'Complete, utter shock' at the Shore

Shore residents wait in Lavallette for buses to transport them to the mainland after visiting their damaged homes on Long Beach Island. Gov. Christie said most LBI residents could return to their homes Saturday and stay in them if they were habitable.
Shore residents wait in Lavallette for buses to transport them to the mainland after visiting their damaged homes on Long Beach Island. Gov. Christie said most LBI residents could return to their homes Saturday and stay in them if they were habitable. (THOMAS P. COSTELLO / Asbury Park Press)
Posted: November 11, 2012

TOMS RIVER, N.J. - Kathy O'Brien walked into her barrier island home Friday morning and burst into tears. Hurricane Sandy had inundated it with floodwaters that wrecked almost everything she owned.

"That was my home. That was where I live. Or, where I lived," she said. "It's gone now. It's very emotional."

O'Brien, a resident of the Ocean Beach section of Toms River, was among hundreds of residents of some of the Jersey Shore communities hardest-hit by Sandy who were allowed into their storm-wrecked houses for the first time since last week.

At an afternoon news briefing in Seaside Heights, Gov. Christie called the storm "our Katrina" and promised that life would soon be back to normal for most New Jerseyans. Power would be restored to nearly everyone by Saturday night, he said, and a decision to end gas rationing in North Jersey would likely come early next week.

"Then we move into the next phase," said the governor, who reported that about 4,500 people remained in shelters.

He said the state still could not put an estimate on the cost of the damage caused by Sandy. Rebuilding will include restoration of the state's most iconic attractions, Christie vowed, but it could take years.

"I know we will get there because we are tough folks," he said in the shadow of the partly demolished Seaside Heights boardwalk, which he walked for the first time since Sandy hit. "We don't mess around."

The governor - who said he had spent a difficult day visiting the battered area from Sea Bright to Seaside Heights, where he spent his youth and has brought his children - also announced that residents of Long Beach Island would be able to return to their homes Saturday and stay in them if they were habitable. The exception are those who live in heavily damaged Holgate.

Residents of the island's Long Beach Township - and those in Toms River, Seaside Heights, and Berkeley Township, also in Ocean County - were among those allowed to visit their homes Friday on so-called "controlled returns" in which they were briefly escorted to their homes by police.

They had but a single hour to grab what they could, do whatever they needed to stabilize houses still salvageable, and get back on the yellow school buses that had taken them there.

"We made a list," said Justine Fricchione in Toms River. "As soon as we get in the door, we're all splitting up and grabbing as many things as we can from the list. It's daunting, but it forces you to really focus."

Topping their list and those of many other evacuees: warm winter clothing. Temperatures were in or near the 60s before the storm hit. Friday morning, it was in the 30s, and many evacuees waiting for buses to escort them to their homes were wearing thin jackets or layers of light clothing.

Steve Dabern was among those who grabbed all the warm clothing they could, gathering items as soon as he got back into his Toms River house, which had 21/2 feet of water at the height of the storm.

His reaction when he walked in the front door?

"Complete, utter shock," he said. "Sickness. I felt sick. The floor was all torn up. The refrigerator was on its side. All the tables and chairs from the kitchen were pushed into the living room.

"We waited eight days to get here, and the anticipation, the not knowing what would be there, was incredible," he said. "Now it's just a shock. It's a total mess."

Al Nugent, a senior citizen who had retired to the Shore with his wife, Jane, in 1993, was in a remarkably good mood for someone who had two feet of water in his house during the storm. The aftereffects were almost as bad.

"The odor was enough to kill you," he said. "Everything is still wet. The doors don't close right now.

"But I still have my life and I still have my wife," he said. "We're alive and we're OK, and we're grateful for that."

His neighbor, Patricia Smith, was upset by conditions in her house.

"Water is still dripping from everywhere," she said. "You can hear it: drip, drip, drip. You open the refrigerator and there's water in the vegetable drawers. Ugh. It felt like I was in a greenhouse, that's how humid it was."

Janet Sanfilipo's house had three to four inches of water still in it.

"It was smelly and dirty, but better than I expected it to be," she said. "I actually feel very lucky."

She was jarred riding the bus over the Route 37 bridge into her neighborhood and seeing the devastation on both sides of the road.

"It was a shock to see the rubble piles where they used to have the circus in the summer," she said. "That rubble was peoples' homes, their lives."

Harry Wight and Beth Loughran rode out the storm in their Toms River neighborhood, confident things would be fine until water started to gush into it from both ends. They spent the night in Wight's pickup truck.

The next day, they trudged through waist-deep water to a firehouse, but the generator broke. They made it back home when floods receded the next day, so they had a good idea what to expect Friday.

Before leaving, he propped open the windows, ripped out the rugs, and dumped about $300 worth of groceries.

Gary Peterson expected his house to be all right: It's on higher ground. His main priorities were grabbing warm clothes and cleaning out the refrigerator.

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