When Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast in October, I paid close attention.
The superstorm made landfall just south of Long Beach Island, N.J., a place I call home for one week every year. For more than four decades, the barrier island north of Atlantic City — LBI to the regulars — has played host to summer vacations that are more like reunions of my extended family.
The earliest pictures and videos from the storm-ravaged island were alarming. I saw boats tumbled together, cottages in shambles and sand in the street that reached the tops of car tires. I followed news of the herculean recovery efforts, but when I headed back to the Jersey Shore a couple of weeks ago, I still wasn’t sure what I would find.
Happily the island’s character remained largely intact. Barnegat Lighthouse still stood tall. The Holiday Snack Bar still served hamburgers and lemon meringue pie. Dune reclamation work made the uphill walk to the beach steeper, but the sand that stretched beyond was as beautiful as ever.
The recovery efforts were heartening. The community had banded together with admirable resolve to cart away the debris, sweep the streets clean and spruce up the island in time for the arrival of us vacationers. T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers bore messages of motivation and hope.
Still, the island had a way to go.
The worst of the damage had been removed, leaving missing pieces that were eerily unsettling. I’d pass an empty storefront and rack my brain to remember what business used to occupy it. I’d see pilings sticking out of the sand and realize they once supported a house.
The gaps reminded me of a first-grader’s smile, minus the charm.
The south end of the island — its narrowest part — was hit hard by the storm surge that flooded streets, inundated buildings and pushed some houses off their foundations. Probably half the cottages there were unoccupied when I visited, most of them in the midst of repairs. The scream of power saws and the staccato pop of nail guns rang out on just about every street.
The scene was weird. You’d see a house that appeared to be fine, but a trash bin in its white gravel yard would be crammed with flooring, windows and other flood-damage debris. Roses and hydrangeas thrived in the pristine front-yard gardens of two side-by-side beachfront houses, when just down the street a salt marsh was choked with sand. Rows of houses were interspersed with empty lots, as if buildings had been plucked out arbitrarily by some giant, unseen hand.
In more than 40 years on LBI, I’d never seen anything like it.
It would be an exaggeration to say I felt heartsick. After all, these were mainly vacation homes, not primary sources of shelter. I felt sorry for the owners and the stress the storm’s aftermath must have caused them, but I knew that most had adequate insurance and rode out the storm safely somewhere far from the island. Although more than 100 people died in Sandy’s wrath, LBI was spared.
Homes and streets and sand dunes can be replaced. Lives can’t.
And it isn’t as though the island hasn’t seen change. Over the years I’ve watched as the modest Cape Cods that once dominated LBI have been replaced steadily by faux Victorians and supersized contemporaries. Construction there is a constant.
But Sandy’s transformation was different. It happened literally overnight.
Exploring the post-hurricane island left me wistful, aware of the impermanence of even the things that seem most enduring in our lives. We often think of our homes as durable, but they’re just configurations of wood or brick or stone. In a flash of fire or a gust of wind, they can be gone.
I tried to be philosophical about that, but really, what message can you take from it? Appreciate today, I guess. Value people and experiences over possessions. Understand that houses are, ultimately, just things.
And know that recovery is possible.