House Abandoned: Still 'Jersey Strong'

Sharon SudolView of the lake from the author's sister's Jersey Shore home, the pink one on the left
By Sharon Sudol

I have a photo from the 1920s of my great-grandmother looking out of the house that my grandfather built in Manasquan, N.J. It has been one year since Sandy struck and the house is still vacant. I check on it every time I drive by. Recently a dumpster appeared in the driveway. Their work has just begun.

I remember that night. I glued myself to the Weather Channel and frantically called my sister to beg her to grab her three dogs and get out of her house in Belmar, N.J. Her house was located just three blocks off the ocean and two houses away from a freshwater lake. "You are so dramatic," she said, "The town drained the lake, so I will be just fine."

The elements were there for a perfect storm, though - full moon, high tide, landfall to the South. My partner, John, and I hunkered down with our cat and dog in our Manasquan Cape less than two miles from the ocean. I called family as the storm neared. My aunt and uncle went from their beachfront home to my cousin's inland house. My parents left their beachfront bungalow to stay with my brother. My sister said she would go to a friend's house, if necessary. We turned on the gas fireplace and waited it out. The house is solid. We barely heard a sound. Then the power went out and with it the phones.

Heat, hot water and flickering light
Thank God we had turned on the fireplace. We were isolated, but we had heat. We had hot water. We had flickering light. We slept, if you can call it that, in the living room out of the line of fire of a giant 100-year-old pine tree. Two were lost on the block the winter before. We got nervous every time we heard the occasional thud. Our neighbors pounded on the door to tell us the giant tree looked like it was going to give way, but we didn't hear them.

In the morning the light came and with it came reality, or I should say sur-reality. The massive tree held its ground, but a smaller tree had scraped the roofline throughout the night and bared its jagged teeth in a Halloween grin. Without power we had no news, so we got in the car to check on my sister. Straight ahead, flooded roadway. Left turn, sparking wire. Right turn, downed tree. Straight again, bridge out. Cajole a guard to get past the road block. We continued to pass the impassible for three miles.

Water and dead fish
When we arrived near her home there was water everywhere. Water and dead fish. The salty sea poured into the freshwater lake killing off scores of fish. We parked a block away and picked our way through the debris and around what I thought was a neighbor's porch that was strewn on her front walkway. Just then a policeman came by. "That's the Spring Lake boardwalk," he corrected. From the adjacent town?

An upstairs window flew open and my sister's head popped out. "Hi Shar," she said as if nothing had happened. As the water receded, the policeman got a fellow officer and, officers standing knee-deep, we created an assembly line to pass her salvaged belongings and her three frightened dogs out of an accessible window and into our arms. The officers created a trash island for my sister to climb on. We all made our way back to the car and wordlessly navigated our way back home through the maze.

Never going back
My sister has lived with us ever since until she recently exchanged beach house ownership for a studio apartment rental. She has decided not to rebuild. Insurance and FEMA did not dent the cost necessary to rebuild. She is one of many with a similar story. She says "she would never want to go back there again" anyway. She looks and acts and insists that she's okay, but she avoids the town she used to love.

Like many of us living here along the Jersey Shore, she has learned to detach. We survived and that is enough. It's what makes us Jersey Strong.

Sharon Sudol is a radio personality, lifestyle and travel blogger. Follow her @TheCarLife

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