As Shore towns continue to rebuild beyond the boardwalk, residents urge: ‘It’s still a disaster’

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As the Jersey Shore continues its recovery, more than a year after Sandy, much of the attention is on popular tourist destinations like Seaside Heights. But there are also many less well-known coastal towns where residents continue to struggle.

Since before she was born, Lois Santaguida’s family has owned a summer home in the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor. It used to be a beautiful house, she says, but Sandy flooded most of the neighborhood, causing massive damage from which she has yet to recover.

“As soon as the storm happened, like the first couple months after that, I figured, ok — well I have a nice insurance policy. I’ll get the most out of that, and I’ll have a brand new house. But that didn’t happen,” Santaguida said. “So now it’s just trying to figure out where to get the rest. It’s depressing. I’m sad every day. Every day I think of this house. To me it’s more of a family heirloom, so I feel like a piece of me is gone.”

As a quiet, residential neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, Mystic Island was the perfect place for her to come to escape the bustle of city life in Philadelphia, where she lives during the week. Though it’s on the water, there’s no beach, and Santaguida says it lacks the star power of more well-known locations.

“I feel like the main focus was ‘Get people to the boardwalk,'” Santaguida said. “Well, if you’re not helping people who live in the surrounding areas, they’re the people who are generating those businesses on the boardwalk. It’s the residents in the communities. That’s why these areas and the boardwalk’s struggling — ’cause people like me who don’t have anywhere to sleep, don’t have anywhere to go, how are we gonna go spend money on the boardwalk?”

Hell and high water

The situation’s even worse a bit further up the coast in Brick Township. Camp Osborn was a neighborhood of 1920s-era bungalows that experienced severe flooding and a fire during Sandy, with close to a hundred homes burning to the ground. Over a year later, little progress has been made.

Betty Ann Fuller was a fulltime resident who lost everything. “It’s just gone! Everything’s gone,” she said. “It’s just a vast barrenness of nothing.”

Because her home was destroyed by fire and not flood, she’s actually one of the rare Sandy survivors who got a pretty good settlement from her insurance company. But while her heart is in Camp Osborn, she’s still deciding whether she wants to come back. Meanwhile, for many of her neighbors, moving forward could be financially difficult. She says people are getting frustrated and impatient.

“We’re all sticking together now trying to get rebuilt,” said Fuller “It’s been 14 months now. It’s time to move a little bit faster on what we can or cannot do.”

Don’t forget North Jersey

And further north, across the Raritan Bay from Staten Island, there’s been plenty of focus on the devastation in communities like Keansburg and Union Beach. But just next door, residents in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown worry their neighborhood has largely been forgotten because of its small size and the fact that many people simply don’t know where it is on a map.

Driving up and down the streets near where she lives, Erin Bernstein says it’s been sad to see how much her neighborhood has changed. 

“So this house they just lifted,” she said. “There’s a house there they knocked down. No one’s been back to that house. That one has a for-sale sign, like a handwritten ‘for sale by owner.’ It’s all boarded up.”

Water from the nearby marsh flooded her own home up to its doorknobs. Now she shows me it’s fully repaired and she’s moved back in, but she’s one of the lucky ones.

“Everyone thinks that everything’s back to normal,” said Bernstein. “People that don’t live in New Jersey or even people that don’t live near the shore or haven’t taken a ride down, they think everything’s fine now. People don’t know that it’s still a disaster. Just drive two blocks away from the boardwalk or even two blocks just from any water where there was flooding and you’ll see. You know, people still don’t have homes.”

No one expected miracles, but as the recovery drags on, frustrations continue to mount. Many Sandy survivors are worried that the more time passes, the more their plight will become out of sight and out of mind.

Scott Gurian reports for our post-Sandy rebuilding collaboration with WNYC and NJSpotlight.com.

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