N.J. advances demolition of Sandy-hit properties

Janine Hennion watches a demolition crew take down the summer home she and her husband have owned on Ocean Drive in Normandy Beach since 2009. "I made my peace with it from Day One," she said of the loss.
Janine Hennion watches a demolition crew take down the summer home she and her husband have owned on Ocean Drive in Normandy Beach since 2009. "I made my peace with it from Day One," she said of the loss. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2013

NORMANDY BEACH, N.J. - It's not hard to see why they call Sandy the "Wicked Witch of the East" here in northern Ocean County.

Cedar-shingled A-frame homes blown and washed from their foundations do look a lot like they crash-landed from the sky onto sand-covered streets.

But not for much longer, as a walking tour led by state Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin made clear Wednesday.

These homes - an enduring symbol of Sandy's wrath, much like the marooned roller coaster in the ocean - are being systematically torn down.

In all, about 3,000 homes across the state are expected to be demolished as a result of damage from Sandy, through both private demolitions and ones funded mostly by FEMA in a program known as Private Property Debris Removal (PPDR).

"I made my peace with it from Day One," said Janine Hennion, 52, whose beachfront house on Ocean Drive was Exhibit A for a media crowd and a few beachgoers who climbed the berm from the beach to watch.

"This house was very quaint. I just put things in perspective."

Hennion, a stockbroker from Totowa, Passaic County, is hoping that when the debris is cleared, her collection of sea glass will be waiting for her in the sand.

In any case, she and her husband, Richard, a bond broker, were meeting with their architect Wednesday evening to begin the rebuilding. Elsewhere, modular home companies were putting out their shingles all over town.

"A lot of my friends who lost their homes in Ortley can't afford to rebuild," said Hennion.

In Toms River and Brick Townships, the bulk of the demolitions are being done though PPDR. About 400 homes are in the demolition pipeline.

Keansburg and Berkeley Townships are expected to join the program, and Tuckerton and Little Egg Harbor are considering it. FEMA has set an Oct. 30 deadline and will absorb 90 percent of the cost, with the rest split by the townships and insurance.

The beach towns along this stretch of Ocean County above Seaside Heights show their Sandy scars much more plainly than those further south, where flooding caused substantial damage not visible from the outside.

Towns like Ocean City, Margate, and Long Beach Island are among those with the most demolition permits issued since Sandy.

In Normandy Beach, entire square blocks of homes are now being demolished, even as mothers with children piggyback them around the debris and houses resting off-kilter on their sides to make their way to the beach.

Some were a bit grumpy about their post-Sandy summer inconveniences.

"How do you walk kids down to the beach?" asked Sandy Sula, who brought her two young children, 9 and 11, as usual for their summer on Sixth Avenue. Her summer home was not damaged, but all around them is destruction and now a demolition zone. Ocean Drive is still a sandy path, awaiting gas lines before repaving. She got a 25 percent discount in her $14,000 tax bill, but still lacks the usual beach access.

"Don't ask me to pay the same taxes," she said.

Other residents pester Brick Police Chief Nils Bergquist and public works director Glenn Campbell about when access to Deauville Beach will be restored. (It's now blocked by a sand berm that nearly swallowed three teenagers not long ago, so they are being careful.)

Bergquist laughed at the incongruity of the vacation needs and the mass destruction. "Got to get back to normal sometime," he said. "Everyone, including me, wishes all the procedures had happened faster."

Even as Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club criticized the state as moving forward with rebuilding without properly considering long-term consequences, Martin said he believed the state had properly balanced environmental concerns with Gov. Christie's mandate to rebuild the entire coastline. He said procedures had been streamlined. A government buyout program being used along some river towns would not work at the coast, he said, because the land is too valuable.

"The plan is to rebuild with more resiliency," Martin told a group of reporters under a wooden picnic roof. "We can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think we're doing it thoughtfully."

Nearby, Shore stalwarts like Jennifer Steffener of Coastline Adventure Surfing School tried to carry on as usual over the din of excavators.

"It is surreal," said Steffener, who moved from her damaged rental home on the coast to the mainland Toms River. "It is still hard to get my mind wrapped around it."

One thing everyone seemed to agree on: The process of obtaining insurance payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program - run by FEMA, but administered through insurance companies - has been terrible.

"The state would be better off if it were not run by a federal agency, but by private insurers," Martin said.

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on twitter and instagram @amysrosenberg.

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