Late in the afternoon on Monday, October 29, as Hurricane Sandy closed in on New Jersey, I logged into Facebook and posted this picture of my sister and me outside our Jersey Shore beach cottage back in 2009, along with the caption "Be strong, tiny beach shack!!"
This is a picture of the house after the storm:
The house was tiny: two closet-sized bedrooms, a miniature bathroom, and one larger room that served as both the living room/family room and the kitchen. The pullout bed touched the kitchen table. But on a sunny summer weekend, we would somehow manage to pack nearly a dozen people in that tiny little cottage for relaxing and quaint beach getaways, memories I cherish. Many of my favorite childhood memories are of family and friends huddled around the picnic table playing Monopoly at all hours of the day and night, jumping for joy when my mother found that last stubborn lost puzzle piece under the couch and fit it into the jigsaw puzzle we'd been doing for days (the neighbors probably thought we'd won the lottery!), and laughing as my father blamed his horrendous missed beanbag toss on the faint ocean breeze that was always swirling down the coastline.
All in all, there were great friends, great fun, and great fresh fish caught on the beach right in front of the house.
Fast-forward to that Monday. While friends and I enjoyed our day off from school, I began to get more nervous as the first reports of what would become one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history started to pour in. My Facebook news feed updated like crazy as my Jerseyan friends posted about raging winds felling trees and knocking out power in their homes. (Thank goodness for smart phones!) All the while, classmates and I sat flashlights-in-hand in the study room of our graduate dorm awaiting the plunge into darkness, wondering if the relative breeze blowing some leaves off the trees was the worst Boston would see of Sandy.
By morning, I knew the destruction had been much worse than expected. Being from New Jersey, I've seen my fair share of hurricanes. But in the past, it's always seemed that the predictions were worse than the reality. But the unlikely combination of circumstances that set the stage for maximum destruction--the high tide, the incoming nor'easter, and unusually warm waters from the Gulf--left me with little hope for my house and so many others like it on the Jersey Shore.
I was here at the NOVA office on Tuesday when I first saw video of the damage at the Jersey Shore. I was shocked to discover that that first video shot by the New Jersey Coast Guard was of my neighborhood (though mislabeled--it's Ocean Beach III in Lavalette, New Jersey, not Seaside Heights). You can also spot my neighborhood at 39:26 in NOVA's film on Hurricane Sandy, Inside the Megastorm.
When I got home to New Jersey the week of Thanksgiving, my mother and I thought it was finally time to go down to the shore, assess the damage, and see if there was anything we could salvage from our house. Only residents are allowed in the area, so we folded up our tax returns from 2011--our proof of ownership--and headed down early, knowing that at 3 p.m. the police would make their rounds to clear the island of everyone but authorized officials and the military.
Even after seeing dozens of videos and pictures of the damage at the shore, experiencing it in person was shocking. There were boats out of water and slammed through homes, houses falling into sinkholes, and streets lined with the damaged contents of each house, waiting to be taken to one of the humongous mountains of garbage and debris being piled up around the state.
We pulled up to our neighborhood and had to park down the block because the sand in the street was too deep to drive up to the house. I walked to our property, and this is what I saw:
That is the view out of what once was my living room. (Trying to lighten the mood, a friend later said upon seeing this picture, "Well, if you didn't have an ocean-front view then, you certainly do now!)
Below is the view from the other direction, and my mother looking stunned:
This next picture is of my mom crawling into what was my bedroom and her first reaction to the sight:
The following pictures show the incredible height of the sand that was piled up in the house. The left picture was taken in the bathroom; you can see that the sand is so high it nearly covers the entire toilet. The picture on the right is the entrance to my bedroom; the door was broken and pushed in from the power and weight of water and sand slamming against it.
There isn't much more I can say about this besides what you see above. When I look at the pictures now, I cannot help envisioning that first monstrous wall of water that must have slammed through our sliding glass door, sending surging rushes of seawater into the house and then tearing down the walls and dragging all the house's contents out to sea as the wave receded with incredible power back into the ocean, only to strengthen itself for the next earth-shattering blow. We don't ordinarily look at innocent water as a force to be reckoned with, but it knocked down most of this house like a deck of cards. It's as if mother nature is telling us stubborn humans that she'll always be stronger, so we'd better start listening.
The last ten years have thrown their share of challenges at us New Jerseyans and New Yorkers. Multiple disasters have tried our hearts and resilience, but they've proved to us and the world the power of community both to cope and rebuild. Though it's unfortunate that our little house in Ocean Beach III is gone, we are very lucky compared to the countless victims who lost primary homes and loved ones in the freak of a storm that materialized during just the right conditions to cause maximum destruction. We're a state half-famed and half-infamous for our strong will and pertinacity, and we're determined to rebuild. Power has been restored, streets are being cleaned up, and the public transportation system is now up and running. There is certainly a lot of work to be done, but I'm sure that the East Coast will be back and better than ever in no time.
This sign posted on one our few remaining windows says it elegantly:
For more information about how Sandy formed, the damage the storm caused, and relief efforts, check out NOVA's Inside The Megastorm.