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.
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Weeks after Sandy passed, it has continued to rain inside my mother-in-law’s house.
Not because most of the roof was ripped off in the storm; that gaping wound has a temporary bandage, affixed at the behest of the insurance company. See, when blow No. 2 showed up on the horizon—the nor’easter dubbed “Athena” that dumped up to a foot of snow on a region already ravaged by Sandy— the insurance company told my mother-in-law she had to cover the huge tear in her home. Never mind that the entire home was one big tear bleeding to death: They wanted that hole covered!
So we covered it. Some roofers who had been working in the neighborhood rigged up tarping in the hours just prior to the nor’easter, and they did a damn good job, considering. The tarp held all the snow dumped onto it, though it sagged like an ancient belly for weeks afterward. The problem is, the rest of the roof was not covered with a tarp. The roof is just open plywood and insulation underneath—everything else, as I’ve already told, having been ripped off by Sandy and tossed into the waterway.
Hence the rain.
You see, the insulation in her roof absorbed so much water in the hurricane that it became as saturated as a dish sponge after dinner. Now, with only very little evaporating, a fine mist is ceaselessly emanating from the ceiling. It’s like morning fog rising from a swamp, only the swamp is flipped upside down. If you’re in the house—and we rarely are now, because it stinks like rot and oil and mold and the sea—you can occasionally hear the house dying. The sound is slow but steady. At random, one of the few remaining chunks of ceiling falls, a dead thunk from an adjacent room telling you that another part of the house has died.
She was going to leave the house to my son.
She still will, of course, if she doesn’t do what many are doing and sell the property before another Sandy makes landfall. And she just may do that, too, because the fact is, it’s not unreasonable for shore residents to find the prospect of staying scary. Before now, we’ve never had to face what they’re accustomed to down on the Gulf Coast—the idea that an insurmountable force can abruptly materialize on your doorstep, the fact that you can get wiped out in a moment. Why stay? That idea is starting to take hold in our consciousness.
But even if she does stay, it won’t be the home my son was born in, and his mother was born in, and his grandmother raised a family in, because that was a family home. A home that had been lived in by several generations. And it will have been replaced. It will just be some pale imposter standing vigil over the waters where my son’s family once lived.
This is, I think, Sandy’s lasting gift. The idea that a tenscore of memories can be washed away in a surge of salt water and wind and debris. It’s a hard lesson.
Eric San Juan will be filing post-Sandy dispatches from the Jersey shore daily through January at PW’s news blog, phillynow.com. He is the author of Stuff Every Husband Should Know and Lakehurst: Barrens, Blimps & Barons, and the co-author of several other books. He spent 13 years editing a family of seven weekly newspapers in central New Jersey.