Post-Sandy forum stirs memories: Grab the cat and the diamonds

    On Monday night, I attended the latest in WHYY’s ongoing series of forums on New Jersey’s post-Sandy recovery and what can be done to better prepare for future major storms. A good crowd that gathered at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, diverse in many ways and rich with experience, eager to chew over the issues facing vulnerable coastal communities.

    Today, I can’t stop thinking about Nancy Steel, a diminutive and elegant 94-year-old lady who has lived in the same beach-block house in Ventnor since her father bought the property in 1923. To say she’s seen it all and lived to tell the tale hardly does her justice — many decades ago, she was even an entertainment writer for the Press of Atlantic City. So I liked her just on principle.

    Nancy Steel now lives with her daughter and caretaker, Cathy, and said they both took for granted during Sandy that their house — built up high on blocks, and on what’s considered a high piece of ground in Ventnor — would be safe during the storm.

    “Then I looked out the window and saw the water coming up as far as I’d ever seen it,” Cathy Steel said. “I said to Mom, ‘Grab the cat and the diamonds, we’re out of here.’ “

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    I do appreciate a woman with her priorities in the right place.

    The talk I had with the Steels is indicative of what we’re hearing at the Ready For Next Time? forums: People can see that serious, destructive storms are coming more frequently and with more force. But it’s unclear what anyone can, or is willing to, do about it.

    Originally, Nancy Steel said, her house was on the beachfront, but a 1950s building boom put a whole street of newer houses between hers and the ocean. That kind of development, and overdevelopment, has worsened the effects of coastal storms for all residents, participants said.

    “There’s definitely more publicity about storms now. I don’t ever remember feeling scared about it, but I do now,” said Mrs. Steel.

    Of particular concern among this week’s forum participants was rebuilding, and the additional regulations that go along with it. Several older residents wondered what happens to the elderly, handicapped, or others with limited mobility when their houses must be raised. It’s one thing to rebuild, they said, but another thing to be unable to physically get into your home.

    The forums are funded by the New Jersey Recovery Fund, and the project has partnered with other Recovery Fund grantees such as Sustainable New Jersey, Creative New Jersey, The Citizens Campaign and New Jersey Future. All of these organizations want to better understand how shore residents would prefer the area rebuilt.

    Two more gatherings are scheduled to take place in Ocean County on Aug. 27. All are free, open to the public, and you can RSVP here.

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