Seven months after watching heavy equipment tear down their Superstorm Sandy-wrecked house in Union Beach, N.J., Bart Sutton’s family is settling into a replacement built on the same spot — but much higher in the air.
“We’re home,” said Sutton, who took out a second mortgage and another loan while battling his insurance company during construction. “We know we’re home now and that it’s over. And it feels damned good.”
His wife, Sue, says the family is settling into a routine: wake up, get ready for work and school, and come back to their real home each evening instead of an apartment. Daughter Kristen says it’s an enormous relief to have a place to do homework, and to have a place for her things and her dog, Bailey.
On the other side of town, though, Kenny Lewis is adjusting to the new normal on a street all but wiped out by Sandy; his home at the end of Brook Avenue is one of only three left standing out of more than 20. Watering a patch of pansies he planted outside his rebuilt home, Lewis is reminded each day how much is still different.
“You feel lonely out here,” he said. “People just come by and look at you, and you feel like you’re living in a ghost town. People stare at you.”
As the second summer after Sandy begins, “normal” means different things to different people. For some, it means settling into routines in new or repaired homes. But for others, it’s still a maze of phone calls, emails, paperwork, Sheetrock, lumber and waiting lists as they struggle to recover.
Since shortly after the October 2012 storm, Gov. Chris Christie has said getting the Jersey shore back to normal would be a two-year process, and that by 2014, things would be more like folks remembered.
In many places and many ways, that’s true. Most storm-damaged boardwalks were rebuilt; the walkway in Seaside Park, still recovering from a September fire, should be ready by July 4, and Ocean Grove’s boardwalk is finally being fixed after a protracted tussle with the federal government over funding.
The reconstruction of Route 35 is nearing completion in Mantoloking and Bay Head, but still has far to go in Lavallette, Brick and Toms River; work is pausing for the summer. Homes all along the shore are being raised 10 to 15 feet, while other owners, unable to afford upgrades, roll the dice and restore what was there.
Beaches from Sandy Hook to the Manasquan Inlet are being replenished as part of a massive federal effort to restore them to pre-Sandy shape, and similar work is due in the fall in southern Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties.
But in other ways, the shore is still a work in progress. The Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, where a roller coaster plunged into the sea in the storm’s most iconic image, will have 24 rides open this summer, up from 18 last year. Before Sandy, it had 36. Its twin to the south, Funtown Pier, was torn down after Sandy and the fire and won’t be ready this year, but officials are considering a carnival, movies on the beach and other attractions.
Many people still can’t get in their homes, stymied by red tape in seeking government aid and battling insurance companies over how much damage should be covered. The Ortley Beach section of Toms River, one of the hardest-hit sections of the shore, is pocked with vacant lots where homes used to be. Some homes haven’t been touched since Sandy pounded them. Stretches of Mantoloking’s oceanfront are also bare, where dozens of multimillion-dollar homes used to stand. A steel sea wall will be installed next month as protection.
Of the $1.83 billion in first round of federal recovery funds allocated to New Jersey, $1.27 billion has been promised to applicants and they have received $485 million. About 6,400 people remain on a waiting list for New Jersey’s main rebuilding grant, though state officials hope to reduce that number when the federal government approves the second round of funds.
And tellingly, New Jersey’s tourism ads, while focused on the shore, have dropped any mention of Sandy.
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