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.