(MCT) — HACKENSACK, N.J.—With boardwalks in splinters, roads buckled and houses knocked on their sides, Gov. Chris Christie and local officials have vowed to move quickly on the largest rebuilding effort in state history to return the Jersey Shore to the bustling vacation spot and economic engine that it was before Superstorm Sandy.
But anyone expecting a return to normal by summer will be disappointed.
Disaster experts and officials from communities across the nation that have been devastated by hurricanes say the rebuilding effort can be excruciatingly slow.
“It will be years before you can declare things recovered,” said Michael Liffmann, a former assistant director of Louisiana’s Sea Grant program who witnessed that state’s recovery after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s years, I promise. I’m sorry, but it won’t be fast.”
Sandy smashed through all 49 towns along New Jersey’s 127-mile coastline from Sea Bright to Cape May with the worst damage in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
Rebuilding efforts could face a litany of hurdles including disputes over insurance payouts, a shortage of building supplies and skilled labor from the enormous demand, an influx of unscrupulous contractors, construction schedules cut short by a frigid winter and slow approval process by building departments flooded with permit requests, officials warn. Residents face the prospects of a surge in insurance premiums and building costs that could price some out of even the most blue-collar of Jersey Shore towns, say officials who rebuilt other devastated communities.
Two weeks after Sandy made landfall, the rebuilding effort is in its infancy. Officials are still trying to meet the basic needs of displaced residents. The full scope of the destruction — how many homes were damaged, how many businesses disrupted, the damage to bridges and other infrastructure — has not even been tallied, although one group that advises insurers about catastrophes, EQECAT, estimates Sandy caused $30 billion to $50 billion in damage to the tri-state area.
On a tour of hard-hit Seaside Heights, Christie said that on Monday the state would begin developing a long-term plan for rebuilding homes and businesses, restoring the state’s “most iconic shore attractions” and protecting and reconstructing the beaches.
“We’re just not going to be able to rebuild the Shore, the boardwalk and the surrounding communities back to exactly the way they were last summer, in time for this summer,” he said as he stood amid the devastation Friday afternoon. “That’s just the truth.”
The storm surge swept through many towns, leaving the barrier islands uninhabitable. It pushed homes onto Route 35 in Lavallette and ruptured gas mains that burned two dozen houses to the ground in Mantoloking. It swept a roller coaster into the ocean off Seaside Heights. Iconic piers and pavilions were destroyed. Bridges were damaged. Some homes and streets are still underwater. Others are buried in sand.
Impassable roadways, gas line ruptures on Barnegat Peninsula and other key infrastructure must be addressed first. To expedite those repairs, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin waived permit requirements last week to replace public infrastructure damaged by Sandy. He said it would fast track the rebuilding of roads, culverts, bridges, storm water basins, bulkheads and other damaged systems.
The move angered some environmentalists, including Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who said the state should make emergency repairs but also examine whether infrastructure ought to be rebuilt in the same vulnerable locations.
Others are questioning where the money for the large public projects will come from. Some Belmar officials have vowed to rebuild their boardwalk by summer, but former Mayor Ken Pringle doesn’t believe it is possible.
“I suppose if you pay contractors anything they want, then they can rebuild a boardwalk in that amount of time,” said Pringle, who served as mayor for 20 years until recently. “But who is going to pay for it? Last time I heard the state of New Jersey doesn’t have a lot of money. And I never heard of FEMA writing a blank check to a community.”
Christie has championed rebuilding — there is too much at stake economically for New Jersey to abandon its barrier islands, which generate a substantial amount of the state’s $35 billion tourism industry. “I don’t believe in a state like ours, where the Jersey Shore is such a part of life, that you just pick up and walk away,” Christie said.
But on Friday he acknowledged the painful road ahead.
“This is going to be long, it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating at times — believe me, you’re going to be able to count on all those things,” he said. “But we’re going to be with you through every hardship, through every frustration and every step toward bringing New Jersey and its great shore back to the vitality it had the last summer and it’s had my entire life.
Even if homeowners and businesses can get their insurance checks quickly, they may end up with nowhere to spend it. Those with experience rebuilding elsewhere said demand for contractors, lumber and other building supplies will be fierce. “We saw this a lot during Katrina,” said Loretta Worters, a vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. “The money is there, but there is a supply shortage across the board.”
Complicating matters is that Sandy came so late in the hurricane season that a frigid winter could stymie rebuilding efforts. And those who have been through this level of devastation warn of unscrupulous contractors.
“There’s definitely going to be pressure on homeowners to rebuild quickly and they will be bombarded with suspect offers,” said Bob Bacon with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, who witnessed Charleston rebuild after Hurricane Hugo ravaged the state in 1989. “It’s a period of much confusion, and building inspectors can be overwhelmed and overworked. Unsuspecting homeowners can be led astray.”
After Hugo, many houses in Charleston ended up off their foundations and in the streets — now a familiar sight at the Jersey Shore. The cleanup was enormous. “Charleston put 10 years’ worth of debris in its landfill in one year,” Bacon said.
In New Jersey, Sandy wrought destruction along the shore for more than 100 miles. The storm left mud and sand piled onto the floors of restaurants and hotels along Long Beach Island. It smashed mobile homes in Holgate. It pushed boats up onto a railroad bridge in Point Pleasant Beach. It tore away chunks of Spring Lake’s boardwalk and tossed them blocks inland, while spreading sand across Ocean Avenue. It punched a new inlet into the barrier island at Mantoloking.
Even communities along Raritan Bay were not spared. Houses were ripped off their foundations in Union Beach and boats that had been parked on lawns floated away.
“It’s like a war zone here,” Dan Finn, Spring Lake’s beach supervisor, said of the damage. “It’s devastating, just devastating.”
The level of destruction has overwhelmed local officials. Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said decisions on recovery and rebuilding would have to be made by architects, engineers and insurance companies. “Where we go in the future, I don’t know,” he said of his ruined town. “It’s out of my league.”
Some towns could look drastically different after the rebuilding. For instance, older homes that were seriously damaged will have to be elevated to meet newer FEMA and state building codes. Many coastal South Carolina homes rebuilt after Hugo and those rebuilt on the Texas coast after Hurricane Ike in 2008 now have parking on the first floor and the living space elevated to a second floor.
Rebuilding decisions will be significantly influenced by the insurance companies, Liffmann said. Rates will rise generally; and to get better rates, residents and businesses will have to spend more on sturdier structures. As a result, some locations with higher risk may become more exclusive, as building costs and insurance rates price out some people who had been able to afford their little slice of the Jersey Shore in the past. Mom-and-pop businesses that had established themselves many years ago may also find it much more expensive to rebuild.
Liffmann said he has seen that scenario play out on Grand Isle, one of Louisiana’s low-lying barrier islands on the Gulf Coast. “They’ve been hit by many storms and had to rebuild multiple times, and while it used to be more blue collar — the Cajun Riviera — the homes are getting to look rather nice,” he said.
Shortly after Ike, officials and residents discussed making some hard-hit areas in Texas, like the Bolivar Peninsula, a natural seashore. But soon, residents started to rebuild their homes, raising them higher off the ground.
“If it’s so desirable and lovable, people will keep it going,” said John Jacob, a Texas A&M University professor who studies sustainable coastal development. “It comes down to what kind of feeling people have for it.”
As he talked about the coming rebuilding effort during his tour Friday, Christie spoke of his affection for the Jersey Shore. “This is the place where I grew up and where so many of my great memories of being a kid in New Jersey were developed and this is the place where I’ve been bringing my children for them to try to develop those same type of memories and have that same type of connection to this state,” he said.
For many, the most lasting image of Sandy’s wrath in New Jersey is the Star Jet roller coaster sitting largely intact in the ocean off Seaside Heights.
It took 11/2 years to design and build it, said its creator, Fred Miler, head of E&F Miler Industries of Portland, Ore.
It took a few hours for Sandy to rip it from its pier.
How long it will take to get it out of the ocean is anyone’s guess.
“I’m scratching my head,” Miler said. “It would have to come out in pieces, in chunks. Maybe a crane could reach it.”
The coaster has already been eulogized on social media, blogs and message boards by people who rode it. It’s that type of fondness for a place that gives Liffmann optimism.
Despite all the delay and hurdles and false starts and animosity and anger and frustration, much of New Orleans has been rebuilt.
New Orleans residents “are extremely passionate about their communities, and as a result New Orleans has soul,” Liffmann said. “The notion of, forget it we won’t rebuild — that’s not a choice. Likewise, the notion that the Jersey Shore won’t rebuild — forget about it.”