Tricia McAvoy is busily preparing for a Christmas party — now set for next summer.
She’s making a list of who to invite to a party she’s having. She’s planning the food and drink menu, mentally checking off what can be cooked indoors and what can go on the grill she still has to replace. And she’s envisioning where the tree, the lights and the decorations will go.
The party is set for July, in the lagoon-front home she hopes to have back in usable shape, because, she said, “Christmas this year was just not Christmas.” McAvoy and her husband have been living with relatives in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., since Superstorm Sandy gutted the first floor of their Brick, N.J., home, wrecked their four cars and upended life as they knew it.
The new year has arrived for victims of the destructive storm that hit New Jersey in October, destroying or damaging 30,000 homes and businesses. For these residents, as well as for governments, the new year will be a time of crucial decisions and tight time frames: What needs to get rebuilt first, and what can be done without? Will the insurance money come through soon? Will I have to raise my home, and if so, how much higher? Will the beach and boardwalk I loved so much be there by Memorial Day? Will the tourists come back? Will my neighbors?
Towns, counties and the state and federal governments also have to answer questions quickly, including where to find homes for the thousands of residents displaced by the storm, where to find the money to pay for the staggering recovery cost, and whether some areas might not be best left to return to nature instead of rebuilding them again, only to surely see them flooded again by future storms.
“This is going to be a year unlike any other,” said William Akers, the mayor of Seaside Heights, N.J.
His first priority is getting residents back home; they will be permitted to return to Seaside Heights starting Jan. 7. Larger businesses and hotels will be allowed back within a month of two. The second goal is getting the boardwalk rebuilt by May 10. That work entails only putting new boards down to walk on; ramps, railings and other amenities will have to wait till later.
To be sure, a great deal of progress has been made in cleaning up from the storm and at least starting to repair some of its damage. Much of the mountains of garbage and waterlogged debris ripped from flooded or destroyed homes has been carted away. For the most part, sand has been swept from the streets, and emergency repairs carried out to roadways, the most impressive of which was the rebuilding of Route 35 through Mantoloking, which was cut in half by waves that sliced a new channel from the ocean to the bay.
Work is beginning or about to start on boardwalks including Belmar, Ocean Grove, Avon, Asbury Park, Spring Lake, Sea Girt, Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights. Boardwalk restoration is among N.J. shore towns’ highest-priority projects. They say the walkways simply have to be ready by Memorial Day, or else tourists and their money will go elsewhere, perhaps never to return.
In Seaside Heights, the Jet Star roller coaster that plunged off a collapsing amusement pier into the ocean, perhaps the defining image of the storm, still sits there today as its owners and their insurers wrangle over what should be done.
Despite the substantial progress made so far, herculean tasks still remain. Storm evacuees occupying motel rooms and apartments have made rentals near the shore much harder to find. Communities are clamoring for portable trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the demand greatly exceeds the supply.
Jack and Colleen Feeney have been staying in a motel in Toms River since their home in Union Beach was destroyed; they came back to the place that had once been their home a week or so before Christmas and found that someone had dug out a ceramic Christmas village from the rubble and set it atop a waterlogged barbecue grill at the curb. It was virtually all they had left.
“There’s no remnants of our house: no furniture, no bedroom, not even any wood,” Colleen said. “I just can’t get my mind around this whole thing.”
While residents of some barrier island communities like Lavallette have been permitted to return home, others, including property owners in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, are waiting for permission from the state to return home, once natural gas service is fully restored and the water is certified as safe to drink. And much of the barrier island section of Brick no longer exists; more than 100 bungalows burned in a spectacular fire touched off by the storm.
Some homeowners got right to work rebuilding their damaged properties, but many more have not, particularly the owners of second homes. These homes are not eligible for FEMA assistance, and owners must rely on insurance payments or their own deep pockets to restore them. Some undoubtedly will have to be torn down, though that work has not begun on any meaningful scale. Indeed, some storm-trashed houses remain just as naked and exposed to the elements as they were the day after the storm moved through.