A summer like no other at the Shore

This house at 75 Jeffrey Dr. in Beach Haven West was raised approximately 11 feet. The summer has been full of work for residents, with little play.
This house at 75 Jeffrey Dr. in Beach Haven West was raised approximately 11 feet. The summer has been full of work for residents, with little play. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 02, 2013

BEACH HAVEN WEST, N.J. - By now in any normal summer, Catherine Mancuso and Ann Gianbattista would be working on their third or fourth block party over on Jeffrey Drive.

Their kitschy plastic palm trees with the neon party lights would be doing their duty on the deck overlooking the lagoon.

The parties, in fact, would have bounced from house to house on their street all summer and echoed across the waterway to the rowdy Irish family on Joshua Drive known to finish their own noisy parties with 4 a.m. dives into the water and expeditions to the Jeffrey Drive docks.

But that reality is a thing of the past, and the summer of 2013 is the present. Those trying or able to salvage a little summer out of their enclave just off the causeway leading to Long Beach Island are in the minority. This little slice of Jersey Shore heaven is barely up on one knee 10 months after getting flattened by Hurricane Sandy.

So just the fact that Mancuso and Gianbattista have managed to throw one party this summer - set for Sunday, the last possible night of a season that has felt like no other, a season that has stung rather than soothed - feels pretty huge.

"It's been a struggle," Mancuso says.

Around her in the community of 4,000 little houses, each backing up to series of fingerlike lagoons, are empty homes where the owners have yet to rebound. Houses are being demolished every day. Trailers bring in modular houses in their place. Other houses have been sold; plenty are still for sale. Many seem in limbo, still down to studs, no movement at all since the initial cleanup. There has been no sign of the boisterous family across the lagoon.

Amid the strained recovery process are those who are attempting something resembling a summer. One family tore their house down and parked a camper on the lot, the better to enjoy the waterfront dock while awaiting a new house.

Others, such as Carol Bencivenengo of Hamilton Township, continued the ritual of lagoon-side sunbathing in front of her niece's house, whose foundation has just been found to be askew. "She took a surge being on the corner," she said.

On Joshua Drive, Maureen Barnett presided over a gaggle of nieces and nephews visiting for the day in a house whose future had only just been settled on. "We finally got it to where we are making decisions," Barnett said. As with many others, insurance payments were only just set.

While she continued a summerlong project of cleanup with nephew Justin Marks, 17, the younger children played amid the ruined deck furniture and dead shrubs. They lowered the kayaks into the water, planned the only excursion to the ocean all summer.

"We still jump into the lagoon," Barnett said. "No Fantasy Island, no water slides."

They took the big summer trip to Williamsport, Pa., to see the Little League World Series.

"Normally, this street is full of people, a lot of block parties," said Cheryl Avola, at the stove on Dorothy Street, most of their belongings from the house stored in a large pod parked in the front yard. "This summer, we got together twice."

Last Saturday, the normally festive Lagoon in Lights boat parade barely cast a shadow, with far fewer participants motoring up the lagoon than usual, she said. And forget the regular run of guests.

"We can't really have guests," Cheryl said. "Our guest room is now our tool room."

Still, they tried to catch a few crabs by lowering traps off the dock. The boat never made it into the water; like many in Beach Haven West, it's still in the yard.

"It's crazy; it's sad," she said. "But I think next year will be totally normal, like nothing happened."

Back on Jeffrey, Mildred Plant, 84, a retired Verizon worker, thinks the recovery will be much longer. She is back in her home, but a neighbor was just told the wait to elevate houses is now 18 months to two years. Another friend is still living with her daughter, and the dislocation is starting to take its toll on her memory, Plant says.

"My family has not been down this summer," she said. "The great-grandkids - so many nails and broken glass, I don't want them coming down. It's pretty desolate. It's always been people swimming, people laughing, parties."

"I couldn't understand why it was so long with people with Katrina, but now I understand," she said. Her eyes unexpectedly filled as she stared across the street at a neighbor's empty lot, another house torn down, revealing an orphaned power ski parked at water's edge. "I'm just realizing how bad it is. It's disrupted everybody."

Plant readily accepted an invitation to the summer's lone block party, though in summers past, she would be so absorbed in her own family the subject wouldn't even come up. She could use the cheering up, along with everyone else.

Some, like Joan Ott of Philadelphia, will make the trip this weekend for the party. She will stay in Mancuso's upstairs bedroom, as her own house is still uninhabitable.

Mancuso was fortunate. She and her partner are primary homeowners and were able to secure loans and grants that allowed them to rebuild.

But most in Beach Haven West are second homeowners, people of relatively modest means, some who inherited little houses on concrete slabs, who resent that no Sandy aid money is aimed at them.

"They've allocated a lot of money to go for people here full-time," said Ray Flack, a retired mailman from Hatboro who has been going to his house on Jeffrey Drive every weekend and who even had guests from Massachusetts - but it has literally been all work and no play. Not even one barbecue or crabbing session.

"We're doing better than some, but not as good as others," he said. "No recreation at all."

They fear their cozy little neighborhood will turn over to wealthier homeowners from North Jersey and New York. They already lost the Eagles on the New York teams.

"Last year we were at this point kayaking, laying on this dock," said Michaeleen Flack, looking at the still-buckled lagoon-side respite with a bittersweet laugh. "Now we can't even walk on it."

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

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