Four months after Sandy, Seaside Heights struggles to find a sense of ‘normal’

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J.—People have come from hundreds of miles away to see it, sneaking past the yellow caution tape and heavy police guard onto a closed beach still littered with jagged pieces of debris four months after Superstorm Sandy nearly swept away this tiny oceanfront town.

The Jet Star roller coaster, sucked from the Casino Pier amusement park into the Atlantic Ocean by the storm, has become an iconic image of the horror and destruction left in Sandy’s wake. There’s something hauntingly beautiful about the sight of a roller coaster submerged in the sea—the strange way its frame reflects off the water in the early morning light and how the waves expand and retract around it, as if it had been built there in the first place.

As Casino Pier finalizes plans to finally begin removing it from the ocean in coming days, the Jet Star, for many here, is a sad, if beautiful, reminder of everything Sandy has taken away in a city struggling to fight its way back.

“You look out there, and you just want to cry,” said Kathie Kirckof, a Seaside Heights resident who lost everything when her beachside home in nearby Ortley Beach was flooded by the storm. “So many memories, just gone. All people want is just to feel normal again, yet it’s really anything but that here. It just feels eerie.”

Last weekend, Seaside Heights was forced to cancel one of its biggest winter attractions—the annual Polar Bear Plunge, a chilly swimming event that usually attracts thousands of people. But with the Jet Star and other debris in the water and the beach still closed, the Plunge was moved upstate to Long Branch—a disappointment to businesses that had been closed for weeks and hoped to see customers return.

Four months after the storm, efforts to rebuild Seaside Heights have been minimal at best. The old boardwalk, left in splinters by Sandy’s massive storm surge, has largely been carted away as the city last week began work on a new boardwalk it hopes to open by May, the kickoff of the summer tourist season, which is crucial to the city’s economy.

“We are going to have [the boardwalk] finished by May because we absolutely have to,” Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers told Yahoo News. “Yes, it’s an ambitious schedule, but if we don’t do this it will be a huge blow, and we can’t take it. It would be economic suicide.”

There’s also a symbolic reason Akers and other Seaside Heights leaders are working so hard to revive the city. This summer, Seaside Heights turns 100 years old—a benchmark the city is determined to celebrate.

But the boardwalk is one of the few obvious signs of progress. Seaside Heights, made famous for its starring role in MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore,” feels like a ghost town. Just 16 blocks long—all of which is nestled along the ocean—the city is empty and still. There’s little traffic and almost no people except for an occasional smattering of tourists looking for a glimpse of the Jet Star or other storm damage along the boardwalk.

On one recent afternoon, the only cars on the street were about a half dozen police cruisers trying to keep people away from the closed beach area. “It’s what we do all day,” one officer, who declined to be named because he wasn’t allowed to talk to the media, explained. “We just chase the storm tourists away.”

One of those tourists was Dorothy Dabronski who, with her husband Stan, had driven from their home in Bayonne, N.J., to see the damage firsthand.

“I have been coming here for decades,” Dabronski said. “I wanted to see for myself what it looked like.” Glancing around, she declared, “It’s really sad.”

Around town, fewer than two dozen businesses have reopened in the aftermath of the storm as many continue to wait for insurance companies to answer their damage claims. A handful of bars are aiming to open next week, ahead of the city’s March 9 St. Patrick’s Day parade—an event that has long been one of the city’s biggest tourist weekends and has taken on a special air of significance this year as the town tries to get back to normal. But in a sign of how tenuous that commitment is, many of those buildings were still locked up last week, with no signs of life.

Some business owners have taken it upon themselves to try to earn the money needed to reopen. Along Ocean Terrace, the closest road to the beach, employees of Vinny's Games have set up a temporary booth to try to woo those passing by into playing a dart game involving balloons.

Joe Franzi, a manager at Vinny’s, explained they were trying to raise money to rebuild their stand along the boardwalk, which had been heavily damaged by the eight-foot storm surge. Recent business, Franzi said, has been “pretty good some days and just OK on others.”

“There are a few people who walk by and stop in during the day, and some people just give us donations,” Franzi said. “Little by little, we’re trying to get back to normal. It’s tough, but we’re trying. It’s good for people to see us trying. You want to make people feel good, to remind them of what having fun feels like. We need that.”

But, he admitted, it’s not always easy. Franzi, who lives in nearby Toms River and has worked the Seaside Heights boardwalk for 23 years, said he broke down when he first saw the damage after the storm and sometimes still gets emotional when thinking about what the city has lost.

“I just cried,” Franzi said. “It’s hard to take. ... I know we'll rebuild, but it’s going to take awhile. And I wonder if it will be the same.”

Down the road, Captain Hook’s Bar reopened early last month after its building had been flooded by more than four feet of water and sludge from the surge. The owners had to replace almost everything—from the coolers behind the bar to the video games out front. The atmosphere, they said, hasn’t quite been the same.

“It’s been quiet,” said Kirckof, who tends bar at Captain Hook’s. “We have some of our locals who come in, but a lot of people haven’t come back to the city—and may not come back. You just don’t know.”

Kirckof guessed that some customers were being scared off by the empty streets and heavy police presence—admitting her city looks more like a “war zone” than the laid-back “island community” it used to be. At the same time, she worried that people don’t understand the struggles that Seaside Heights still faces.

At her second job, as a hairdresser on the far side of Tom’s River in a more inland part of the state, Kirckof said many people she talked to “had gone on with their lives” after Sandy and seemed unaware of the “war zone feeling” that still engulfs Seaside Heights.

“I don’t mean to sound like I am whining, but we're all living by the skin of our teeth now. A lot of people were out of work for months. Flood insurance is a joke. We're replacing all of our belongings. It’s the worst thing I have ever gone through in my life,” Kirckof said. “To see your friends and neighbors and the people you care about walking around like zombies, just blank stares because they're so traumatized, it’s hard. All we want is for things to go back to normal. But what is normal anymore for us?"

Even as May has emerged as an important benchmark for Seaside Heights and its future, Akers is the first to admit everything won’t be as it was in summers past. Along the boardwalk, where shops and eateries still remain boarded up, some vendors have been noncommittal about how soon they will be able to reopen. Around town, houses once rented as vacation homes remain washed off their foundations. Others that withstood the flood remain heavily damaged—empty since the storm.

Funtown Pier, the second of the two major amusement parks in town, won’t reopen until the summer of 2014. Meanwhile, officials at Casino Pier are aiming to have at least part of its park open by Memorial Day. But according to Toby Wolf, a marketing manager at the park, the pier won’t fully reopen until at least next summer, after the upper pier, where the Jet Star and four other rides were washed into the ocean, is rebuilt.

“It’s extremely important to us, as a company, to get people back to work,” Wolf said. “It’s important to us as a business, but it’s also important to the city. The boardwalk is really the heart of the city.”

“Everywhere I go, people ask me if we will be ready, if the beach will be open, and my answer is that we will be,” Akers said, noting the extra pressure due to the town's 100th anniversary. “After everything we went through with Sandy, this is a new beginning. We can do this. We have to do this."