Four years ago today, my biggest worry was if I was an idiot for doing the one thing I swore I’d never go back to doing: teaching film. By the time night fell, Hurricane Sandy was already beginning her inexorable march into history. Four years later, things are different. The fear that I would regret leaving my network job for taking a job in a field I already swore off once (in a position that wasn’t even guaranteed) has long since ebbed. But if the winds howl or the rain pours hard enough, I find myself just as nervous as I was that day.
**Special note: All of the pictures below were taken by me. Some were by cell phone, some on my DSLR. But these represent my way of coping with and understanding the scope of a tragic time. If you re-use them, please credit me appropriately (Scott Nap). Thanks.
Let me say this outright: my PTSD is not the same thing as the soldier who returns from battle. That has to be a whole different kind of hell. But if you want to see a man’s skyrocket in a few seconds, just turn on a TV show with heart monitors beeping in the background and I will be your entertainment for the evening. But open-heart surgery wasn’t my first dance with this insidious ailment. Nope. That heartless wench Sandy took that part of my sanity four years ago.
I’m a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore. After the economic depression (and subsequent mental depression), I was forced to move back in with my parents for a couple of years. After spending my middle, high school and college years in the sleepy town of Island Heights, my parents decided to move across the bay to South Seaside Park. My mom grew up near the ocean and my dad has always wanted to be close to the water. So it was that I ended up approximately a half mile from where Sandy made landfall. I admit, I thought it was a joke to treat the oncoming storm like it was The End Times. The Worst Storm Since The Days of The Kennedy Administration proved me ever so slightly wrong.
See, we got burned at The Shore. Hurricane Irene was hyped to the point that it was easy to imagine Irene taking her cues from Satan himself. We’re talking dogs-and-cats-living together-mass-hysteria levels of Repent, Sinner talk. People packed up their cars, huddled in bunkers and hoped they’d have a home to wake up to the next day. Instead of Ragnarok, in Seaside we got heavy winds, a few downed tree and some flooding.
Then again, if Mother Nature sneezes near Seaside, the bay floods…so not a big shocker that the roads would be swamped. We’re used to it.
Fast forward a year. I went to lunch at a local restaurant, fully expecting the Sandy forecast to result in the same over-exaggeration of doom and underwhelming results.
Everyone knows the image that sums up Sandy- the roller coaster in the Atlantic. It’s iconic. It also is a perfect representation of how skewed the story is often told. Seaside Heights and Seaside Park are more than just the boardwalk. You know when the story really WAS just the boardwalk?
Contrary to what some new outlets reported, Seaside has year-round residents. And many were displaced due to Sandy for months before being allowed to see how badly damaged their homes were…or if they were even there. In the case of my family, no news outlet ever showed South Seaside Park. In fact, aerial footage from news choppers centered almost exclusively on the boardwalk area until eventually drifting north up the island to see the fire that destroyed a block’s worth of homes and the breach of the ocean to the bay near the Mantoloking Bridge. If you weren’t in those areas, news was scarce. It took one intrepid resident in our apartment complex to call in a favor from someone in high places to get us imagery from either a drone or a satellite or one of the scouting planes that was surveying the damage.
For the first three days we were without power. It may have been more- I honestly have a hard time remembering. Food went bad quickly. Since most of us didn’t pack for a long-term departure, we were stuck re-using the same clothes for a while. Families took shelter wherever possible. My mom and I went to my grandparents’ home in Lakewood while my dad went to his mother’s home just so we would have a little space and so we could take care of them if needed. Somehow this resulted in having a drink after making it through the second night of the storm with whatever we had on hand…which was two warm bottles of Sam Adams, which we split among the four of us.
The first night after Sandy hit land was the worst. All of the trees were creaking and moaning as the wind ripped through them. We made it through without damage at their house, but others weren’t as lucky. Those winds though…they still haunt me. I can hear them whenever a storm blows into town. If there’s heavy rainfall, I seize up a little inside because I can still hear the rain slamming, not even slapping, into the pavement.
After the power came back on, we watched the news in horror as the images kept flooding in. I eventually volunteered to scout the surrounding area to check the damage. Traffic lights were out. Power lines were bent like tooth picks. And the grocery stores, which are emptied when an inch of snow is rumored to be on the way, were particularly barren. Gas station prices were up and the lines to fill up for car travel or generators were at least 20 cars long in most places I drove past. I used this time to charge my iPhone, but it was hard not to see the homes caved in from trees, the debris strewn everywhere…and this was the MAINLAND. We were 20 minutes from the ocean at this point!
Returning to work weeks later was surreal. Some of my students experienced very little turbulence. One even claimed to have used his generator to play games on his XBox. I went through the motions, but when you only have access to three changes of clothes, it’s pretty apparent your life has changed. My co-workers chipped in to give the few of us who were displaced by Sandy a check each to buy clothes and supplies. Several of my students went out to get me shirts or socks. One brought in a winter coat and I nearly broke down in front of my upper-classmen. It was a lot to take in. But nothing prepared me for the return to Seaside months later.
I have so much respect for the first responders, the police, the firemen, the rescue team members who prevented a catastrophe through discipline and heart. Many of our interior streets were in decent shape compared to the nightmares we were undoubtedly cooking up. But once we snuck on the beach despite the insistence of the local authorities, it became apparent what had happened.
At the time, Chris Christie, our infamous governor, seemed to be making the right moves. He barked at people to get the hell off the beach rather than stay and risk death. He worked with President Obama to get funds in place immediately to help care for families, for repairs, for rehabilitation to an area that is crucial to the livelihood of countless families in New Jersey. Jersey Strong became our rallying cry, even if we wanted to weep when we saw the devastation that was reported from Cape May to Bayonne.
But the tides retreated.
We rebuilt. We healed…or tried our best to start the process.
I drive through old neighborhoods where I distinctly remember homes being and instead find empty lots. There is still no new roller coaster where the old one went tumbling to meet Poseidon. Rumors spring up every few months about the possibility of (ugh) putting up condos or townhouses in the area where the Boardwalk is no longer in existence. The bars and arcades have re-opened but locals know it isn’t the same. We try to stay strong, we try to visit even after we’ve moved away like I have. We remain Jersey Strong.
But when those winds pick up, if the rain pours too hard…sometimes even the sound of a strong shower head turning on…and the emotion come back. That deep-seated unease and fear that the world was going to change.
I guess it did anyway.
Until next time,