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.
“We lived with them for 10 days,” she told me. “It’s amazing how we came together. Everyone had a job. You go into survival mode.”
True. A week after Sandy, we had a mandatory evacuation thanks to a cross-looking nor’easter rolling in. So, not wanting to watch another flood taunt our home, and unsure of how strictly the evacuation would be enforced—for nearly a week after Sandy, my neighborhood was locked down by check-your-ID cops every evening to prevent looting, which tickled all sorts of Orwell buttons in me—we fled to a friend’s safer homestead, where my family ended up sleeping on his family’s floor for a few nights. We weren’t really the sleepover types—it’s just what you did during this time.
All of us. Because what Sandy did was, she blew us together.
* * *
Through the holiday season, Kevin Geoghegan seemed to be thinking less about the usual sorts of Christmas presents and more about the fact that the gift he needs is an ambulance. He’s the vice president of the Silverton EMS, which serves the Silverton area of Toms River, a bayside community immediately south of mine, with plenty of waterfront property looking out toward the barrier island that separates the Atlantic from Barnegat Bay. The volunteer emergency squad has been a part of the community since 1964, and Geoghegans have been a part of it from the start. Right now, though, Kevin Geoghegan isn’t looking toward the past—he’s looking ahead.
Silverton flooded extensively during the storm: The banks of Kettle Creek and Tide Creek and Barnegat Bay swelled over, trashing cars and rendering homes unlivable. When my brother, Michael, drove through the community the day after the storm to check on the homes of friends and family, he couldn’t get down most of the roads. Too many trees down. Too much flooding. Too many people wandering around in a daze, trying to make sense of what had happened.
One of the Silverton EMS’s two ambulances fell casualty to Sandy’s waters. The squad is still responding to calls, Geoghegan told me in December, but at times, the larger township’s paid municipal squad has to step in to help them—not just because they’ve lost a rig, but because a large number of their volunteers were displaced when Sandy destroyed their homes, and are simply unavailable while they’re temporarily living elsewhere. “We’re doing the best we can,” he said. Post-storm progress, though, is slow.
We’re all dealing with that same frustration on some level. My family and I have struggled to replace lost automobiles; as I write this, I’m still driving a borrowed car. My mother-in-law, jerked back and forth between insurance companies and FEMA with no clear answer as to what will happen with what’s left of her house, remains in limbo. Geoghegan and his emergency team are experiencing the same. “We’re waiting on the insurance company to make a decision,” he said. “It’s not like this is going to be resolved quickly, especially in light of the situation everyone is in.”
And just like so many New Jersey and New York families have taken others into their home, so, too, has the Silverton EMS. Right now, they’re sharing space in their Silverton headquarters with the National Guard, who themselves have been trying to find functional space to operate from as they assist with the recovery and rebuilding effort.
When I spoke to him about four weeks after the storm, Geoghegan was lobbying Toms River officials to reassign an ambulance from another squad to Silverton until a permanent replacement can be secured. The volunteer squads don’t actually own their ambulances— they’re township property—so officials have the power to shift around ambulances if they so choose.
The town fathers are swamped with post-storm problems, though—the largest of which is getting people back into their homes on the barrier island. It’s a process that looks like it won’t be finished until the spring at the earliest.
(Note: On Dec. 21, Silverton and some other nearby coastal areas flooded again. I have not yet been able to get back in touch with Geoghegan to see how his squad fared.)
* * *
The days immediately following Sandy taught Joanne LaCicero a lot. They taught her to appreciate what she and her family have. They taught her that most people are inherently good. They reminded her how much she loves her community. Speaking with her for an afternoon, even I couldn’t help but feel strangely good about the aftermath of the storm, and I’m a relentless cynic at heart.
LaCicero and her husband, Walter, have lived in Lavallette since 1994, and they love the island town. So much, in fact, that Walter ran for mayor and won. He is an attorney; she is his office manager. Their view is a small-town view: They know almost everyone in town, solicit most of the businesses there, and if chatting with her is any indication, it’s safe to say that the family bleeds Lavallette.
About five weeks after the storm, the island was still a mess. Dead cars, piles of debris, broken homes. The school in Lavallette came away unscathed, but because opening to students would entail parents bringing their kids onto an island still offering only limited access to residents, the school remained closed. Joanne also suspected that many parents simply haven’t wanted their children to see the wreckage littering the island. It can be disheartening.
And yet: Just a month after the storm, three Lavallette businesses were back up and running—including a gas station. That, she told me, was huge. Even bigger was the possibility of home gas service returning to this section of the island.
“I see us being up and running by summer,” she says. “I have a newfound respect for the workers of this town. I saw a lot of our DPW [Department of Public Works] guys out in waders, in chest-deep water, trying to do stuff during the storm.” She doesn’t know why they stayed, she told me; she just knows that they did. They could have left—and technically should have, as the island had a mandatory evacuation—but instead, they worked ceaselessly to protect the place where they lived.
That, LaCicero thinks, is part of why her town is ahead of the curve in the rebuilding process. “I look at our community as a beacon of hope,” she said. “The townspeople who stayed—the day after, they all came together and said, ‘What can we do?’”
In contrast, many at the Jersey shore are talking about leaving. One couple I know who live on the island, right on the bay, plan to fix their house and then get out. The sentiment is widespread. LaCicero, though, says there’s no chance of that happening with her family. “I wouldn’t leave. There was devastation here, but there can be devastation wherever you go.” They get tornados in the Midwest, she reminded me—hurricanes down South, floods and mudslides and raging forest fires elsewhere. Natural disasters happen. You can’t run from it.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide