For Elize Volante, Union Beach has always been home.
The small Monmouth County community on Raritan Bay is where, at age 13, she fell for Peter Volante, the boy who would become her husband. In 2003, she and Volante moved into her childhood home on Henry Street, a few blocks from the bay, to raise a family of their own.
Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered New Jersey, swamping the house in 6 feet of water. They tried to save it, but ultimately, the home Elize treasured had to be razed.
“By the time we gutted the whole house, everything was already moldy,” says the mother of three. “We decided to make it a clean slate for whoever wants to buy the property. It’s still for sale.”
It’s been three years since Sandy crashed into the Jersey Shore. Its northeast winds and a high tide combined to send walls of water into the bays and creeks. The water surged over dunes, berms and sea walls. Sandy left behind more than $30 billion in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure, and an estimated $20 billion in lost business. The wind and water punched through walls, knocked down trees, buckled streets and dumped Seaside Heights’ Jet Star roller coaster into the sea.
Today, seasonal visitors see a Shore that superficially appears normal. But look closer and Sandy’s scars remain evident. From the Raritan Bay down the coastline to the southern tip of Long Beach Island, the devastation and displacement can be observed in the empty lots, unoccupied homes and reshaped beaches. A glut of for-sale signs punctuates the scene.
In communities where renovation has occurred, single-story ranches, Cape Cods and bungalows that once sat at ground level now perch atop cinderblocks or pilings to survive future floods. New homes on stilts tower above the more modest originals.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been busy the past two winters rebuilding and fortifying New Jersey’s beaches and dunes; the corps plans to build even more fortifications against the next big storm.
The federal government allocated $3.3 billion in disaster recovery to New Jersey, with $1.1 billion earmarked for the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program. The state is administering the federal RREM funds, which are meant to fill the gap between flood-insurance payouts and the actual cost of rebuilding. But the program has frustrated homeowners with delays and red tape. While 8,501 homes are eligible for RREM grants of up to $150,000, only 1,431 grants were paid out as of early August, according to state figures.
Separately, the National Flood Insurance Program—a federal plan administered by private insurers—paid out $8.1 billion in claims between New York and New Jersey, with an average payment of just $61,000. The gap between what the flood program paid and the actual costs to homeowners is so wide that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the flood-insurance program, agreed under pressure from Congress to reopen more than 140,000 Sandy-related claims amid charges of negligence and fraud on the part of insurance adjusters working on behalf of the federal government.
Private insurers, who do not cover flood damage, paid more than $4 billion in claims related to wind and other storm hazards, according to news and public-policy website NJ Spotlight. In many cases, determining the cause of the damage—wind, flooding, fallen trees—became a bone of contention between homeowners and adjusters.
Those caught in Sandy’s crosshairs had scant choices. They could rebuild—but if they had a mortgage they would need federal flood insurance, which requires adherence with government’s new floodplain guidelines. Or they could walk away.
Volante, 35, and her husband, Peter, 36, chose to walk away.
Living next to the Chingarora Creek, Elize was accustomed to floods. She and her family have replaced at least six cars because the creek sometimes spills its banks at high tide with little warning. Until Sandy, the biggest storm of her life was the 1992 Nor’easter. She used that coastal tempest as her guide to prepare her home as Sandy approached. Elize, her mother and her brother-in-law raised her possessions just two feet off the floor.
“I was thinking the worst we could get was a foot or so,” she recalls. “It wasn’t nearly close.”
The Volantes’ lost everything except some clothes stored in plastic bins that floated in the water, odds and ends on high shelves, and TVs placed on top of the children’s bunk bed, which was found floating in the swamped house.
The contents of the Volantes’ home was insured for about $65,000. They received about $11,000 from their private insurer. “It was a fraction of what we thought we would get,” says Volante. Elize’s parents, who still owned the home, collected $90,000 in federal flood insurance, but that was insufficient to rebuild.
Luckily, the Volantes could afford to purchase a new home. After staying through the winter with Elize’s parents in Jackson Township, they moved a few towns down the bay to the Belford section of Middletown in an area 1½ miles inland that locals call “the dry side” of Route 36.
“Belford is still in a flood zone,” she laments. “But I wanted to stay away from the water for a while.”
Many Union Beach families did what the Volantes have done. According to the 2010 census, 6,245 people called the 1.9-square-mile borough home. By 2014, estimates pegged the population at about 5,700. That represents an 8.7 percent loss. (Not all of the attrition can be attributed directly to Sandy, notes Bob Howard, the borough administrator.)
Farther south, in Ortley Beach, Noreen Delaney and her extended family are walking away. She and her brother inherited a small Surf Road ranch a block from the beach. Her parents bought the home as newlyweds in the 1960s. In recent years, the two siblings shared the place and spent summers there with their children.
“It was truly a way of life for us,” says Delaney. “Sadly, both of my parents have passed on, but they left behind a legacy for their grandkids who have taken to summers at the Shore like second nature. Now, it all may end.”
Like so many other homeowners, after the storm, they gutted the home to minimize the damage from mold. All that is left inside is a skeleton of 2-by-4 framework and plywood subflooring. Outside, white paint peels from the molding on the front bay window. Small holes poke through the gray siding.
Delaney and her brother own the home, so they were not required by a mortgage company to carry flood insurance. And as summer residents, they were not eligible for state-administered grants or other assistance programs. Their choices are to repair, rebuild from scratch or sell.
“Who has a few hundred thousand dollars to rebuild under the new strict guidelines, with no assistance because we aren’t considered full-time residents even though we certainly pay full-time taxes and fees?” she asks. “The thought of losing the place we love, and that has bound our family together through memories and good times, is like losing a loved one, but ultimately we may have to say goodbye to our beloved Ortley.”
These days, the neighborhood around Henry Street in Union Beach is a patchwork of vacant lots and rescued houses lifted above grade. Union Beach was one of the hardest-hit towns in Monmouth County. More than 1,000 of the borough’s 2,200-plus housing units were substantially damaged—meaning estimated repairs equaled 50 percent or more of the home’s value. A little more than a third of the damaged homes have been repaired, says Bob Burlew, the borough construction official.
Under orders from the state Department of Community Affairs, Union Beach residents have demolished 299 homes deemed uninhabitable; as of August, another 112 were targeted for demolition, Burlew says. So far, 202 homes have been lifted. The rest of the homes are slowly winding their way through a permitting process in the borough’s construction office. Since the storm, the office has swelled from one part-time inspector to four full-time and eight part-time employees.
“The face of Union Beach has been changed forever,” laments councilman Charles Cocuzza.
Ortley Beach, too, underwent a facelift. The area’s signature vacation cottages always stood cheek by jowl, but a simple fence could assure privacy. Now the elevated houses rise above the fences, and neighbors can stare from their high perches into each other’s bedrooms and outdoor showers.
Statistics are hard to come by for Ortley Beach, an unincorporated area within the township of Toms River. Throughout Toms River, permits for $326.5 million in construction have been issued in Sandy-affected areas. The permits include 1,465 for new homes and 711 to raise homes. The state wants another 44 homes it deems unsafe demolished.
Township tax records indicate that 440 Ortley Beach homes (out of 2,500 total homes) remain vacant, and 506 lots where homes once stood are empty; many are just a block from the beach.
According to a document obtained from township officials, the situation would have been much worse if not for the state grant program that pumped $137 million into Toms River to raise homes above flood level. The document acknowledges issues with the quality of the work performed by private contractors and delays from the state. Still, Trevor Newman, the township’s Sandy coordinator, credits the grant program with providing funds to residents “who, without it, would no doubt have abandoned their properties.”
Eugene Cassidy, 71, who has owned a home in Ortley Beach for 40 years, is ineligible for those grants because he is not a year-round resident. He lives in Edison and spends his summers in Ortley with his wife, Alyce.
“If I was 20 years younger, I would spend the money to raise the house,” he says. Raising the house would run an estimated $50,000—twice what he paid for it. But Cassidy might have no choice. He claims he received a letter from Toms River officials stating that they could withhold construction permits if he did not elevate the home.
Elize Volante drives through Union Beach now and then to see what progress has been made.
“Everyone has garages now, and some people have balconies,” she says of her former neighbors who have restored or rebuilt. “A lot of the local businesses don’t look like they’ve come back.”
Volante’s children, ages 5 to 9, still ask when they can go home again. Although it breaks her heart, she has to tell them they won’t be returning to Union Beach.
Matthew McGrath is a freelance writer and editor and publisher of the Keyport Anchor, a website serving the Bayshore area.Click here to leave a comment