For some at the Jersey Shore, rebound from Sandy has been easier

The Loveladies, N.J., summer home of Newell and Ruth Fischer. Its lower level was blown out by Hurricane Sandy; new shingles, yet to weather, contrast with the originals.
The Loveladies, N.J., summer home of Newell and Ruth Fischer. Its lower level was blown out by Hurricane Sandy; new shingles, yet to weather, contrast with the originals. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 20, 2013

LOVELADIES, N.J. - Down North Lane in Loveladies, the beachfront home of Newell and Ruth Fischer, psychiatrists from Bryn Mawr, was directly in Hurricane Sandy's path.

The storm surge blew out the entire bottom half of the cedar-shingled, A-frame house the couple bought 44 years ago for "$40,000, maybe $60,000," as Newell recalls.

The Fischers, easygoing, philosophical, and - candidly - of necessary means, were able, like others among their prominent neighbors along the beachfront of Loveladies, to just roll with it. They bankrolled the initial repairs, hired an adjuster, waited out insurance payments, and put all, or most, of the pieces back together again in time to salvage their LBI summer.

No doubt that was a rarefied path to recovery, much like the "Private, No Beach Access" road that leads from the bank of mailboxes at street's edge to the Fischer house at ocean's edge.

If Sandy took its biggest and most intractable toll on blue-collar second-home owners, year-round Shore dwellers, retirees with tiny inherited bungalows on slabs in nearby Beach Haven West, and casino workers in Shore bedroom communities in and around Atlantic City, the great storm of 2012 also took aim at people like the Fischers.

In Longport, where waves crashed through floor-to-ceiling windows built to take in a view of the ocean, shoving sofas and entertainment centers to the back of the house and dumping three feet of sand on blond hardwood floors, rebuilding is mostly completed.

The initial and unfamiliar shock of vulnerability has yielded to the final details of the audio-system wiring threaded out over the rebuilt beachfront deck.

In Loveladies, breakaway walls built around pilings to add a ground-floor dormitory and rec room fulfilled their destiny and indeed broke away. Furniture and appliances from the ground floor disappeared, washed away and then hauled away before homeowners were even allowed back on the island.

"Nothing happened to the upstairs. There's just no more downstairs," said Newell Fischer, who with his wife, Ruth, has nurtured their family of four children with a casual and friendly vibe. He is wearing the string friendship bracelet made by his grandson Finn, 7; the summer home - now worth millions - has a tousled unpretentious decor of their children's and grandchildren's artwork. (Daughter Melanie is an artist in Brooklyn.)

"I laugh about it now because no one got hurt and it got fixed," he said.

Architect Rob Musgnug, based on Long Beach Island, has spent the last 10 months trying to get people back in summer homes in time for summer. In the case of his parents' Ship Bottom home, although they filed a claim within a week of the storm, the payment did not come before his father died June 4. He had to meet a bank inspector the day before the funeral to prove the house was finished.

There were those clients able to move ahead in advance of insurance, like the Fischers and Philadelphia lawyers Tom Kline and Shanin Specter, also with beachfront homes that took a direct hit.

"They told me to move forward a week after the storm and they would deal with the insurance companies," Musgnug wrote in an e-mail.

Musgnug said clients' experiences had been varied, with some getting insurance payments relatively quickly and others still waiting. Everything has taken longer than anyone anticipated. Empty lots have sprung up across the island as severely damaged homes are demolished and properties are put up for sale, often by people with family homes passed down without mortgages or insurance.

Some wealthy homeowners were barely able to talk about their loss in the days and weeks after the storm, so shaken were they from what had seemed like a firm perch. Others, like the Fischers, were better able to absorb the shocks.

"The house has meant a lot to us," Newell says. "It really has become a family place. It was very depressing. We hadn't expected it to be so bad.

"We didn't get all we were promised. Again, we were paying a lot of money for insurance."

The house was built on pilings by previous owners after a 1962 storm washed a previous structure away. A few years ago, the Fischers, like many of their neighbors, enclosed the ground floor around the pilings with breakaway walls. Flood insurance went from about $1,000 to $4,000 a year.

Specter, son of late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, says he too learned a lesson about the limits of insurance.

He had bought a private policy from the same firm that insures his home in Philadelphia to supplement the National Flood Insurance Program, paying close to $10,000 a year to guard against just such an event as Sandy.

But Specter, well-versed in intricate matters like insurance policies, said he was surprised by how worthless the policy was.

"It insured almost none of the risks that would likely occur with a storm like Sandy," he said. "It insured most of the risks that wouldn't occur. It insures me for being sued in the event somebody tripped up the front steps. We don't have too many visitors, so that's not much of a peril.

"It's a big disappointment," he said. "I have a lot of friends and neighbors who have had to reach into their pockets for the great majority of their losses.

"I don't think the carriers want to write policies for homeowners at the Shore," he said. "Sandy appears to be the big one, the one we've been waiting for since 1962. Against what are they hedging their bets? That was a lesson learned."

Musgnug says overall, the volume of people on the island was down by 15 percent to 20 percent, an assessment shared by businesses and those with rental vacancies. "It is actually kind of nice, not as hectic as most summers," he said.

In the end, there was, of course, no comparing the losses of the folks in Loveladies with those of even the people on the south end of the island, whose homes were totaled, or with less-affluent victims, whose homes were worth way less than even the partial damage sustained by homes in Loveladies (Specter and Fischer estimate their damage to be in the low six figures).

"I've always thought there was a lot of risk having a house at the edge of the ocean," Specter said. "That's always been on my mind. We had an event this past year and we dealt with it, and we're moving on and enjoying the house and the beach and the summer. That's the attitude of most people on Long Beach Island."

As for the Fischers, Newell says they will have a 15 percent gap between their rebuilding cost and what insurance finally pays.

All in all, he says, "It's hard to complain." He is back on LBI, grandkids in ground-floor bunks, in a place where daily routines reassure in their simplicity. "Get a piece of fish," he says, "and cook it."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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