By Reilly Platten Sharp
The next one; it is a phrase echoed by generations on Long Beach Island ever since the Ash Wednesday nor’easter of March 1962. Though it was also assumed after every severe storm to impact the Island before then as well, the idea and sense of inevitability of the next one took on an almost boogeyman status when storm after storm, year after year, decade after decade, the next one failed to come. False alarms and close calls after 1962 led to a growing complacency among some and haunting preparation among others. One such close call came the year before Superstorm Sandy and would serve as a final rehearsal for the next one that would arrive exactly fifty years after the last next one.
In late August 2011, a category two hurricane, Irene, was forecasted to directly strike New Jersey. Evacuations were ordered. Homes and businesses were boarded up. On LBI, the usual streets flooded, and some properties suffered damage. As locals would say, nothing worse than what occurs during a severe thunderstorm or a high moon tide. Irene, a justifiably warned direct landfalling tropical system, was for Islanders just another close call joining the ranks of Floyd, Gloria, Belle, and Agnes. The earnest warnings from state, local and meteorological officials, coupled with the media hype as each storm was forecasted to pass near the Jersey coast, began to create a cognitive dissonance from the real-world potential each storm possessed.
In late October 2012, the attention of the National Hurricane Center turned to the latest tropical system that could threaten the east coast. Unlike the other storms that failed to live up to the hype, Superstorm Sandy would be the next one.
Even as Sandy was still organizing and strengthening, there were already hints of its ultimate path into the mid-Atlantic coast. On October 24, it crossed Cuba as a strong category one hurricane. Once north of the Bahamas, Hurricane Sandy struggled in an environment unfavorable for tropical development but managed to maintain a strong warm core and expand in size to over 275 miles across as it began to interact with a slowing cold front approaching the east coast that acted to both strengthen Sandy and pull it further west. Briefly downgraded to tropical storm status, Sandy saw explosive growth as it moved past North Carolina and found the warm Gulf Stream current. By October 29, winds increased to 100 mph in thunderstorms along the western side and the core intensified as the now hybrid low deepened. At this point, Sandy was no longer a tropical storm or a hurricane, though massive swathes of the system produced those conditions. Sandy was now an “extratropical low.” Meteorologists who scrambled updating the rapidly changing dynamics of the storm and warning of its nearly unprecedented course struggled with what to call this low-pressure system formerly known as Hurricane Sandy that did not fit into the nor’easter category or the tropical definition. “Extratropical Low” Sandy sounded less threatening than its conditions, though it was the correct term and ultimately adopted in official advisories hours before landfall. In the end, like the legendary storms of years past with grandiose names, this hybrid system became known as Superstorm Sandy.
Late in the evening of Monday, October 29, as it executed a left turn and headed for somewhere between Absecon and Little Egg inlets, Superstorm Sandy had all the power and dangers of a strong tropical storm, and the vast scale and wind field of a giant nor’easter.
While sustained winds on the southeast side of the storm pushed 80 mph, they were half that on the northwest side passing over Long Beach Island and points north along the Jersey coast. Gusts, though, touched the worst ever seen by Islanders. At Surf City, 89 mph was recorded along with hurricane force gusts at Barnegat LightwaHarvey Cedars, and Tuckerton.
Due to Sandy’s size and speed (28 mph) and the northeast winds that had been piling up water into bays and estuaries for days ahead of the storm, flooding in advance of landfall was severe in low-lying areas.
The usual places on the Boulevard and bayside streets had water, but it wasn’t the typical couple of inches. In bay shore communities like Beach Haven West, countless homes on their original slabs just a few feet off the ground already had water on their doorsteps. When Sandy made landfall, the storm surge made for a tale of two halves of New Jersey. Around the Island, the tidal peak coincided with the evening high tide and a full moon, yielding surges of 4 to 6 feet on the oceanside and even higher in some places on the bayside. Further north, however, it was much worse. Sandy Hook, coastal communities around Raritan Bay and New York City itself were flooded in places by never-before-seen water levels as high as 13.’
In the days and weeks that followed as Sandy passed into memory, on the ground the broad strokes of history were dwarfed by the intimate and the mortal. Lives were lost, homes and businesses destroyed, and lives forever changed. The process of starting-over and rebuilding began only hours after the remains of Sandy moved inland and spun around the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia before finally drifting away to the north. For those who were on Long Beach Island, the experiences are harrowing and heartening. These are some of their stories.
On Monday afternoon, October 29, Sandy was less than 50 miles off the New Jersey coast. Of the more than 10,000 cottages on Long Beach Island, a small number were occupied by Islanders intent on riding out the storm. Firehouses were staffed with first responders. On the mainland, National Guard were already staging a command post and had teams on the Island evacuating the last who wanted to leave.
In Barnegat Light, the air was pregnant with anticipation. The town’s vast dune system and wide beaches allowed a sense of reassurance to creep into the back of the minds of those who stayed. One of these holdovers was Karen Larson, whose family owns a fleet of commercial fishing vessels in town.
Ten years later, Larson remembered, “The storm was bad. [It was] very windy, but I wasn’t that concerned.” Some of the highest winds impacted Barnegat Light that afternoon ahead of the storm. A friend, Debbie Austin, and her dog, Charlie, from Harvey Cedars sheltered with her for the duration of the storm and the days after. “I walked with them. At one point it was [so windy] it was easier to walk backwards.”
Over at the docks, captains stayed in port for the storm, a safer alternative for the size of the boats than riding it out at sea. The fleet was lit up throughout the storm; their crews on hand to take action if necessary.
For those who did not ride out the storm, as landfall loomed evacuation required the support of first responders and the newly activated National Guard. On Saturday, October 27, Governor Christie declared a state of emergency for all of New Jersey. In the Gloucester County National Guard unit, Lieutenant Eric Shaw was one of those called into action and put in charge of Ocean County’s beaches.
“Once the state of emergency was put in place and we were activated, it was get [National Guard personnel and equipment] out the door,” Lt. Shaw said. “The police say, ‘We need a truck to get through water to get people out.’ Just get them out,” was the response from command. And such evacuations were necessary. In the end, the National Guard evacuated about 700 civilians from the Island in the back of military vehicles before Sandy made landfall that night.
As evacuations were underway, Tommy Walters and Pat Albanese of Walters Bicycles on East 5th Street and the Boulevard in Ship Bottom were intent on staying to take care of their business and home even as the flood waters rose. Or so they had hoped.
“We planned to stay,” Walters remembered. Late in the afternoon of October 29 the news, satellite images and storm tracks showed Sandy making a hook. “I mean that thing made an actual left!” Walters said, still in amazement ten years later. “When the water broke through the dunes [near 5th St.] that’s when the flooding really got bad. And I told [Pat], ‘Listen, we better get out now or we’re not gonna make it off.’”
As they left the Island, Walters was sure they had made the right decision. “When I was going over the bridge, there [were] a couple empty cars there” partially submerged in the flood waters. “So, thank God we got out when we did.” Dawn on Tuesday, October 30, revealed the damage Sandy had wrought on Long Beach Island. Though the flood waters had already significantly receded, there was still standing water in some areas. Sand covered most oceanside streets. Many sections of the Boulevard were covered with the sand and flotsam. In places where the ocean had broken through the dunes, such as North Beach, Harvey Cedars, Ship Bottom and especially Holgate, pilings of houses were exposed many feet below the former ground level and contents of lower floors were strewn everywhere. Some houses lay on their sides, uprooted from their foundations, and turned completely around.
At the National Guard initial headquarters in Manahawkin, personnel were organizing for the 466 missions they would conduct over the next three months. They would assess and coordinate with officials from the Office of Emergency Management, and with mayors, fire chiefs, police departments and public works from the six municipalities to determine what was needed. After being briefed, Lt. Shaw was given a free hand by his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Hallowell, to manage the situation on Long Beach Island. Under the command of Lt. Shaw all the National Guard’s resources could and would be brought to bear. And the priorities in the initial hours and days were no different from those faced by those overseeing rescue and recovery efforts back in 1962.
“You had a two-fold problem with Sandy,” Lt. Shaw explained. “Sandy hit, you had the storm surge, everything flooded, you had all that devastation. But there was a nor’easter coming.” Models and meteorologists were already under the gun of what would be a rapidly developing major nor’easter expected to impact the Island early the following week with cold weather and snow, only days after Sandy. Officials were stunned at the cruel timing.
The Guard’s response became a repeated refrain as each crisis arose. “What do you need to try to stop this from being a disaster?” The nor’easter ultimately arrived weaker than feared the following Wednesday, causing only mild damage to the hurriedly constructed new beach dune systems the Guard and public works miraculously pulled off in time. At the same time as this herculean task, the next immediate crisis in the initial hours was a potentially explosive problem.
“It came down to there were so many gas leaks,” Lt. Shaw recounted. “Our recommendation from the Army side to the civilian government was, ‘there’s a lot we can do, but we can’t do anything with gas leaks’ because there were so many. Gas leaks from houses ripped off their foundations, erosion exposing pipes, damage to the lines themselves in the road. It was everywhere. By the time you got to the southern edge of Beach Haven, near Holgate where it was the worst, you could smell the gas.” Sitting under the sun in Ship Bottom ten years later as Lt. Shaw listed the dangers all around the Island in those days, it was almost hard to believe. “There were certain areas we didn’t yet know how bad the devastation was because you couldn’t go into them because of the gas. If we can get the gas shut off, we can clear roads, we can start moving dirt out of here, we can start getting water back on. [The mayors] were un- der the pressure of if they shut the whole Island off, will they ever be able to get it back on within a year’s time? That was a gamble. But they were decisive and said, ‘No, we’re going to shut the gas off. We can find a way to work around the lack of gas, but without doing that we can’t do anything.’ So, the main was shut off.”
With one more mission accomplished, and obstacle removed, the recovery effort could finally begin in earnest. Focus could now turn to the job of searching every home and assessing every street. Hindering the process was the sand that blanketed the roads and Island. Lt. Shaw explained, “Everything was under three to four feet of sand.”
While those missions were underway, one more headache reared its head. “There was an issue with looting and the fear of looting, of people coming across the bay in boats.” To solve this, one of Lt. Shaw’s younger troops had an ingenious solution, that they use an infrared weapons targeting system.
“Easier said than done,” Lt. Shaw explained. “I had to talk to a lot of high levels [who were] asking, ‘Wait, you’re using a weapons system?’ You don’t want [them] to just read, ‘Hey, we want to use a tow missile system arrayed on the mainland!’ No, we’re not bringing the weapon, we’re just using the device that scans heat.” The Guard then coordinated with local law enforcement and put the trucks up on the causeway bridge to scan the bay. That way if they detected the heat of a boat engine attempting to cross over to the Island, Lt. Shaw said, “I can tell the State Police, ‘There’s an engine coming over and it’s gonna hit somewhere around 54th Street or wherever.’ And I think once the word got out after we caught about a dozen of them, a couple not even from the area, within a couple of days we had no looting on the Island.”
As the days passed and the immediate danger was over, homeowners and businessowners were anxious to get back on, while those who stayed waited for utilities to be restored and access to the rest of the Island and the mainland to be restored. Walters and Albanese spent days after their evacuation hotel hopping in search of one that had power and had rooms available, both of which were in high demand across southern New Jersey that week. It would be three weeks before they could return to stay at their property and have utilities safely reactivated. Nearly two feet of water flooded the bicycle shop, bending but not breaking the reinforced front door, which one would never know when the repaired business re-opened the following spring.
Up in Barnegat Light, Larson, Austin, and Charlie lived a Spartan life in the darkness that first week after Sandy. At Viking Village, boat crews prepared for the likely living conditions after a major storm by making tons of ice for anyone who needed it during the six days the power was out. Locals who evacuated called Larson with updates after the storm. “The phone rang constantly,” Larson remembered. “It was pre-smart phone for me, so we had no way of seeing the damage” people were describing. Passage south of 30th Street in Barnegat Light was blocked, though humanitarian drives were allowed to collect supplies or receive medical help. Callers also offered Larson any food or supplies that remained in their homes. Without electricity or gas, they were forced to improvise. “We set up an old broken ceramic pot, put it in the driveway, and had a little chimenea [for cooking and warmth].” In spite of the situation, everyone from first responders to locals made the best of it.
In the end, Islanders and local officials survived Sandy together and rebuilt together. On LBI, damages were estimated to be $1 billion, several lives were lost, and hundreds who were unable to rebuild were permanently displaced.
During those months, Lt. Shaw was in the thick of one of the most profound experiences of his professional and personal life, one that caused him to fall in love with Long Beach Island and move to the area with his family.
“We had Army, Corps of Engineers, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force. Under the worst circumstances, one of the most rewarding situations…everyone was working toward a common goal, everyone was able to pivot to the next problem,” said Lt. Shaw.
Demonstrations of community out of such tragedy extended to Lt. Shaw and his troops as they were overwhelmed with generous gifts of homemade food and other comforts of home, all while they slept on cots in municipal offices into the new year. And when it was over, locals offered complimentary time at their cottages and the owners of Fantasy Island Amusement Park opened up one day just for military personnel and their families who served during the Sandy recovery effort.
This gratitude after so much hard work to move heaven and earth to recover from an unfathomable disaster is an example of character that defines what it means to be a part of the Island family.
Ten years later, Lt. Shaw remains astonished at the Island’s recovery. He so cares for the Island and its people who he now counts as friends and family that he had a message for those who now wait and ask about the next one that will come one day.
“If the recommendation is to evacuate, evacuate,” Lt. Shaw said. “If nothing happens, you’ve lost nothing but some time. Weather is unpredictable. You can take all the technology in the world, and you can get a probability, but you’re never going to get an absolute. Other than saying a storm is coming, no one can tell you how devastating it’s going to be or how the factors of nature will align. There is no property that is more valuable than a life. Anything can be rebuilt, believe me, I’ve seen it.”