Monday, June 10, 2013

The Jersey Shore - Post Sandy

                                                                                                  Watercolor by Jerome Myers, Private Collection

The Jersey Shore has been the place to be these last few weeks. Now that the summer tourist season is upon us, New Jersey is eager to show the world that the shore area is rebounding from the devastation of last year's Hurricane Sandy. Prince Harry of England and President Obama both have strolled the boardwalks of Point Pleasant and Seaside, alongside the state's tour-guide-in-chief Governor Chris Christie.  A week or so before the visits of the Prez and the Prince, JR and I were passing through New Jersey on our way home from Europe.  We decided to take a tour of our own to see how the Jersey Shore was faring. Although there were no reporters following us and no governor to guide us, we did get the royal treatment from my family, who live in New Jersey.

I was in the State last October when Sandy struck on the next-to-the last day of a family visit. My plane back home to Michigan was leaving from the Philadelphia airport, which was little affected by the storm. Although my flight wasn't cancelled, all the fallen trees and wires on the roads in New Jersey made it impossible to get to the airport. The upside was that I got to spend a few extra days with my brother and his family - but without electricity or running water for the rest of my stay. We were not alone. According to Wikipedia, more than 2 million households in New Jersey lost power. Building losses in the State were estimated at $30 billion and 346,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The Jersey shore was particularly hard hit, with many towns completely destroyed and left buried under mountains of sand. Neither of my brothers' houses suffered any significant damage although my older brother and my sister-in-law were evacuated to a shelter from their bayside home.  

Many of the hardest-hit communities in New Jersey are on barrier islands, part of a chain of islands along the East Coast. When I was a kid, just like Governor Christie, I spent a good part of my summers there. The beaches are beautiful and the boardwalks with their rides, games of chance and food stands are a Jersey tradition. 

In their natural state, these islands provide a protective barrier between the mainland and the sea. When they are covered with houses, casinos, amusement parks, paved roads and parking lots, however, they are much less effective. The smartest move would be not to rebuild on these islands or at least to limit development. Instead, the Jersey shore area is abuzz with construction. 

The Point Pleasant boardwalk and concession stands are up and running, including one where we play Skee Ball, my favorite Jersey shore amusement. It all seems pretty normal. Just a mile or two away from the boardwalk, however, the shoreline is still littered with destroyed oceanfront homes. Instead of the the word "sold," one realtor's sign in front of a pancaked luxury dwelling simply said "sorry."  

In Seaside Heights - which provided some of the most dramatic photos of the devastation from Sandy - I talked with three local construction workers who seemed upbeat and optimistic. Like many events that bring hardship to some people, Hurricane Sandy is providing  opportunities for others. "We're rebuilding the shore," one of the workmen told me, "and it's going to be even better than before." According to the New Jersey Tourism website, tourism is a $38 billion industry that provides almost 10 percent of all the jobs in New Jersey. Almost 62 percent of those tourist dollars are spent at the Jersey shore, so it's not surprising that in a press conference right after the storm, Governor Christie said about the shore area: "there's is nothing more important to the future of New Jersey than to rebuild." 

In a Quinnipiac poll taken a month after the hurricane,  almost two-thirds of New Jersey residents agreed that Sandy and other super storms are the result of global climate change. In spite of that, 88 percent of New Jerseyans want the Jersey shore rebuilt, although 70  percent of that number do favor stricter building codes. 

According to the Center for Ocean Solutions, scientific studies "indicate that climate change will affect the intensity, frequency and paths of strong storm and wave events." It goes on to say that  "Increases in catastrophic storms will adversely affect coastal communities..." Stricter building codes may help in the short run and I wish my home state good luck.

The waist-high sand that covered many oceanfront towns has been removed, but it's just possible that too many people still have their heads buried in the sand.

To see more photos, click here.