They say timing is everything.
Becoming a New Jerseyan has been a protracted process: my husband commuted to New Jersey each week for five years while I stayed behind and worked as a teacher in the Midwest. Although this arrangement was often a strain, we regenerated and reconnected on the Jersey Shore during the summer months. Each June, I packed up various belongings, my cat, and— as an avid cook—most of my kitchen, to make the nine-hour drive to the Shore and my husband.
For three years we rented a third-floor, two-bedroom condominium at Beachfront North in Long Branch and took pleasure in the rejuvenated beach and boardwalk less than 200 yards from our front door. The unhurried pace of a beach lifestyle made it easy to relax and bond, not only with each other but also with our children and family members who visited. Although our view consisted of the parking lot and a dilapidated home awaiting demolition, we were drawn to the rehabilitative sanctuary offered by sand and sunshine. The beach cart, laden with umbrella, chairs, towels, cooler, and books, became an essential part of everyday existence—even if for one stolen hour.
Later, we moved to a tenth-floor apartment directly on the Shore with a gorgeous, expansive view of the Atlantic. Upon waking there the first morning, I was greeted by an intense pink and orange glow, the rising sun bathing the rooms in brilliance. Formerly white walls radiated warmth and peace; soothing colors, the rhythmic lapping of the ocean and the warm breeze united to uncoil every cell of my taut being. The Shore as therapist offered a healing embrace, the water—rebirth.
Finally, it was time to really move, to consolidate our lives and plot our future together as empty-nesters. My Wordsworthian love of nature, formed largely by an outdoor childhood in rural Illinois, led me to seek a home that would satiate my need for nature—its sounds, smells, beauty— the stillness of my soul that only it can provide. No longer restricted to summers, I sought a permanent haven from the outside world. Finding a budget-pleasing house with enough room for visiting family, however, proved elusive on the Atlantic side. The search left me heavy-hearted at the thought of giving up the Shore, especially when I was mourning the absence of now grown children, friends and colleagues, and my former home. My quest spanned most of the summer. And then—I found it.
Positioned on Sandy Hook Bay and south of New York City, our four-story townhouse perches on a 14-foot dune no more than 50 yards off the sand and small boardwalk. In between, an estuary houses a variety of birds and wildlife, including a fat, lumbering ground hog. A two-story bank of windows frames a spectacular view of the bay, the Verrazano Bridge, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan’s skyline punctuated by the Freedom Towers. Light streams in, caressing every corner. Pink and purple sunrises open the day and the setting sun bathes everything in golden light. The nearby fishermen’s co-op and a small fish market also doubling as a restaurant offer abundant fresh catch and delicious local food and, more importantly, local friendship. I relax. I feel home.
Back to the timing thing.
Less than two months after moving in, Hurricane Sandy barreled up the East Coast. At first this seemed a great adventure, our experience with Hurricane Irene being but mildly annoying. As the days wore on, however, misgiving gave way. Scheduled to be in Florida for a conference, my husband had reservations to fly out on Monday, October 29, right before Sandy was to arrive. It seemed prudent to change his departure to Sunday so that he would make his flight. Later, a mandatory evacuation order meant that I would join him.
On Saturday night, we visited the small fish market and restaurant to eat a quick dinner. We pulled up chairs in the informal dining room wedged behind the now-empty display cases in front of the shop and the 1000-gallon lobster holding tanks in back, making small talk with the proprietors. Over the past several months we had dined with them often, enjoying hospitality, conversation, and lobsters. This was genuine Jersey, not that of television infamy. Firemen, police officers, people from all walks of life enjoyed each other, a good story, and a cold beer. That night we spoke about what they had done to prepare for the storm and what had happened during Irene. Looking back, it seems surreal that as we talked, I hardly suspected that we could be their last customers.
Before leaving for the airport the next morning, I looked out the fourth-floor window toward the bay and skyline. The formerly soothing water now served to torment as increasingly ominous waves battered the shore. The sky no longer illuminated, it menaced. Nature was poised to unleash its fury, my restorative balm now dangerously destructive and, possibly, obliterating.
We led a Dali-like existence in our hotel. It all seemed bizarre and out of place. Tethered to the television, Twitter, and Facebook, we were desperate for information. As we listened and read, despondency set in: the Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays were expected to take on massive flooding. Three excruciating days passed as we waited for word. Luckily, a friend drove his four-wheeler to Port Monmouth, reporting back that our complex stood mostly unscathed. Our townhome, 14 feet above sea level, survived the surge which crested in our area at approximately 13.9 feet, the water miraculously breaking around the dune. We had been spared, but the surrounding area was devastated. Exiled in luxury compared to those who retreated to shelters at home, we were mocked by the sunshine and filled with guilt, seldom leaving our hotel room. We worried for our restaurant friends and all of my husband’s co-workers.
Finally, we were able to return home. We were met by mounds of sand, boats and houses where they shouldn’t be, so much out of kilter. National Guard members lined the streets, blocking traffic to Union Beach and Keansburg. The lower part of Main Street in Port Monmouth lay in soggy ruins. It looked as if all of the stuffing had been pulled out of the houses, contents piled by the road, huge heaps of sodden possessions and broken dreams. The sight was heartbreaking, especially the toys.
After checking our home, we quickly headed down to the restaurant to help, if we could. We found the usual group gathered at the back of the building, a few pushing around brooms in a determined effort to scrub the thick mud and brackish water off the floor and into the drain. Seven feet of water had coursed through the building, and they were in the process of cleaning up and salvaging whatever possible. In the remaining daylight, we did what little we could to help extricate their equipment from the muck. We went three more days to help them, but in the end, it was not enough.
Mother Nature exhibited her awesome power through Sandy, no longer bringing comfort, instead illustrating that life is random, indiscriminate in outcomes. I’m not sure who first coined the term survivor’s guilt, but thinking and writing about enduring a natural disaster while evacuated in a comfortable hotel seems incredibly indulgent, especially because my house is still standing. It is difficult to witness others suffering when I am not. Driving down Main Street is a daily testament to our good fortune, engendering feelings of gratitude and guilt. I struggle with feelings of inadequacy: not giving enough, helping enough, or being able to right the wrong of Sandy’s injustice.
My view has changed.
Now, when I look out on the Jersey Shore, I don’t see the beach or even the ocean. I see people. Friends bringing food and beer to the local restaurant, only later revealing that their own homes have been flooded. Firemen and other first responders working tirelessly in service to the community, without regard to personal losses. An elderly woman who lives alone valiantly raking her yard, removing small pieces of trash confetti, a neighbor stopping to help. Hoards of volunteers streaming into damaged neighborhoods to do what they can to help fight against the inevitable mold. A neighbor hanging not only an American flag, but also a patriotic 1st Navy Jack flag declaring “Don’t Tread on Me,”—signifying strength and courage—on the front of his now see-through and condemned home. In December he hung a wreath, too.
I finally understand the meaning of Jersey Strong.
Oh, what a view.
Original Photograph: Leslie Gumbert
Courage and Strength in Port Monmouth.