I love autumn, especially the month of October as it brings out a lot of fun activities and the Halloween season is in full swing. After 2012 however, it was never quite the same. This year marks a decade since the devasting impact of Superstorm Sandy which was one of the worst times in my life and probably many others as well.
It was a time when I and all of Ocean County truly witnessed the wrath of Mother Nature. Before that we thought of hurricanes and the destruction as happening someplace else.
While I had heard stories of the great storm of the early 1960s that created a flood around areas of the northern barrier island, I wasn’t prepared for what we got. I was also in the midst of covering this devastation first hand while working for another Jersey Shore based publication.
I will never forget the conversation I had the day after the storm speaking to then-Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Ackers who said, “Bob, the rollercoaster is in the ocean.” He had stayed that evening and described to me what he was seeing and heard.
This was worse than any horror film I could ever watch during Halloween; this was real. I will also never forget the ride I took with then-Toms River Police Chief (and current Ocean County Sheriff) Michael Mastronardy and a CNN reporter a day or so after the storm as we toured the war zone that was the barrier island. We witnessed an SUV submerged in a sink hole in Lavallette and the smell of smoke from a fire still being put out in the Brick Township section of the barrier island.
The chief was kind enough to stop by my home in Ortley Beach and allow to check its status. While I was relieved to see it was still standing,
I had no idea what I would later find inside my small bungalow home. The damage and mold that would develop would eventually lead to its being demolished entirely.
A week later I was back in the same police vehicle with the chief as we inspected 3rd Avenue in Ortley Beach. Saint Elisabeth’s Chapel, where I was married, was wiped away as if it were never there. The same went for the house across the street from it where my wife to be and her bridal group briefly parked as they finished singing “Going to the Chapel” which popped up on the radio moments before they were to enter the church.
The family who occupied that home had asked the chief to check for a hidden safe that might be found in the rubble. With the snow that was covering the debris, it was hard to find but the chief found a silver Menorah. The chief lost his footing and fell and as a fellow reporter and I went to exit the car to assist him, the chief yelled out ‘no, stay there, you’ll just fall too.’ He returned to the car and called the family. The woman on the phone was crying and while I could be wrong, I think I spotted a tear from the chief as well and I know I was probably joining him.
I tossed a lot of personal belongings that had been ruined from the wave of water that entered my house. I needed an ax to break into a bureau that had warped and held photo albums including a wedding album. Other prized items were also discarded. I know I wasn’t alone in that situation. Ortley Beach and Mantoloking were considered to be “Ground Zero” for Superstorm Sandy in all of New Jersey.
The place I had considered as my safe place, my sanctuary since I summered there as a child and that became my permanent place of residence in 1986 was now unlivable and would soon be gone.
Others on my block put their ruined items out to the curb. The Ocean County Utilities Authority land across the street became a tower of debris. The A&P store became a command post for emergency workers and police who maintained security for months as the barrier island was closed off to the general public.
It was truly a nightmare. My elderly mother, who was ill at the time and who, with my equally ill father (who was in the hospital after the storm) lived in a senior community in Berkeley Township. My mother couldn’t grasp the kind of devastation that had occurred to our beloved Ortley Beach.
Months and years went by and gradually, homes were demolished, replaced or put on poles to meet new FEMA elevation standards. I was fortunate to receive grants to assist me in building a new home on my plot of land. I was covering the nightmare of Superstorm Sandy for about a year. Each assignment, each article, each video, each photograph was a reminder of what had happened and it was surreal.
A decade has passed and the memories linger. My wife and my neighbor Joe and many others will never forget what we all thought and hoped would be just a really bad wind storm.
For me that meant some damage to a worn canvas canopy and an outside metal overhang that was cut in half after the blizzard of 2003. Ironically, it wasn’t the wind, it was the water. That canopy and metal overhang were still there when my house was demolished in the late winter of 2014. It’s funny the things you remember.
I don’t like remembering the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy but like many others, I survived it and I will remember the kindness of a church group that came from out of state to clear out material under the house before it could be demolished. I’ll also remember the local volunteers that helped gut the place after that and the Red Cross workers who froze along with us and handed out hot coffee and hot chocolate on the vacant streets of Ortley Beach.
There were also the people who provided free clean up buckets and various materials and those who opened a store for us to pick up free items. I did a story on that and one of the volunteers told me to pick up some things too, pointing out I was also a victim in need and not just an observer.
It was called the storm of the century that hopefully won’t be back for another 50 to 70 years. I won’t be around to confirm that prediction, but I hope that the storm we experienced will never come back.