St. Patrick’s Day Parade kicks off season of hope in Seaside Heights

With bright blue skies overhead, and a sea of green-clad revelers lining the Boulevard, Seaside Heights hosted the 29th annual Ocean County St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday, marking a hopeful turning point for a town still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.

The parade was the first major event held here since Sandy mangled the boardwalk and flooded the borough last October. While the crowd—estimated by borough officials at 50,000—was significantly smaller than in recent years, the people who did come showed their support with gusto, sporting green hats, t-shirts, sunglasses and wigs.

Melissa Pelkowski and her family from Howell attended the parade for the first time this year. “We wanted to come help support the restore the shore effort and just to support the town of Seaside Heights,” she said. “My family and friends come to the boardwalk and water park every summer. The devastation was absolutely heartbreaking. We felt an overwhelming sense of loss.”

Featured in the parade were the traditional bagpipers, school marching bands and antique cars. Fire trucks and first aid squad cars rolled by with horns blaring, to the delight of two-year-old Cooper Guerriero of Toms River. His mother, Colleen, who comes to the parade every year with her family, said she was impressed by the town’s cleanup after the storm. “I think it’s amazing what they’ve done in just a few short months, and through the winter months,” she said. “I think it’s incredible.”

While the borough’s streets are nearly clear of debris, reminders of the storm linger: a house with a blue tarp tacked to the roof, a yard full of floorboards ripped out of a flooded home. Even some floats appearing for the first time in the parade, like Home Depot’s, were signs of the post-Sandy world. On Friday the home improvement chain opened a satellite store in the borough, to make it easier for homeowners and contractors to get supplies. And minor flooding from last week’s nor’easter caused traffic jams as tens of thousands of parade spectators and marchers poured into town. During the past few months, even relatively small storms sometimes cause flooding, keeping shore residents on edge every time it rains.

But for the parade crowd, Saturday was about putting storm stress aside, and just having fun. Outside Hemingway’s Café, a line of people waited to get in to enjoy corned beef sandwiches and green beer. To Faye Haring who is a member of the parade committee, that’s a hopeful sign for a town that kicks off the tourist season early every year with this parade.

“It’s a great day to bring people down to town, and to let them see that Seaside Heights and Seaside Park are still here and still open to visitors,” she said. “Hopefully people will come back for Easter, and they’ll be back once the boardwalk is back together, and Casino Pier is back together and all the things on the boardwalk are open.”One block east of the parade route, hundreds of piles have been driven 20 feet into the sand, to create a sturdier foundation for the borough’s new boardwalk. Town officials say the walkway will be ready by May 10, two months away. Couple that with perfect weather—traditionally the true key to big summer crowds here—and some of Seaside’s faithful have promised they will return.

“If we get knocked down we’re getting back up,” said Casey Coyne, a 27-year-old laborer with Irish roots, who helped clear the barrier island’s debris-ridden streets after the storm. “No matter what comes, we can rebuild, we can replenish, we can make everything better. All you need is a sunny day and some cold beer,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good time.”

____________________________________________________

Sandy Levine is a freelance writer and television producer who was born and raised at the Jersey Shore.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.