Living bayside at the central Jersey shore, Eric San Juan and his family weathered Hurricane Sandy amid some of the worst coastal destruction. This week’s cover story kicks off his month-long PW blog detailing the experience, the aftermath and how it brought his community closer together.
Blue flashes. That’s one thing I won’t forget. Blue flashes, and fighting an early morning fire, and the slow, wailing death of cars.
When Sandy rolled in, at first our focus was on the water. From our bedroom window, we anxiously watched our little offshoot of Barnegat Bay rise, rise, rise, and we wondered if it would drown out the life we knew. The idea that the morning of Oct. 30 would not be a normal one was clear in the overnight skies: All night, as we saw the flood bury our street and climb the steps of our front porch to within inches of the house itself, transformers were popping in brilliant blue flashes. The sky would alight with them, wooosh, then gone, blue sheet lightning rising from the ground. They came from every direction— wooosh, wooosh, all night, until eventually they seemed a sort of heartbeat. If you imagined hard enough, you could envision them as the flashes of alien weaponry bombarding the neighborhood.
While this happened, cars died.
Turns out a submerged car goes through observable death throes; it dies in painful stages like a wounded wild animal. As the water rises over the dashboard, first the interior lights come on. Then the headlights. If the trunk is electronic, it pops open. Then any electronic horns or security alerts start to wail, slow and wet and mournful. That’s what happened as the floodwaters came in: First our family’s car died, the sudden glow of the inside lights signaling the beginning of the end. Then the one next to it, headlights erupting in a spasm of death as the water rose from tires to hubs to fenders to hood to dash to death. One after another, all the cars on our block did this. We timed the flood by them: headlights, horns, and that’s another neighbor with no means of transportation. My wife’s car cried for an hour before it died, and up the street, an alarm blared on and off in five-minute spurts for two hours: BEEEEP. BEEEP. BEEEP.
There was no sleeping.
In the morning, a horn started to wail next door. I looked out the window. The new neighbors’ SUV was dying. They had just moved in; we didn’t really know them. At first, Natalie and I joked about why theirs had taken so long when all the other cars on the block had succumbed overnight.
Then smoke started to pour from it. The electronics, just now frying in the water, had caught on fire. The vehicle was parked next to their garage—and underneath trees that touched our house. If it became fully engulfed in flames, both our homes would be in grave danger.
I jumped out into oil-covered water and tried to find our garden hose in the debris and muck. Where was it? The water level was over my hips, even well after the peak of the storm, and it was murky. I couldn’t see anything through it.
The neighbor, Jeff, came out with a pot and started struggling with the fire. He splurged pots of floodwater onto it, but now the entire dash of the truck was in flames.
My hands felt urgently through the muck. Finally I bumped into the hose, got it going and trudged over as fast as I could, spraying down the flaming vehicle. He smashed the windshield so we could get more water onto the flame-doused dash. We finally put it out.
Breathing heavily, soaked and cold and smelling like fuel oil, it struck me just then that the morning was beautiful. The sky was clear and blue—or seemed so after yesterday’s tempest. The world around me was surreal, eerily changed from the familiar landscape I knew, but it was a beautiful morning all the same. Jeff and I caught our breath and shook our heads at the absurdity of it all.
This is how I got to know my new neighbors.
* * *
Jeff and Kathy Nolan had moved in just weeks before Sandy struck. The house had been on the market for a while, the previous owner a weekend owner frustrated he couldn’t get the nice payout he hoped for. When the Nolans moved in, Natalie and I were glad they didn’t seem like 20-somethings eager to party every summer weekend—we already have plenty of Jersey Shore types in our neighborhood, thanks. The few cross-driveway conversations we had were pleasant. Seemed like good people.
And then, there we were, putting out a fire raging in his car.
What followed was a week of tremendous hospitality—of getting to know our neighbors and, more importantly, getting to know how amazingly generous they were. Jeff and Kathy had a gas oven. We did not. Their water was heated by gas. Ours was not. So the first night after the storm, they invited us over to take a shower and share the food we all had, lest it spoil. We bathed, felt human, and broke bread together, commiserating in the unreality around us.
We did that every night for a week. At 8 a.m., Kathy would knock on our door with a kettle of scalding hot water so we could make tea. That warm liquid was the morning boost I needed to get up and tackle the cleanup work that so desperately needed doing. All week long, we met at the Nolans’ and had dinner by candlelight, pooling the food from three households, enjoying what seemed like feasts at the time, wondering if maybe this was how people lived 200 years ago. We talked about ourselves, our families, our outlooks. It was nice.
It’s amazing how you get to know one another when the world seems to have fallen apart.
The same, I found out later, was happening elsewhere. When I spoke to Joanne LaCicero of the neighboring island town of Lavallette, just across the bay, her story made mine seem quaint. My family and I were sharing our tiny two-bedroom space with my mother-in-law—whose house was destroyed by the storm—and coming together with the couple next door for only a few hours each evening. Joanne and her family, on the other hand, were sheltering more than a dozen neighbors in their home.