By Ellen Wulfhorst
BRICK TOWNSHIP, New Jersey (Reuters) - Navigating neighborhoods ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, the mayor of Brick Township, New Jersey, can tick off which residents are rebuilding and which ones gave up and left.
As waterfront communities like Brick continue to rebuild after the storm, concerns are emerging that the iconic character of the beach shacks, bungalows and boardwalk arcades that define the Jersey Shore will be lost.
Some 8,500 homes were damaged in the largely blue-collar town with beaches and miles of waterfront along a number of ocean coves, rivers, ponds and lagoons.
The changes will be a boon for some, but may leave others behind, say residents of the 127-mile stretch of small oceanfront communities in New Jersey, where the October 29, 2012, storm caused $37 billion in damages.
In Brick, many of its small bungalows, dating to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, are not worth the cost of renovation and instead are being torn down and replaced with bigger, pricier homes, said Mayor Stephen Acropolis.
That will push out middle-income renters in favor of more affluent ones, he said, pointing to two small houses slated for demolition. Plans call for each house to be replaced with one more than three times its size.
"Those little houses that maybe somebody could afford to rent or live in - they're going to be gone," Acropolis said.
"Somebody said to me, 'It's going to become like the Hamptons," he said. "I don't know that it will ever get that expensive but .... does that change the character of the neighborhood? Yeah."
Doug Woodfield, who with his wife, Robin, sells T-shirts and souvenirs on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, said he sees the new construction as a draw for visitors.
"As we rebuild, everything is going to be new and nice and crisp. I think that's an attraction," he said.
Like Woodfield, Berkeley restaurant owner Mike Jurusz said he sees opportunity in the rebuilding.
Over the summer, he said he made a concentrated effort to lower prices and offer deals and specials at his oceanfront Chef Mike's ABG, resulting in "phenomenal" business.
"This wasn't the year to be greedy," he said. "This was the year to take a step back, maybe not make as much money as you would, but build your business for the next couple years.
"It was beyond my expectations how good it was," he said.
But for Nick Dionisio, the rebuilding benefits feel remote.
His Park Seafood restaurant with its raw bar, fried fish and grilled lobsters limped through the summer on the Seaside Park boardwalk, only to burn down in a September 13 fire that destroyed a stretch of oceanfront blocks.
"I didn't have any insurance," Dionisio said.
The demise of Park Seafood would bring an end to three generations of his family running seafood stands at the Jersey Shore and cap off a difficult year in which his father died and his mother was displaced for eight months by the storm, he said.
"Its almost unfathomable how many things can happen to my family in such a short span of time," Dionisio said. "On Monday our dog of 16 years passed away. It's like, man, you can't catch a break."
Just to the north, in tiny Ortley Beach, storm-damaged roads remain closed and scores of vacant homes are papered with red signs: "House Unsafe for Human Occupancy."
"A lot of people just walked away from their homes, all the people that don't have the money to put into them," said Val McHale as he swept sand off the steps of the home he rebuilt.
"It's eerie down here at night," the retiree said. "I can't stand it."
(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Gunna Dickson)
- Superstorm Sandy