Inside the Ortley Fish Market on Route 35N between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the water reached 1.5 or 1.8 m high, leaving brown streaks on the walls. It filled a small office behind the galley kitchen and ruined two fryers, two convection ovens and a steamer. The grill and stove seem salvageable, but the new ice machine may not be.
For Carlos Morais, 41, of nearby Point Pleasant, it ruined the shop that has been in his family since 1976 — the one he took the reins of 15 years ago. “It’s just a shame. I put in a lot of work, a lot of money, and to see the store like this is …” he says, trailing off. His eyes glance at the empty fish counters, the American flag hung on the wall behind them and the half-inch of water on the white-tile floor that his sister Maria is sweeping back outside.
Like the fish market, nearly every business in Ortley Beach, a 2.6-sq-km community of almost 2,000 year-round residents nestled between the ocean and the bay, is shuttered. Wednesday was the third time Morais had seen the store since Oct. 29, when hurricane winds and an unprecedented surge battered the New Jersey coast and submerged his livelihood in debris and ocean water. One month ago today, Ortley Beach — part of the Toms River Township — and the barrier islands of the Jersey shore became the epicenter for Superstorm Sandy as it came ashore to devastate the northeast U.S.
This week, Governor Chris Christie revised the state’s estimated damages from the storm to $36.8 billion, up from $29.4 billion. Walking around Ortley Beach, it’s easy to see why. Few homes, if any, were unaffected. Some along the beach were ripped from their foundations and brutally thrown into their neighbors, and others appear structurally sound but will need their first floors completely gutted. Like most streets closer to the shore, front yards are strewn with waterlogged mattresses and sofas, mangled chairs, shattered mirrors and broken flat-screen televisions.
No one has moved back yet. No homes or businesses in town have electricity or gas, but a few may have access to water. Still, with winter creeping in, it’s unlikely residents will want to spend the season. As part of the township’s re-entry plan, homeowners are being allowed back between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. depending on what part of town they reside in: west, middle or east. Preregistered insurance adjusters and contractors can pass through police checkpoints but once they’ve secured an appointment with a homeowner, they’re on strict orders not to wander. Gawkers aren’t tolerated, either.
The windows of Barbara Hastings’ three-bedroom house on South Beach Drive, mere steps from the ocean, were blown out, and the rooms are buried in sand. On this afternoon, she was able to save a few dishes and photographs, though most are wet and mildewed. “I’m probably still in shock,” she tells TIME. “It’s pretty devastating for everybody.” To get from her kitchen to the front of the house, she climbs over the dunes in her living room and out through a large, windowless frame. Still, she’s in decent spirits. Hastings isn’t sure whether the house will be torn down, but regardless, she says she’ll rebuild.
Outside her home, a Red Cross representative appears with a red backpack. In hopes of protecting homeowners as they work on their properties, handlers around town are dispatching packs full of gloves, face masks, blankets and a small crank radio.
The relief effort in Ortley Beach is fairly focused. Federal Emergency Management Agency workers in royal blue shirts are knocking on doors to check whether residents are filing claims. Meanwhile, the parking lot of the A&P supermarket has transformed into the command center that keeps communications flowing, first responders in the know and emergency-services personnel fed — well.
At noon, inside a white tent there, Mary Lou Przewoznik and her husband Gary, a Lakewood police officer, are doling out food to police officers on break from the rounds: beef stew, pulled-pork sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and coleslaw. Przewoznik says they had originally been serving breakfast and lunch to 350 people every day, but that number has dwindled down to about 200.
“They keep us going,” says Michael Mastronardy, police chief for Toms River Township, of the Przewozniks and others who have pitched in to keep the community afloat. Pausing for a few minutes to grab a sandwich and chat with officers in the tent, the chief then heads out to meet with residents.
Over the past four weeks, Mastronardy has become their go-to guy for random bits of information as the residents try to figure out how to recover. Driving around in his dark-colored Ford Expedition, he says the township is still heavily focused on trash removal, property security and homeowner concerns as they arise. He’s specifically worried about preventing the looting of open homes and making sure insurance adjusters aren’t taking advantage of emotional residents by roaming the streets to drum up business.
(PHOTOS: Aerial Views of Sandy’s Destruction)
On Colony Road, he rolls up to a middle-aged couple along the sidewalk. “Chief of police. Just checking on you,” he says. They nod and smile, a show of appreciation of town politics trickling down to their neighborhood, their street, their home. Down the road, he spots two women and does the same: “Anything I can do for you?”
“You want to build me a new home?” one of them asks, laughing.
“Which one’s yours?” he responds. The woman points to one just up the block.
The chief smiles and turns to them: “Hey, we’ll get back. We’ll get back.”
As he rides up to residents, he’s opening his door rather than rolling down the driver’s side window. It’s more inviting and personable. Seeing this, homeowners come right up to the vehicle and toss questions his way. Some recognize him: “Chief! Hey!” Others don’t: “Who are you? Seaside?”
They usually leave with a satisfactory answer and a business card, which he carries around on the driver door.
On Harding Avenue, the chief spoke with Kean Cundari, of Clifton, New Jersey, who called him over to her gray, two-story summer home. Someone had bulldozed a massive heap of wood and debris between hers and her neighbor’s, and she’s wondering who must clean it up. That’s her apparent responsibility, he tells her. Others voiced similar complaints about sky-high sand piles.
As five workers from Vermont remove all the contents from the first floor and place them outside, Cundari says the process is debilitating, but that she’s luckier than most. Inside, the main room is now a makeshift workspace for the construction crew, and only the walls are left in the kitchen, once filled with top-tier appliances.
“Beautiful home,” the chief says.
“It used to be really pretty,” she responds.
“It will be again,” he adds, before driving off.