Revisiting My Past After The Storm

I’m a Jersey shore girl, born and raised in Keyport NJ, a working class town on the shore of the Raritan Bay.  I have lived in the San Francisco Bay area for 8 years, but many friends, most of my family, and my heart remain in Jersey.  So on October 29 2012 I was in sunny California and anxiously reading about the expected storm, Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey.

Through the power of social media and cell phones I experienced it all, feeling powerless to help, on the other side of the country. It started with reading the warning on Facebook that people had been given the order to evacuate but weren’t leaving, reading that the roads were shutting down and pleading with my mom to leave the house, take my grandmother to higher ground and hearing her say “the water will never get to us”.  When the first picture of flooding and the rising waters hit Facebook, I saw that they were taken a few blocks from my childhood house where my mother and grandmother were staying.  As people lost power these first hand photographs stopped and my only source of information was my mom.  Then at the height of the storm, a panicked call.  “Robin.  The water is next door.  What do I do?”.  I encouraged her to bring everyone to the second floor.  I then waited for what felt like the longest hour of my life.  Finally my mom called back,  “The water’s receding and it didn’t reach us.  We should be OK”.
A few blocks for my childhood home during the start of the storm

A few blocks for my childhood home during the start of the storm1

I went to bed and awoke to images in my Facebook feed that still bring me to tears when I think about them.   I have many friends that still live in town and they were first on the scene.  The destruction to familiar places was devastating.  They were not exaggerating when they said it looked like a war zone.  On that day nothing was worse than seeing the places that filled my childhood memories destroyed and knowing that so many I know and love were left with practically nothing.

For days after I followed the stories and pictures religiously and tried to help as best as I could from here.  But I was anxious to get back, to see it for myself – the places, the people.  That chance came in December on a trip home for my son’s birthday which was planned well before the storm.

My dad took me by the water, so I could see some of the damage.  My first sight was the Ye Cottage Inn.  A 100+ year old restaurant, it had been home to my bridal shower, rehearsal dinner and countless friends and family events over the years.  It stood broken. 14 feet of water had surged in, destroying everything inside and with such force it had cracked the structural beams, causing it to sit crooked and ready to fall at any minute.

The Ye Cottage Inn

The Ye Cottage Inn2

Later in the afternoon, seeking an escape I took my son to the playground near the beach.  I had forgotten that part of it too had been badly damaged.  I had a hard time explaining to my son the slide and swings were too dangerous.  He didn’t understand why he could play at one of his favorite parks.  I’m sure my tears when I apologized for not letting him didn’t help but I had nothing else to offer by way of explanation.

Playing at what's left of the park

Playing at what’s left of the park

After the park we took a walk and I went by what was possibly the most painful loss to me.  Right near the water has been the Steamboat Dock Museum.  It was a small building the Keyport Historical Society leased for $1 a year and gathered and collected the history of our town.  As a kid I used to go with my dad, the society’s electrician, anytime he had a job to do there.  I looked at the pictures, flipped through the old year books, admired the old artifacts.  I loved history and enjoyed seeing what people of yesteryears did in my town.  As an adult I loved the location of the old building, right by the water.  I loved it so much I got special permission to have my wedding photos taken on the yard.  On the night of the storm, the water surge proved too much for the old building.  The surge flattened the west side of the building and washed away the walls on the east side.  The building, and all its rich valuable history was washed out to sea.

Photos taken on my wedding day in 2005

Photos taken on my wedding day in 2005 Photos taken on my wedding day in 20053

The Steamboat Dock Museam the morning after the storm

The Steamboat Dock Museum the morning after the storm2

The picture of the flattened building had brought me such grief, I wasn’t sure I could bear seeing the real thing.  Seeing the caution tape around the still nearly standing building was exceedingly difficult.  But the hardest things was looking inside – the broken tea cup, the picture frame with a soiled picture, the old cloth dirty under rubble…

A broken china bowl left behind in the rubble

A broken china bowl left behind in the rubble of the museum

Several days later my father took me through the town of Union Beach.  Union Beach is Keyport’s sister town. The town directly to our east, it is a low lying town with a creek that runs down the middle of town. It doesn’t have its own high school so most of the residents attend high school in Keyport.  It is a town of working class people and for whom their most valuable asset was their home.  The water surged in and affected most of the town.  38 buildings were destroyed by the storm and 230 received major damage.

I have no pictures from that drive, it was too raw.  Seeing the wreckage that remained of some homes I had been to as a high schooler haunted me.  These are people’s only homes and unlike some of the wealthier Jersey Shore towns, it was not their vacation homes. Everything they had was gone in a night.   Many were still fighting with insurance and a few still living without heat or electricity.  (Power could not be restored until the house had been certified as safe to inhabit).

My visit was better in April.  By then much of the debris had been picked up and demolition had begun on many of the partially damaged homes and buildings.  Some of the houses had started to rebuild.  Mike’s Subs a staple of Keyport for 50 years had been a so badly damaged in the storm that the building had to be torn down and rebuilt.  I happened to be there the day it reopened, and stood in line with what seemed like an unending line of patrons from in town and far, for well over an hour, to taste the joy of a eating a sub and restoring a little bit of my childhood memory and more importantly to support the business in its effort to rebuild itself.

The line at Mike's Subs re-opening day

The line at Mike’s Subs re-opening day

Another fantastic restaurant, Drew’s Bayshore Bistro was also destroyed in the storm.  Chef Drew had no flood insurance, so his friends organized a fund raiser.  He raised $17,000 and was able to reopen in a new location in Keyport on higher ground.  Then in June this year, Iron Chef Bobby Flay came to do a throwdown in our town against Drew as part of the “Restore the Shore” initiative.  Our little town of 1 square mile drew over 2,000 people who watched Drew win the Voodoo Shrimp Throwdown against the master of spice himself. It was a proud moment for a town that badly needed a win after the tragedy.

In April I walked to the building my grandmother had moved back into, a senior citizen’s apartment building near the water.  During the storm it had received significant damage and all the residents were evacuated and in shelters for weeks afterward.  As I waited outside, my kids were social that day and many residents came over to play and talk with them.  I started a conversation with an older couple who had just moved in.  They had lived in Keansburg, a town near by, and had lost their home in the storm.  They came to live at this center and talked of getting furniture and carpets from friends.  The man was telling me about his time in Vietnam.  He had survived being shot in the head and then falling out of a helicopter.  He faced this hardship with a smile and a positive attitude because he had seen the worst and survived.  That’s the kind of stuff Jersey Shore folk are made of and listening to that story made my realize how lucky we truly were.  There was miraculously no loss of life and while slow the recovery had begun. I’m proud of my heritage. My town and my state are coming back.  I’ve never been prouder to say I’m from the Jersey Shore.

If you would like to help, there are a number of local charities that are dedicating resources to helping families and businesses in the shore area.  In particular Restore the Bayshore is a non-profit  started by a few of my high school classmates in the process of becoming a 501(c).  They are dedicated to helping people in my local community (Keyport, Cliffwood Beach and Union Beach) with things they need but may not be covered by insurance.  As of 7/6/2013 they have given out over $30,000 in aid to the local community.

1Photographed by Jessica Bame Aumack

2Photographed by Albert M Chuderski

3Photographed by John Strauss II

8 thoughts on “Revisiting My Past After The Storm

  1. A heartfelt tribute to your hometown. I most enjoyed learning about the resilience of the people and the way the community is coming together to rebuild. May you continue to have beautiful memories with your family there.

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  6. Just found your blog and loved reading this. It’s still a part of our every day, but we are truly stronger than the storm. I came to Keyport in ’93 (a mere carpetbagger), and love it deeply. You have captured the heart and spirit of this terrific town, and of the Bayshore.

    • Thank you! I’ve now lived outside of Keyport longer than I lived in it. But I am still so attached to the town and it’s amazing community. Everytime I come home, it feels like I never left…

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