Two weeks after Sandy submerged Seaside Heights in eight-and-a-half feet of water, sections of the blue-collar town resemble the aftermath of a giant explosion. The centerpiece wood-planked boardwalk has been reduced to kindling in some parts and is wholly unstable in others. The famed Star Jet roller coaster that once sat on Casino Pier now rests in the ocean. Shuttered businesses and residences sit vacant and powerless as officials work to restore electricity and assess the damage to the nearby natural gas infrastructure in Mantoloking, seven miles north.
The governor of New Jersey has not yet declared that residents could permanently return to their homes and a curfew prevents anyone from entering before 8 a.m. or staying past 3 p.m. A police checkpoint loosely monitors the few vehicles that roll through it, but the dozens of cop cruisers stationed at intersections make it difficult to move around. This community of 2,300 year-round residents, which can swell to more than 30,000 during the summer, has been whittled down to a skeleton of itself.
(PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy)
Mayor Bill Akers never thought he would have to rebuild his community. A restaurateur and local homeowner, Akers says the town is “fairing very well right now” as the initial recovery phase continues and more damage assessments are made. Seated in the police chief’s office on Tuesday morning, Akers, who is sporting a dark grey sweatshirt with an orange and black Adidas logo, tan khakis and white sneakers, estimates it will take more than $100 million to restore what the storm has damaged, including private residences, and that it may cost more than $14 million alone to rebuild the 16-block boardwalk.
Akers won’t give a timeframe on when things will be more normal, but he’s hopeful for a summer renaissance. “Without a season, we don’t have a community,” he says, adding that because the town’s budget relies 75% on tourism, not reopening during the peak months could further devastate businesses here. But he’s treading carefully: “I don’t want to just open to open, either. It has to be safe. We have to put out a product.”
Since Sandy, he has realized just how daunting the process of recovery will be. “It’s like, on the last wave, I just wish a handbook could have came in with it of what you’re supposed to do, step-by-step, because my biggest fear is to be making mistakes that would set us back from being open,” Akers says, his voice deepening before he clears his throat. “I feel we went down as a community, you need to come back as a community.”
Immediately after the storm, in this same office, Akers was sitting with the Seaside Heights police chief as calls came in from residents who stayed behind and were asking for help. The water was too high and they were unreachable by “deuce and a half” military vehicles, but police Lieut. Rob Farley appeared at the door: “Just give me permission. I want to go,” Akers recalls him saying. He denied the initial request, but later backed down: “All right, lieutenant. Take a couple guys and go.” Farley and some fire department personnel made rescues throughout the night and brought residents back to a courtroom full of cots. No major injuries or deaths were reported in town as a result of the storm.
“I honestly believe that thing, that in the toughest times, the best of the people come out because I saw it that night,” Akers says. He was continually inspired by everyone who helped out when the odds were against them: “You work side by side with them and most of the days, you’re saying ‘Hi, how you doing?’ and those types of things, but you got to know everyone very up close and personal during this storm.”
(WATCH: Time-Lapse Video of Hurricane Sandy)
Around noon on Tuesday in neighboring Ortley Beach, the off-limits epicenter of destruction, Michael Mastronardy, police chief of Toms River, is navigating a black SUV through the devastation and answering personal calls on his BlackBerry from concerned residents. His phone number was distributed broadly, so he gets calls all day and night from homeowners who want information about their properties or possible dates of reentry. Some residents haven’t been back yet and others haven’t realized just how bad things are in their low-slung community.
“I was at Katrina after New Orleans, and this is Katrina without the death and injury,” Mastronardy says. He’s patient with each caller because they’re victims and he wants to help them. And when he says more time is needed before they can get back in, the conversation ends with thank-yous and take-cares. “You can take one call at a time and you could improve one person’s life and help one person at a time,” he adds. “That’s what our mission is and that’s what we’ll do: person-by-person, house-by-house, street-by-street, block-by-block.”
Back in Seaside Heights, in a large white trailer that is outfitted like a kitchen, Skip Cocci is placing just-cooked hamburgers onto sesame seed buns for the hungry, overworked relief crews that are filing into a makeshift dining hall next door. Cocci, 42, is a longtime resident of Seaside Heights who now makes a living as the master chef of Ziparo’s Catering down in Germantown, Tennessee. After the superstorm decimated parts of the New Jersey coastline on Oct. 29, he and his wife began a grassroots effort to collect donations for the victims and were overwhelmed by support. He temporarily closed his business, rented a 27-foot moving truck that was packed with non perishable foods, drinks, clothes and other necessities, then drove it 18 hours with his apprentice to the town he says made him who he is today.
Two days after the storm hit, he read one of Lieut. Farley’s posts on Facebook about how residents and first-responders were “beat down & broken,” but that he was “proud to be included in this group of men and women that are the backbone and lifeline of this shore town.” Cocci was drawn to help and although he’s headed back to Tennessee soon to resume work, plans to construct menus, secure food and raise more awareness are in motion. “The issue is going to be, these guys are going to be here in December, when the news isn’t covering the story anymore,” he says. “They’re going to be looking for food. They’re going to have to eat.”
Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners are likely to be celebrated here. With winter on the way, Cocci and Farley are going after food service corporations for larger hauls of donations to feed the workers who will oversee recovery over the next few months. Cocci says unhesitatingly that he will come back in the winter and help out all over again: “We had to do what we think is right and try to get here and help these people because they need it.” Farley adds, “They’re the only people keeping us going.”