as mould became toxic. The two companies, which are traditionally competing for the same market, worked together as part of Waves For Water’s overarching effort, holding meetings, donating to non-profits, gutting houses, collecting donations, orchestrating environmental clean-ups, and eventually rebuilding homes and businesses. Together, these two little operations have already raised and donated nearly $500,000. But most importantly, they have rallied the traditionally marginalised younger generation of the region to action.
In late May, Americans celebrated Memorial Day. It’s normally a three-day weekend of cookouts, cold kegs and concerts. Coastal regions use it to kick-off the summer season. In New Jersey alone, tourism is a $40 billion industry.
This year, Memorial Day served as a barometer for summer business. Ribbons were cut on new boardwalks. Iconic snack shack Rippers reopened at Beach 86thStreet in Rockaway, while those still rebuilding did pop-up stalls. The Gaslight Anthem rocked two sold-out shows at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park. New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie and President Obama, who have worked together admirably despite their politics being as different as their body types, hosted a press conference at the start of the tourist season.
“When I was here seven months ago, Hurricane Sandy had just hammered communities all across the East Coast,” Obama told a crowd assembled in front of historic Convention Hall on an unseasonably cold and rainy day. “Lives were lost. Homes and businesses had been destroyed. Folks were hurting. I remember something Chris said back then. He said, ‘We cannot let that sorrow replace the feeling of resilience that all New Jerseyans have.’ And you didn’t. You kept going. These towns have a special character.”
As reassuring as it may be to hear music from the boardwalk, smell the grill from every beach house, see spring swells lining up, and taste sweet zeppolis again, it’s a cautious optimism. Some towns like Sea Bright, Mantoloking and Rockaway are a long way from normal.
When the excitement of summer is over, long-term reality will set in as folks face rising taxes, insurance companies drop policy-holders and new FEMA flood maps recommend thousands of homes be razed. There are real fears that developers may prey on sinking real-estate values and forever change the character of these towns. And if the US Army Corps of Engineers uses its standard method of creating wide, uniform beaches for future storm protection, it could eradicate the fun factor that draws people here in the first place.
Most notably, it’s painfully obvious that climate change is already altering our coastlines. According to the US Global Change Research Program, a range of models suggest that tropical cyclones will become more intense in the future as sea-surface temperatures warm. The British Geological Survey states that in the last 100 years, the earth’s climate has warmed nearly one degree centigrade (or almost 1.8 fahrenheit) causing sea levels to rise as Arctic Ice melts. At the time of writing, eighteen people, including six children, have died in tornadoes and flooding in Oklahoma.
For some, the solution is to retreat from the coast. But many forward-thinking folks are torn. They live on barrier islands. They love striper fishing and skee-ball arcades. We do need to rethink our development, rethink our policies, rethink our lives. But we’re not likely going anywhere just yet.
Support Waves for Water and the ongoing relief fund at wavesforwater.org.
This story first appeared in HUCK 39 – The Sofia Coppola Issue. Grab a copy while stocks last.