Standing in the house that used to be her home, Dina Long is fighting to rebuild.
The first floor of her 90-year-old, two-bedroom house has been gutted to the studs. She walks carefully on pieces of plywood spread over the beams in the floor. “This was my kitchen,” Long, 43, said. “I spent most of my time here.”
It’s been six months since Hurricane Sandy hit. Fifty percent of the residents of Sea Bright, N.J., are still displaced, like Long, still lacking the funds to repair their homes.
Long says her insurance company has offered her only 65% of the money she needs to repair her home—a fraction of what she believes she’s entitled to. She’s living in a rental (with some financial assistance from FEMA) with her family while paying the mortgage on her uninhabitable house. She’s had to hire lawyers to help her negotiate with her insurer, and the legal team will get 20% of whatever funds she ultimately gets from the insurance company. There are hundreds of other people in the same position in her small town alone, she said.
“I am dreaming of my new kitchen, while mourning my old one,” she said, quietly.
Long is working to rebuild the town, too. What was once a 10-hour-a-week gig as Sea Bright’s volunteer mayor has become a full-time job, on top of her paying full-time job teaching English at local Brookdale Community College. Since the hurricane, she’s been working about 80 hours a week, applying for disaster relief grants, going from house to house, tracking down Sea Bright residents and business owners to find out what she can do to get them back into their houses and shops and on their feet again.
On October 30th, Long walked across the bridge from mainland Rumson to her small town. Sandy had raged full-force the night before, and Sea Bright, a skinny, three-mile-long peninsula on the Jersey Shore, was ravaged.
Ten-foot storm surges filled the town with four to five feet of water for more than four hours. At the height of the storm, the ocean and Shrewsbury River had connected. Mountains of sand buried the town. One beach club was destroyed completely. A row of beach cabanas were blown into the sea wall; homes and businesses were flooded. A car went through the back of the library. Gas leaks were everywhere. The destruction was catastrophic.
As mayor, Long was one of the first allowed back into town.
“It was like something out of a movie—apocalyptic,” Long recalled in April, sitting in the town’s small gymnasium which now serves as a make-shift town hall and staging ground for rebuilding. “What I saw the day after the storm will stay with me the rest of my life.”
‘STRONGER, TOUGHER’ SEA BRIGHT
Sea Bright, N.J. was a town of 1,400 full-time residents and 1,000 part time residents. Before the storm, the average sale price for a single-family home was $631,889.
Now, property values have fallen 17% and are expected to fall to 25% below pre-Sandy values. There were no fatalities, but the physical damage has debilitated the town: just 700 full-time residents have been able to return. The rest are like Long, in limbo, waiting for insurance money—living with family, friends, or in rentals.
“People ask, ‘Why rebuild?’ We’ve been here for 150 years. It’s our home. Why wouldn’t we?” Long said.
Residents of Sea Bright told msnbc.com that their town takes care of its own.
In the months after the storm, local restaurant Woody’s provided more than 25,000 meals to relief workers, volunteers, and those left homeless. Co-owner Chris Wood, known as “Woody,” mobilized the community, using his Facebook page to solicit food donations (“We need hot dogs and rolls ASAP! Yikes!” one post read) and calls for volunteers.
The response was overwhelming. The New Jersey National Guard came in to assist and provide mobile kitchens, but the volunteer effort was the real engine to the recovery. The organization, dubbed Sea Bright Rising (after what else—Bruce Springsteen’s post 9/11 anthem The Rising), grew into a massive relief organization that’s raised more than a million dollars, dispensing $750,000 directly to families and businesses. They’ve helped 220 families and 11 businesses so far and show no signs of slowing down.
“The story of Sandy is the volunteers,” says Long. “We’ve had over 38,000 volunteer hours in Sea Bright and literally most of the recovery that’s happening now is because of those people.”
Sandy made them stronger, residents said.
“I’ve made so many friends,” longtime Sea Brighter Liz Holmer said incredulously. “And they’re watching me rebuild, and I’m watching them rebuild, and we’re asking each other questions…We have town halls with Dina all the time and we can scream if we want, we can give positive advice if we want to, she doesn’t care—it’s like a venting session.”
A town so resilient, is the kind of place that’s hard to leave, residents say. “We’re all in the same boat,” Holmer said.
“From the second the storm hit – [we resolved that] we’re not going to let this end ups. We’re going to come back; we’re going to be stronger, tougher. We’re going to beat it,” she said. “It sounds strange that all the devastation makes you better, but it does. Because you just learn to appreciate things more, to know what’s important.”
Holmer was one of the lucky ones: her insurance money came through quickly. She got enough to rebuild the half of her home that was destroyed in the storm (the other half, an addition with a 10-foot basement elevating it above sea level, survived virtually unharmed.) Construction is underway and she expects to be home by July.
She and her family thought hard about whether they should return to Sea Bright. Just three weeks after the storm had filled her house with sea water, the rain came. Holmer and her family were still living with her parents out of town. She knew that the windows were open in her upstairs bedrooms and that it was raining in on the few belongings that had remained dry.
“I freaked out and I called Dina and I’m like, ‘I have my windows open! That’s all of our stuff! I don’t know what to do!’ And she said, ‘I just left town, let me call Read, one of our Councilmen,’ and she called Read and Read came over–in the pitch black with a flashlight–and went into my house and closed all my windows,” Holmer remembered.
“Who does that? Just that you know you can trust somebody to come in and save what little bit of what you have,” Holmer recalled, standing outside her home during the construction. “And that’s why we love Sea Bright.”
MOVING AHEAD, STRONGER
Sea Bright is committed to rebuilding sustainably so the next Sandy won’t hurt so much.
“We’re looking to take this town, section by section, and mitigate any future risk,” Long said.
That means, where possible, building well above sea level. Houses that residents can’t afford to build anew are being raised. The latest building standards, implemented in 1996, mandate that houses be built 10 feet above sea level, and many residents are now building even higher than that.
The town wants to strengthen its river bulkheads and repair the damaged sea wall by the ocean to prevent flooding. City planners and environmental experts are also trying to determine where it just doesn’t make sense to rebuild—“the planners call that a managed retreat, where you retreat from the environmentally sensitive areas in a managed way,” says Long.
But the bills are mounting. Sea Bright has already spent $5 million on the clean-up—the same amount as its annual budget. With property values down significantly, tax revenues are also down. New Jersey law prohibits tax hikes larger than 2% in a year, but Long said the town is going to struggle for the next three years to repair itself and to pay its bills. They’ve applied for a FEMA loan, but they’re eligible for only $1.25 million—far less than they need and far less than they’ve already spent. FEMA sets a loan cap for each storm; for Sandy, towns can only apply for a quarter of their annual budget.
In the days after the hurricane, Long couldn’t sleep. She spent her evenings reading up on previous disasters: how towns responded, what worked, and what didn’t. She has come to admire the sustainability of Miami-Dade County.
After Hurricane Andrew, Miami-Dade County implemented tough building codes. “Now when the hurricane comes through, they close their shutters and wait for the electric to come back on,” Long said. “I would like Sea Bright to be a community like that.”
But she wants to make sure that the town stays affordable through that process, so that Sea Bright’s character isn’t changed.
Three days after the storm, on November 1st 2012, Long held a meeting with her town. “I had to tell the residents that they couldn’t go home, I didn’t know when they could go home, and I didn’t know the extent of the damage to their homes,” she remembered. “That was probably the worst day of my life.”
Right before the meeting, she found a sign fragment from a famous local watering hole–Donovan’s Reef. The fragment was just the first two letters—Do. “It was like a message from heaven for me,” Long remembered.
In a documentary of the town’s struggle, produced by MTV’s Sean Moran, you can see Long presenting that message to her town six months ago.
“It’s a piece of Donovan’s, but it says ‘do.’ Because do is what we’re gonna do, and we’re gonna rebuild our town, sustainably, for the future, a better Sea Bright than you saw before and not a different Sea Bright. Sea Bright is not gone. Sea Bright is its people, Sea Bright is you! We’re Sea Bright! I mean, the beach helps, but as long as we’re here, as long as we support each other, as long as we work together. We will get through this. We will DO!”