By Julia Fraser
My parents are full time residents of Beach Haven West. Mom is 69 and Dad is 71 and he is disabled. They worked hard their entire lives- Mom as an administrator of a long term care facility and Dad as an oil burner service technician. Both sacrificed much, to make sure that others were cared for and so that their girls never wanted for anything. In fact, Dad sacrificed his lungs by working in dark sooty basements making sure that people had heat and hot water. They worked hard so that someday they could retire, and retire they did in a beautiful home on a wide lagoon in Beach Haven West. When Sandy approached that Sunday, Mom called and said they were evacuating. It was about an hour before Gov. Christie issued the mandatory order. However- the water was already up over the bulkhead. Before, during and after Irene, the water had come close, but never made it over that bulkhead. So they quickly realized this storm was going to be monumental.
They arrived at my home in Bayville and Mom, one of the strongest women I know, cried as I hugged her. She said she didn’t know if she’d ever see her home again.
I took after Mom and run a large assisted living community, so I left that Sunday night to go ride out the storm at work. As soon as I got home on Tuesday, Mom made me take her to her house. They wouldn’t let us in. At first, this was frustrating- however, after speaking with the officials on site- we were reassured that their home was safe, nobody would be allowed in until everybody was allowed in and that they were working to do this as fast as possible. With power, cable and internet having been knocked out, all we knew was what we had heard on the radio: The Seaside roller coaster was in the Atlantic, Brick was burning, Manhattan was flooded, and Mantoloking was in ruins. The reports were grim.
Later that day, they spoke to a neighbor who rode out the storm. He said it was the worst thing he had ever seen. In his words- a war zone. He texted me two photos of their home. We examined those two photos from every angle. The house was standing. They appeared to have a new boat, wedged between their house and the neighbor’s. Did it take out the central air units? Did it hit the gas meter? The garage door was a bit ajar- but how much? The roof and siding looked intact. Over and over they looked at those two photos and held onto my phone like it was their life line. The not knowing, that’s what is the hardest. I can only compare it to when your child is in an accident and you are told they are ok, but until you SEE them you cannot exhale.
The next day we basically stalked the Stafford Township website waiting for word of when we could go in. By that night, we saw that we would be bused in- two adults per property with ID at noon. Mom decided that she and I would go. Of course we were there at 10am. What we saw was unimaginable devastation and destruction. Houses pushed off their foundations. Houses people thought were safe high on pilings had boats crash through and knock out those pilings. Garage doors pushed in or out. A random sofa in a front yard. A front door sitting lonely as the porch was simply gone. Some of our fellow passengers shrieked as we passed some of the more devastated houses. At every stop, all of the passengers told those disembarking “good luck”.
When we got to Mom and Dad’s street, we thanked the driver. She replied, “It is the least I can do”. Mom raced ahead of me. I can’t get that image out of my mind- her seeing her street for the first time, walking down her street with a red backpack like a kid going to school in a war zone. She looked so tiny in the wake of Sandy. Like that Mom who has to check every inch of her child after that accident, she took in her home from every angle. Yes, it was still standing. The lagoon side decks were still in place. The two heavy wooden Adirondack chairs and glider bench were gone. There was mud everywhere. We entered through the front door and I just remember how deathly silent the world was at that moment. The 3rd floor was perfect. We went down to the 2nd floor and we got on our hands and knees and felt the carpet. It felt dry. We both started screaming and crying and hugging each other. But then we opened the door to the 1st floor- the garage. At first, the smell hit us. You know that smell instantly. It is the same smell when the wind comes from the south and the lagoons are still. It was the smell of the bay.
The garage floor, which had been white, waxed and buffed professionally every six months, was now black. The entire contents of the garage were either floating or displaced giving the appearance of utter chaos. The refrigerator was flipped over, its doors slightly ajar, its contents spilled out. Everything covered in bay mud. One of Dad’s work boots floating next to one of his white slip on sneakers. Dad’s tools, friends he discriminatingly gathered over the last 40 years and kept in a series of tool boxes were in their own small watery coffins. Yet a pair of Mom’s winter gloves sat on the utility sink, completely untouched. The requisite jug of Italian wine had been relocated 15 feet away but had ended up safely sitting atop a shelf. This was not utter chaos, rather a Sandy symphony, played out in solitude.
We returned on the bus with mixed emotions. Mom and Dad had fared well, though there was a tough road ahead. We were congratulated by our fellow passengers; we consoled those who had lost everything.
That weekend we were allowed back in without restrictions- SO FAST- compared to towns like Ortley, Seaside, Lavallette, etc. And not just FAST but SAFE. Over the next two weeks we spent nearly every day at the house while fire trucks and ambulances went up and down Mom’s street just to “patrol” amid neighbors hugging and crying. The garbage trucks came to pick up at least 2 times per day. The street sweepers were by to take up the mud. The mailman came, even though there is no sign of Mom and Dad’s mailbox. The power companies were all over the place. The township inspectors were up and down every street, and with a smile. The Coast Guard patrolled from the lagoon side. The police came by to offer us water each day. And one day the police came by to offer my 8 year old son a snack of Rice Krispy Treats and make him laugh. Every day there was a big presence, not just from Stafford- but from Louisiana too, reassuring us that we would make it through. Even their FEMA inspectors were on-site for an evaluation within the first week.
Every single person we have dealt with from Stafford Twp. has been amazing. I find it absolutely astounding that Stafford Twp. has never done this before, because you would NEVER know it. As a team, they came together and did it RIGHT. I don’t know if they did lots of emergency preparedness training or had some magical disaster plan or what. But we need to get it out in there, how RIGHT they did it so that other towns can look to Stafford and replicate. They deserve public accolades for a phenomenal job. With their help, some friends and our tough Jersey/Italian resolve- my parents were back in their own home within 2 weeks.
In the end, we found that 4 feet of water had entered their home. The crawl space insulation had taken on so much water that the 2nd floor had absorbed it and therefore all of the flooring had to be removed. Some of the sheet rock had to be taken in the garage. Dad had to say goodbye to almost all of his tools, his beloved old friends. There have been many days of laughter, many moments of anger and tears. Days we have felt defeated and days we have felt defiant. We found their garbage cans down the street, still huddled together by Dad’s famous bungee cords. The wooden bench glider was located- across the lagoon in someone’s crawl space. Our sense of normalcy has been upended. Our sense of safety has been challenged. What we know is no longer. The annual Marchese “staycation” each August with Mom and Dad watching their three grandchildren battle the waves on 23rd street in Ship Bottom is a memory we cling to in the hopes that LBI will recover in time for this August.
Yet there is one thing that has become crystal clear as Sandy’s wind and storm surge left our beloved Shore. That is the love of a family, the support of the Township, the compassion of neighbors, the kindness of strangers. We are Jersey Strong, and Sandy may have knocked us all a bit sideways, but she did NOT knock us down.
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