In small Shore towns, wondering whether to hang on

" This is where I want to be. Jackie Ernst, living in an RV on her property in Pleasantville while she decides whether to rebuild.
" This is where I want to be. Jackie Ernst, living in an RV on her property in Pleasantville while she decides whether to rebuild. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 10, 2014

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. - If the fear was that Hurricane Sandy would level off the quirky and distinctive enclaves of the Jersey Shore, look no further than this hidden bay front of Pleasantville, a city across the water from Atlantic City better known for its tolls, crime, and unemployment office.

There, and in idiosyncratic Shore communities like it, the long-term toll that Sandy is taking on the landscape is starting to come into focus.

Residents who can hang in are trying to rebuild, but the sunken streets around them are starting to look like a future where the old Shore is a memory, like the abandoned collection of jazz and funk records left on three shelves in a condemned house deep in Egg Harbor Township's Morris Beach, another little-known Shore community hit hard by Sandy.

How long can The Best of Moms Mabley sit on a shelf open to the Great Egg Harbor Bay?

In Pleasantville's Lakes Bay, meanwhile, where the sunrise views stretch literally from Harrah's to Longport, Diane DeSabatino wanted to make it work.

She put together a life in her house on Oakland Avenue after several members of her family had died, living amid her mother's furniture in a tiny community of oddballs and dreamers, where by 2012, $50,000 could get you a $10 million view down a dirt road.

But when Sandy came ashore in October 2012 - residents there think their shorefront was where the hurricane met the nor'easter - tidal waves flattened DeSabatino's and other houses, sent everything from docks to wine bottles flying. Roofs wound up a block over. Houses were torn from foundations.

DeSabatino's house was carted away in a large trash bin by the city.

Like so many, she tried to get grants to help her elevate a new house, but she said requirements to put $60,000 of her own money up front made that impossible. She took her insurance money and gave up. And, like many in Sandy-affected places, where foreclosures are once again to deep-recession levels, according to data from RealtyTrac, her property is now bank-owned. The $164,000 she collected in flood insurance went to the bank. She's done.

"I couldn't survive it," said DeSabatino, who works as a foreclosure investigator for banks, cataloging familiar misery in Ocean and Cape May Counties. "I caught people rummaging through my place. I lived in my car. I was totally lost."

Municipalities such as Little Egg Harbor's Mystic Island are assembling to prepare demolition lists to deal with the vacancies, empowered by a recent executive order by Gov. Christie speeding the process.

In places like Lakes Bay, Mystic Island, Morris Beach, and Beach Haven West, houses and properties sit vacant, many for sale, a rising number abandoned or bank-owned. Little Egg recently sent bills to homeowners for the cost of mowing on the houses they walked away from, including one Mystic Island couple who left a "Does this look stronger than the storm to you?" sign out front and a riding mower out back. A pending bill would force banks to keep up foreclosed properties or face fines.

Egg Harbor Township Mayor Sonny McCollough says the city has begun demolishing damaged houses in Morris Beach, an isolated community way off Somers Point-Mays Landing Road built in the late 1930s as a waterfront haven for affluent black families from Philadelphia and Baltimore. Several houses have been demolished. Others are unremediated amid those fit for summer, boats stored.

"There's been a lot of action out there and more coming," McCollough said. "The building code department thinks some of them need to be demolished and completely rebuilt.

"I have been saying for a long time, Hurricane Sandy did more than physical damage," he said. "It did financial damage."

That reality can be felt on the low-lying blocks that dead-end at Lakes Bay, where some houses are still collapsed in on themselves. A half-dozen or so were leveled by the storm, others demolished after.

Jackie Ernst sits smoking in an RV, which she persuaded Pleasantville last July to allow her to live in for one year. She is trying to finalize a grant from the state and figure out whether to rebuild. She is watching as neighbors with greater means, like Amadeu and Adelia Miranda next door, who fought off the city's attempt to condemn their damaged house and spent $80,000 to rebuild. Amadeu Miranda, a builder, is the only one near completion. He has no mortgage and did not elevate.

"This is where I want to be," Ernst said, looking out from the booth table clear across to the windmills in Atlantic City (through what used to be a neighbor's house).

Jeff Schneidt thought he had found a piece of paradise: $50,000 for a century-old house with glass doorknobs at the end of Oakland, six months before Sandy. He also dipped into his own money to start rebuilding, a bright yellow house 16 feet up on pilings. But things are at a standstill, pending, as with so many, promised grant money. He had heard nothing for months until a meeting last week that held some promise. "The old house floated two blocks away," he said. "I started from scratch."

Pleasantville officials did not return calls for comment. The city owns a large adjacent parcel that was once Pleasantville High School, and spent $3.2 million fixing the city marina adjacent to the private Pleasantville Yacht Club, only to see the new fencing, docks, and walkways torn apart by the storm. It has yet to fix any of it.

There was talk before Sandy of trying to revive development for the waterfront, once eyed as a place for a residential and commercial area. For now, the only business there is Randall's, an old and thriving fish market.

Some residents think the city does not want them to rebuild.

"The mayor and everyone came down and said, 'Don't worry. We're going to help you,' " DeSabatino said. "And then when it came time to get the permit, they said, 'Oh, no, no, no more building here.' We really felt like they had a plan for that area."

It remains to be seen how deep the losses will go for these residents and their communities, and how many will pass the point of no return.

In Lawrence Township, Cumberland County, the state and federal governments bought out all 33 houses to create a wildlife habitat and buffer.

"It's done," said Diane Donlen, 73, who rents a house near Lakes Bay and has chased squatters from vacant houses. Her landlord fixed their damage. "Nobody came back."

DeStefano says her unlikely little piece of paradise in gritty Pleasantville ended up being "where the hurricane and the nor'easter met," with waves crashing over her house, sucking pieces of it back out. She lives in Egg Harbor Township now.

"I loved it there," she said. "It was a peace I hadn't had since I lost my family. It was a peace, like a little peninsula. That little section down there was just a dirt road. We never could get them to pave it."

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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