After Sandy, The Wait For Help Goes On ... And On
As Congress sits on the rest of its $60 billion payout for the Jersey Shore, residents and business people struggle to cope with what they have left
You can still find things here, at the Shore, that you can't find anywhere else, stuff even a "superstorm" couldn't tear away.
Stuff that's stuck together with splintered planks and rusty nails, the kind you see sticking up in those few sections of the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk that remain intact.
You can still find a boardwalk in Ocean City that's a throwback, with its old-time towny movie theater and church-carnival amusement rides so charming, so authentic that even Disney couldn't recreate it. You still have the sand of Long Beach Island and Cape May that's mattress-soft; soup at a Ship Bottom restaurant that's New England-thick.
You can still find things here, at the Shore; for sure. There just isn't a lot of it left, or looking like it used to, after Hurricane Sandy blew through here and knocked most of it down.
Now local officials say there's not a whole lot of money - if any money - to spend to patch it back up. Whatever action they've been promised has undergone delay after delay, keeping the thousands of flooded-out Bayville homeowners without a home; and the many abandoned businesses with red Xs tattooed on their windows - and with little more than water-logged inventory - without anything to sell.
"That kind of delay is not going to be devastating, but it sends a bad message," said Mayor Vincent Barrella, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, whose boardwalk was ruined by Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy.
Barrella is looking at a $3 million-plus price tag to fix perhaps the borough's oldest and most important asset of its economy; and, not only that, its most enduring symbol as a Jersey Shore resort.
"The closer we push this to Memorial Day, the harder it makes to get things up and running," he said.
Those who live in homes with no floors or windows, who own businesses with no inventory or anything left, just keep waiting. And waiting. And waiting, every day, for more than 60 days now. Nearly three months, they've been waiting for some breakthrough, some word from local officials, news reporters, anybody, that Congress is going to step in, and protect them like they believe they should. Step in, and protect the people and their livelihoods, like President Obama says the government is obligated to do.
They're waiting for Congress to pass the rest of a $60 billion payout that could help bring them back up to speed, or at least get them on the road for getting there. Last week, Congress passed $9.7 billion of it. Next week, they promise to pass another $50 billion.
Only they've made these promises before, the residents, and the merchants, and the local officials all say. So the people who live and work in the Jersey Shore, who stand around, looking at their houses that fell like cards when 80 mph winds blew through in late October, just keep doing what they're used to doing:
"The ripple effect is going to impact all of us," said tax attorney Jeff J. Horn of Toms River. "That's the basics. It is going to cost all of us a couple of bucks."
In some towns, the boardwalks are still woodpiles, stacked like kindling at the Manasquan Inlet. The synthetic ones, like the Belmar boards, were supposed to last a long time, and weather the bad storms.
In Hurricane Sandy, the planks were pulled right from their pilings, and flung across Ocean Avenue in Belmar.
There are some spots that survived, or at least stayed the way they were, like many of the businesses that serve seafood near the Manasquan Inlet in Point Beach. Much of LBI seems to have weathered the worst after flooding rose to scary levels in Ship Bottom. Ocean City's boardwalk has retained its early 20th century charm.
Even a few sections of the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk seem tightly nailed-together. It's just that so much of what hasn't floated away has simply buckled under.
"We have a contractor (to fix it), and he has indicated he'll be done by Easter, but the boardwalk is pretty much gone," Barrella said.
The worst are the homes, the ones that look nothing like Tony Soprano's seaside resort home, or the Bob Brennan Brielle home that used to shine the Christmas lights every year, with yachts tied to the slips that float in their lagoons.
This could be the image that people have of the Shore, of a rich old place with old money, tainted by a group of MTV performers who, many believe, merely made their dough by going on T.V. and mocking Italian stereotypes. Why give them more, they could be asking.
But there are so many more who work in Ocean County Mall, hocking cheap jewelry at a hallway stand, or trying to get people to buy at a Ford that's sitting in the middle of the floor, with kids climbing through the seats.
Then there are the ones who work at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, working long hours there, or at the Wawas that go 24 hours straight. Many of them can't even go home, because their homes are missing floorboards, with mold spots peppering up the wall paneling, spreading higher than their arms can reach.
When people don't want the bill to pass, saying there's too much "pork" in it, the homeowners, the renters, the merchants who are suffering say this. They just want help, packaged in whatever way possible.
"I cry everyday," said Margaret Quinn, whose family lost their home when Hurricane Sandy flooded Silverton. "There's nothing there and there's nothing we can do about it."
Many live on the Barrier Island, in the small, two bedroom cottages that line Seaside Heights and Ortley Beach. They earn middle-class pay, at best. When they had their homes, they grew used to the sirens blaring outside their windows as cops rush to the Seaside Heights boardwalk on a busy summer night.
Since the storm, they've been biding their time in shelters, or at friends' houses, sending their kids to schools in other towns, if they're sending them at all.
FEMA struggles to help. But FEMA can't do much while it sits on the $60 billion egg that Congress hasn't fully cracked.
It's the kind of money that Congress approved just two or three weeks after Katrina in New Orleans, or Andrew in Florida. But at the Shore, it's been nearly three months of temporary shelters. Three months of people sleeping on somebody else's couch. Three months of promises made, they said. Three months of being told, "Not yet, but soon."
"I have to say I'm still very upset and I think it's deplorable that the Speaker (of the House) did not bring this ($60 billion) bill up and the whole package that addresses Hurricane Sandy relief in the lame duck session in the last days of Congress," said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-Monmouth and Middlesex.
"It would have been passed. We had the votes. It would have been on the president’s desk. He would have signed it, and we would have started to rebuild the shore."
And even once the money is doled out, they say, there's still a ways to go.
The people here will tell you: The Shore was never the land of stony palaces, the palatial landscape it's been made out to be.
Sure, you can see the sun rise from the water from a window in any house in Beach Haven West. But you can only feel its heat a few months a year. In the winter, you couldn't get a boat into a rock-hard, frozen-stiff lagoon in Beach Haven West if you had a jackhammer.
Many of these homes don't have walls that are made of marble and brick. They're more like the one I lived in, back in the 1990s, when you could feel the damp, chilly air seep through the cheap wall paneling we picked up from Home Depot. That wall paneling didn't stop the wind from seeping through the flimsy sheet rock.
In the winter, many of the bars are so empty, and the beaches so barren that some locals call it the "void," the time when the people, the money and the region's largest industry - tourism - disappears. Business people bide their time, coming up with Polar Bear Plunges and any kind of stunt, to get somebody patronizing the places until they all come back.
Only this void we're in now is probably going to be longer, deeper than what we've ever been in. And we'll hopefully never again feel what some call "this bad dream" like we're feeling it now.
"We're going to get this (Point Beach boardwalk), repaired at, hopefully, no cost to the taxpayer," Barrella said. "But getting up-and-running is important. It's important for the town because it sends a message to the town."
Time will tell. At Barnacle Bill's in Ortley Beach, dozens of arcade cabinets, pinball machines, and crane games, all of them destroyed by flooding ocean water, were pulled out to the sidewalk creating a video game graveyard of sorts.
Will the place recreate it the way it was, and keep its old-fashioned charm?
Time will tell.
"We're trying to survive now," Bill's owner Bill Petruzel said "We're not just trying to make money, a profit. It's all about surviving."