After Hurricane Sandy struck a year ago, “recovery,” “resilience” and “standing up to the storm” became frequently heard phrases. Standing before the ruins of beach houses and boardwalks, Governor Chris Christie spoke about rebuilding and restoring the shore, while emphasizing that he’d be sure that New Jersey residents affected by Sandy would get their full share of federal disaster relief dollars.
By May, a smiling Christie was cutting ribbons to celebrate the opening of a new boardwalk in Belmar, one of countless towns that suffered heavy damage in the worst natural disaster in New Jersey’s history.
Belmar is known, for better or for worse, to many people outside New Jersey because of a certain reality tv show. It is located on New Jersey’s densely populated Atlantic shore and a popular tourist venue in the summer. The rush to “restore the shore” was, as all acknowledge, in no small part because a large chunk of New Jersey’s economy is dependent on its beaches, boardwalk attractions and summer rentals.
“Lauded for their stoutness, touted by politicians for their fortitude and inundated with gifts and money by a sympathetic public and a responsive state government,” Jerseyans on the Atlantic shore have been keen to show that they are “stronger than the storm,” Amy Ellis Nutt writes on NJ.com. But recovery from Sandy has happened at a far slower pace on New Jersey’s western shore in the Delaware Bay.
The thousands of homes on the Atlantic shore that were damaged were, in many cases, people’s second homes. Those living on the Delaware Bay in towns like Fortescue, Bayside and Greenwich are full-time shore residents and are still living daily with the aftermath of the hurricane. In the months after Sandy struck, “neither the governor nor the lieutenant governor has been seen” on the 93.5 miles of the Delaware Bayshore.
There are more than a few reasons that it’s premature to say the shore has been restored.
1. More than 107,000 people lost their jobs in New Jersey due to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, according to a recently published study by the Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration.
2. Low income households were disproportionately affected by the storm. There are about 1.1 million households that fall below the poverty line or are considered ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households (they are above the federal poverty line but do not meet cost-of-living standards). The Rutgers report found that half of these households suffered physical damage, lost wages or loss of employment.
3. Even though low-income households incurred more than half of all residential damage, they received less than 30 percent of the recovery assistance, whether from the state or FEMA. Stephanie Hoopes-Halpin, the author of the Rutgers study, found that only 11 percent of poor and ALICE households even applied for individual assistance — a suggestion that the application process was overly complicated or that there was simply a lack of information.
4. Residents of New Jersey’s western shore who have long made their living harvesting sea grass and crabbing — some are from families that have lived in the area for centuries — have seen their incomes drastically cut and their livelihood threatened. Berms, dikes and other protective structures to keep out the sea were destroyed by Sandy and have yet to be rebuilt. Residents have had to install pumps to get the water that flows daily into their basements out.
5. The western shore is in Cumberland County, the second poorest in New Jersey. While it was named a federal disaster area, it was not considered one of the nine counties eligible to receive the bulk of $1.8 billion in federal aid.
6. By the state’s own estimates, $28.3 billion is still needed for a full recovery from Sandy. Billions in promised federal assistance has, though, yet to be received.
7. Only a third of the debris dredged up by the mega-powerful storm and deposited in Delaware Bay has been removed (in contrast, 90 percent of the water off the central part of the Atlantic coast has been inspected for debris and 100 percent of the debris removed). Consequently, “one of New Jersey’s prime fishing grounds, in one of the shallowest bays in the United States, [is] suddenly one of the most dangerous to navigate,” writes Nutt.
The delayed removal of all that debris means the waters are treacherous. In March, a 23-year-old fisherman, Josh Catlett, drowned when his boat capsized, most likely after snagging onto something at the bottom of the bay. Catlett is considered the last victim of Hurricane Sandy.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons