PW's Tara Murtha Visits Her N.J. Hometown After Hurricane Sandy

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Nov. 2, 2012

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UNION BEACH, N.J. — Union Beach sits on the edge of Raritan Bay in Monmouth County, N.J. On a clear day, you can look across the water and see pale blue outline of New York.

The town’s so small—not even 2 square miles—that it doesn’t have its own high school. It’s the kind of town where you can get a large original pie from Jerzee Boyz pizza shop for $7.99. When I grew up here, you knew everyone who sold you strawberry licorice laces and Big League chew at Little League games, and parents didn’t worry about you riding your bike alone to Carmen’s deli to buy hand-packed, little brown bags of Swedish fish. Friends’ parents were truck drivers, police dispatchers and bank tellers.

Before Hurricane Sandy, the town consisted of approximately 2,700 houses. Since Hurricane Sandy, at least 100 homes are already completely gone—punched into smithereens by a wall of water that surged out of the bay—and many more will need to be demolished. Almost every home in the town is damaged. But attention is largely focused on New York and smashed-boardwalk Jersey tourist towns to the south—not small working-class communities like Union Beach.

Michael Harriott, 62, emergency management coordinator for Union Beach, has lived here all of his life. He snorts when asked if the rumors are true that the president and governor will be here today. “We haven’t had the governor here,” he says. “They all fly over and then they take off.”

The other rampant rumor is of missing people and deaths. Everyone has a number they’ve heard—“15 dead, 22 missing”—but no one has names. “We have no loss of life in Union Beach,” says Harriott. The police officials say the same, though a cop on the street told me that he heard about six deaths. 

Harriott says there were, however, many close calls. “We had people … going up into their attics to hide. You can imagine if we didn’t get there… there’s nowhere to go from there.”

The town’s grade school was damaged so badly that students will be heading back to class at Holy Family School, the recently closed Catholic grammar school across the highway in Hazlet. A teacher who didn’t want to be identified said she heard that it could be three to six months before the school building re-opens.

Harriott wonders how many families will even stick around.

“They said [the new school] might be set up in two weeks, but in two weeks you might not have people living in town,” says senior deputy of emergency management John Harriott, 57, who is Michael’s brother-in-law. “So how are you setting up school if you don’t have the kids living here?”

Traffic lights are out for miles, stores are empty and the line for gas can be up to four hours long. People are waiting in line at Romeo’s pizza to buy hot meals—cash only—and shopping in Target for clothes and boots by flashlight.

The top two-thirds of a small blue house that was ripped off its foundation sits in the weeds behind Scholer Park. On the other side of the park, the remnants of another house that used to be somewhere else lies in a crumpled heap; the roof rests like a paperback book on top of the pile of splintered boards. A house sits in the middle of Union Avenue. Water scraped the bricks off the facade of the Veterans Association building.

The damage is worse closer to the shore. On these houses, spray-paint slashes means authorities have already searched for bodies. A red sticker means the house is condemned. Sets of concrete steps leading to nowhere mean the house has been tossed to another part of town or was washed out in the bay.

The Harriotts are driving around trying to make sure that people don’t try to re-enter homes to salvage belongings without an official escort. They just caught a guy trying to re-enter what’s left of a home on Brook Avenue, one of the worst hit.

“If that collapses on him and nobody knows he’s in there, then what?” asks Harriott, before yelling out the window at the man, who told him he wanted to pick his microwave up from the curb before making a break for the house.

The Harriotts have been working for four days on little sleep. They’ve been coordinating Red Cross meals coming in, and pulling shredded American flags from out of the rubble and storing them in the back of the truck so they can dispose of them “respectfully.” Between tasks, they drive around town checking in on friends and acquaintances.

Bob and Maryann live just west of Florence Avenue, about four blocks from the water.  “It was unreal. Remember in 1963?” says Bob. “That was Hurricane Donna. It was bad but still not as bad as this.” Bob and Maryann say they have no idea where to begin assessing the damage to their house. John Harriott says the town doesn’t know where to begin, either.

“I have [taken] damage assessment [classes] for FEMA and the Red Cross,” says John. “I’ve been to school for it, and I [don’t] know where to start.”

Over on Lorillard Avenue, Pat Klich is waiting for a FEMA representative. While she waits, she pulls the filthy wet remains of her belongings out of her house and makes a pile on the curb. Huge mounds of rugs, furniture and appliances spill into every street all over town.

The garbage pile is almost bigger than the house. Despite being lifted off the foundation, the small house still has a poster of Justin Bieber’s face hanging on the front, a reminder of her three grand-daughters who used to live with her along with her husband and their daughter. Since the storm, the children have been staying with relatives in Pennsylvania.

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Comments 1 - 13 of 13
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1. Rachel Raub said... on Nov 2, 2012 at 05:45PM

“I am so sorry to hear about your little town. We live in a small town, Morro Bay, California, and so we know what it means to love a small town. I hope we can find a way to be of some help to Union Beach. They are in our prayers.”

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2. marie percy said... on Nov 2, 2012 at 07:39PM


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3. Anonymous said... on Nov 2, 2012 at 08:25PM

“Thank you for your photos. I found relatives' houses in here. Our thoughts are with everyone there.”

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4. gaby said... on Nov 3, 2012 at 08:12PM

“Let us know how we can help dear friend. We are very sad...there is no words to comfort those who go through this great burden... hugs”

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5. Fordham Hutton said... on Nov 4, 2012 at 06:23PM

“I grew up in Union Beach, my Dad was the Chief of Police and my mother a school teacher for many years. My childhood home was 705 Front St, the one that is yellow with the left side of it missing. I have seen several photos of in featured on new sites. There were many storms when I was growing up, to include Hurricane Donna in 1960, but nothing it seems like this.”

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6. Greg Maund said... on Nov 5, 2012 at 09:24AM

“I grew up in Union Beach but now live near Chicago. Mrs. Hutton was my third grade teacher. Photos of the destruction break my heart. Knowing the strength of the people living there I have no doubt that rebuilding efforts are already underway. Although I physically cannot be there to help, I offer whatever I can to help.”

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7. Jo Ann said... on Nov 8, 2012 at 06:32PM

“I would like to volunteer my time on the weekends to help. Please let me know who I can contact. I'm from Edison, but work in the area. I drove by the destruction and it's heart breaking. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone...I will try to do what I can to help.”

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8. Linda said... on Nov 8, 2012 at 10:59PM

“I too would like to volunteer. Should I just show up at the Borough Hall? I'm from Warwick, NY.”

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9. Tara Murtha said... on Nov 11, 2012 at 12:32AM

“Please see this post for details on who to contact and where to go to volunteer or donate. Thank you!”

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10. Ed Donnelly said... on Nov 14, 2012 at 05:57PM

“I was back to Union Beach the Saturday after Sandy and had a chance to see the town I grew up in. Never had I seen so much destruction, but as always the people are holding it together. There was no loss of life. The turn out of volunteers was and is great. Thank you to all that spent even a few hours helping.”

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11. Janice said... on Nov 15, 2012 at 01:40PM

“Tara, I feel so bad for you and those you mentioned in the story. You are all in my thoughts.

I have always admired your straight-forward approach to issues of the day, particularly issues that face women. I would love for you to get involved in the saga of CookyJar, an older man who abuses women weekly by publishing degrading photos of them in return for money. They "consent" because of desperation caused by childhood abuse and addiction. I thought of you and how you could interview some of the victims and write an intruiging story. And help get this CookyJar off the streets. See also my remarks in the comments section under this week's cover story:”

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12. Ms. Brown said... on Nov 26, 2012 at 04:48PM

“My class would like to do a fundraiser to help Union Beach. What charities are set up with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs specifically for this area so we may donate money? thanks”

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13. floyd dempsey said... on Dec 18, 2012 at 12:52PM

“hi, i am retired 57 years old from dayton ohio. i have a truck, trailer and too many tools to list, is ther a place to stay while i am work on homes, i can be there a week month or what ever, i just need to come back home for a few days once every few montsh”


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