In New Jersey, a Well-to-Do Community Struggles to Recover from Sandy

Bay Head is on the Jersey Coast that is ground zero for Sandy’s destruction. Despite its privileges, the town has had trouble getting federal and state assistance

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Tom Mihalek / Reuters

A beachfront home is torn in half by the force of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy at Bay Head, N.J., on Nov. 4, 2012

All that’s left of a 19th century home on East Avenue in Bay Head, N.J., are fragments of its foundation and the piles. The building had been lifted by the superstorm’s surge and carried into the home of D’Arcy Rohan Green, a Bay Head councilwoman, before vanishing down the street. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling and unfathomable — the destruction,” she says, exhausted by the task of moving things out of her house. The councilwoman and her family had evacuated to friends in Manasquan, about 8 km north, and were unable to return until last Wednesday. Looking around at the other damaged homes, she says, “It’s going to be a very, very long time [to recover].”

Last week, Governor Chris Christie toured the devastation with Rohan Green and Mayor Bill Curtis and called the coastline “unrecognizable.” Several communities farther south, like Mantoloking and Seaside Heights, remain off-limits to reporters and virtually under martial law. Bay Head, a 2.6-sq-km town with 1,200 year-round residents, like many of the towns on this stretch of the Atlantic Coast, is well-to-do. But beach access is now ironic, as many multimillion-dollar homes have become real-life sandcastles, their first floors under 1.2 m of sand.

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With the borough hall and police department wiped out during the storm, relief efforts are being coordinated at a temporary nerve center: a white trailer that’s parked at the Bay Head Recycling Center on Park Avenue, away from the most severe damage and only reachable through a checkpoint. In the backroom of the mobile command unit, which was loaned by Ocean County, is a table where Curtis and Kelley Mickle, the borough’s emergency-management coordinator, are wrangling resources from the county and state, making decisions about the future of the town and organizing a next step toward rebuilding.

“Our infrastructure is severely compromised and damaged. It’s going to be a long time, huge expense to get it all repaired,” says Curtis, 69, who’s sporting a dark blue hat with Mayor embroidered on the side. There were no deaths or injuries reported in town, and most residents heeded the mandatory evacuation notice, but since the morning after the storm, he and Mickle, along with the police chief and a tight-knit council, have been assessing the damage to submit a detailed cost of restoration. Mickle says that based only on borough-owned property and contents — buildings, emergency vehicles, the sewer system and most roads — the estimate is already at $1.9 billion. Individual homeowners will have to file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Over the past week, utility and security workers have shut down open and dangerous gas lines, restored water to most of the town, cleared the streets of the dunes that covered them and protected homes from theft. In Bay Head, a combination of local and state police officers, paired with a rotating shift of 41 National Guardsmen on foot and in camouflage humvees, have helped stymie any looting since incidents were reported on the night of the storm. They now defend Bay Head through ID checkpoints around the perimeter, allowing residents back in. Those who are anxious to get started can bring in their contractors, but must meet them at one of the checkpoints and escort them out. Mickle says volunteers can’t just show up to assist with cleanup efforts yet because homeowners are vulnerable, some properties are vacant, and security is a main concern.

Mickle, 39, who lives in Point Pleasant directly north of Bay Head, has been with the borough in some capacity for 19 years. She has arrived in town by 6:30 a.m. every morning since Wednesday and won’t leave until she’s convinced everything is secure for the night. “My daughter asked me when I’m coming home,” she says, laughing. “I said, ‘Maybe a month from now.’” As the lead emergency-management coordinator, she’s responsible for working with the county and state to request assistance, jump-start the recovery and make it go smooth. “The [Office of Emergency Management] person is supposed to manage the process, and the mayor sits beside her,” Curtis says, championing her work so far. “I don’t think there’s a better one in the state.” However, despite efforts to collaborate with Jersey Central Power & Light, electricity has not yet been restored, and none of the businesses in Bay Head have reopened — and aren’t slated to soon.

Mickle says the time between asking for help and receiving it has been slow. “Everybody is [acknowledging] the chain of command but the chain of command is not working for us,” she says. “I understand we are not the only town that’s been affected, but I will be talking to the governor myself on how this played out.”

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Curtis says a major issue was an initial lack of protection when a neighboring borough received the National Guard, but no help was sent to Bay Head. With an eight-person police force and a few others unable to cover the whole town, Mickle went into Point Pleasant, walked up to a couple of Guardsmen and said, “You, you and you, you’re coming with me,” then dragged three of them back to Bay Head. Since Tuesday, she says attempts to receive office trailers for the borough to work out of have been given the runaround. “I don’t take no for an answer, but it shouldn’t have to be like this,” she adds. “This is our community and if [the governor is] calling this ground zero, we should get what we need right away.”

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor, says the state’s mayors are being heard loud and clear, and the conversation is going both ways. “When a request can be met, we’re making every reasonable accommodation to meet the need and, as with any official in a deeply distressed area, that response is almost never going to come fast enough for them,” he wrote in an e-mail to TIME. “They’re right to have those high expectations for their residents during these times, and we’re striving to meet them.”

Since the storm, Roberts says priority has been given to returning power to homes as winter creeps in, restoring critical infrastructure like hospitals, schools and waste-water-treatment plants, bringing gas stations back online and quickly helping homeowners register for FEMA assistance. “Response to a disaster like this isn’t perfect,” he continues. “We learned lessons from Irene and will learn lessons from Sandy.” Last Thursday, Christie signed an executive order that prohibits insurance companies from charging extravagant hurricane deductibles for victim-homeowners.

Despite any holdups between local and state emergency-management offices to secure resources quickly, the Republican governor has received praise for his handling of the storm and its aftermath. Curtis agrees and commended Christie for “phenomenal” organization and a forward-thinking attitude that has trickled down to Bay Head. “This storm is showing the quality of our people, not only the residents, but the workers of this town,” he says. Mickle, while frustrated, adds that “it might have taken a little yelling to get these officers in here, but everybody has been absolutely fantastic.”

It may take years to recover for some, but a bit of normalcy is on the horizon: Mickle says voting will take place at the firehouse on Election Day; the town’s only grammar school should be back in session in a week; and constant bulk-item garbage collection will begin hauling away residents’ drenched carpet rolls, waterlogged mattresses and ocean-stained memories so they can make room for new ones.

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