After Sandy: The daily blog from the Jersey shore begins

by Eric San Juan

[Editor's note: Author and sometime PW contributor Eric San Juan is filing post-Sandy dispatches from the Jersey shore daily through January. The series kicked off with a feature story in PW's print edition on Jan. 2.]

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For most at the Jersey shore, life has returned to something vaguely resembling routine following the wrath of “superstorm” Sandy. We have electricity. We’ve returned to work. Our children have returned to school. If you only monitor the news, it appears as if the only outward signs of the storm’s impact lie in the barrier island communities hit hardest—communities that have barely even begun the slow road to rebuilding. For the rest of us, it seems life has returned to normal.

In fact, Sandy’s bootprints are still on our face. What we think of as “normal” has changed.

When I walk out to my car in the morning, I walk across a lawn stained black by a home heating oil spill, 300 gallons having churned from a neighbor’s house when the tidal surge ripped the tank off their house. The street crunches beneath my feet with debris I can’t even identify: bits of house, I guess, and playing cards, and refuse from the bay that, for a day, became one with my neighborhood. When I drive off to work, I drive down streets lined with furniture, bags spilling over with insulation still saturated with floodwater, bins of mold-covered clothing, dozens of dead cars waiting to be towed away to a junkyard. It’s as if every house within a mile vomited its contents.

We don’t even notice anymore. This is how it is now.

Despite this, I feel blessed. As difficult as the days during and after Sandy were, I at least had a home to return to. A cold home, mind you, that stank of oil and was too small for the extra family members who took refuge there during the storm—and who remain here even now, many weeks later. But a home nonetheless. Many of our friends and family, along with hundreds of our Jersey shore neighbors, cannot say the same. I hope to make their story part of this series.

As we do what we can to move on—“we” being the tens of thousands who live along the New Jersey coast—the major question we can’t avoid even when trying to put on our good face is, can we ever return to the normal we once knew?

The people I’ve spoken to make it clear that even asking the question feels premature. Not when this little corner of the world still sits in tatters.

When Erik Weber, publisher of The Riverside Signal, a community newspaper serving some of the communities hardest hit by Sandy, toured Ortley Beach, a nearby section of Toms River just north of the more famous Seaside Heights, he told me, “I think I honestly have a very small amount of shell shock. It was the scariest thing I’ve witnessed in person, not in an immediate sort of holy shit way, but a growing unease at being in the middle of such a scene. It was like my eyes were screaming the entire time even though I was silent.”

I understood what he meant. Watching the waters rise on the night Sandy struck, watching the bay swallow my community whole and watching out the window as my family’s house next door was ripped to shreds by wind and flood, remains a memory that is at best dreamlike. It’s as if it’s something someone else experienced, not me.

But I did.

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