Until a few weeks ago, Ron Dabal’s two-bedroom cottage on Colony Road was entombed in sand. It had been dumped there by Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29 and sat unmoved for five months, waiting for someone to haul it off. No one came.
As officials allowed the 1-sq.-mi. community in Ocean County, N.J., to repopulate, Dabal, 47, worked with volunteers from a nearby church to clear it away. With the sand gone, he could bleach the beige siding and blue trim of his nautical-themed home and remove everything inside that was beyond repair.
“I’m not giving up because I put so much into it,” says Dabal, a contractor, taking out his flip phone to scroll through photos of what his house looked like before the storm. He poured $15,000 into it over the past three years, including a new roof and central air-conditioning unit. “I will get it back to where it was.”
Six months after Hurricane Sandy, Ortley Beach looks much like it did right after the water receded. The National Guardsmen that barred most people from entering the community are gone, and locals have cleared the sidewalks of the mildewed refrigerators, waterlogged mattresses and piles of floorboards that made walking the streets a hazard. But sand still covers most paved roads near the beach. Utilities haven’t been fully restored. And of the estimated 300 homes slated for demolition, about 200 remain. They sit uninhabitable or vacant after homeowners salvaged what they could, waiting for various construction permits to clear the red tape.
In February, the National Hurricane Center concluded that Sandy was the deadliest storm to hit the Northeastern coast in 40 years, and the costliest in U.S. history. Seventy-two people were killed in the region and damages topped $50 billion — much of it in New Jersey. On April 29, Governor Chris Christie announced that the federal government had approved the state’s plan to allocate $1.83 billion for rebuilding homes, restoring infrastructure and supporting businesses.
Seaside Heights and Lavallette, the communities that bookend Ortley Beach, have seen stronger comebacks. Stories like Dabal’s aren’t common, but an unlucky few face similar challenges. Michael Mastronardy, the chief of police for Toms River township, knows all about it. For the past six months, he’s cruised around the barrier island communities to check up on homeowners and see what he can do to speed things along. “How we doing?” he asks them.
Mastronardy hears the frustration in their voices. Complaints range from the petty — “Did you catch whoever stole my four Adirondack chairs?” — to the tragic. Beachfront property owners are sparring with insurance companies, uncertain whether they’ll have to elevate their homes to conform to new flood-map guidelines and displeased with the pace of state and federal cleanup efforts. “We’re getting by” is a phrase Mastronardy hears a lot. “They’re good people,” he says.
Josephine Franchino Twohy of Pittstown, which is about two hours north, bought a three-bedroom home on Diane Lane in July 2008 before the housing bubble burst. She and her family spent four and a half summers there. Her two kids grew close to elderly neighbors and the family walked everywhere: the Ortley Fish Market, Fumosa Brothers Bakery and the Seaside Heights Boardwalk.
Sandy tossed their home off its foundation and into the middle of the street, where it sat until the township demolished it in January. “Everyone has a story, everyone has their own hell,” she says. “Varying degrees of hell. That is what it is.” Like many others, her family didn’t have flood insurance, meaning she has much less money to rebuild.
Cameras aren’t welcome in Ortley Beach unless they belong to residents documenting the destruction. In the Vision Beach neighborhood, where nearly every home sustained significant frame damage and is likely to see demolition, a yellow sign has been affixed to a stop sign to alert gawkers of the Toms River ordinance against taking pictures. Other neighborhoods bear the same warning, but it hasn’t deterred everyone.
On a recent afternoon, a man driving a black convertible along Route 35, the main drag through town, pulled onto the shoulder near Coolidge Avenue so that a woman in the passenger seat could lean out and snap a picture. A gaggle of passersby gave the duo stern looks of disapproval before they drove off. Residents see it every day; they want people to know what they’re going through, but not like that.
As the busy season approaches with so much left to do around town, many homeowners say Ortley Beach needs a break this year — that it’s not ready for the summer. The supermarket and a few banks have reopened, and a new sandwich-and-fries joint just fired up its grills, but even the throngs of hired hardhats who’ll spend long days returning the community to its prestorm condition may not offset the lost business. And the majority of homes there are rental properties, but few are ready for new tenants.
Eric Birchler, the broker-owner of Birchler Realtors in Lavallette, calls the scene in Ortley Beach “pretty horrific” and the rental market “nonexistent.” Of the 1,000 possible rental weeks from the Fourth of July to Labor Day, only two of the 100 properties he lists have been booked for one week each. Eight other homes are suitable, but even if there’s interest, he’s requiring potential customers to visit first so they’re not surprised by the surrounding devastation.
As difficult as this summer may be, though, Ortley Beach residents are in eager anticipation of next year’s vacation season. “Sometimes it seems like yesterday, and other days it seems like a lifetime ago,” Mastronardy says of Sandy. “But we’ll be back. We’ll be back.”