After Sandy: Recalling the Storm, Part 1

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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My family and I live in Brick, N.J., a coastal community with some 53 miles of waterfront property. Our modest home is part of that waterfront, a tiny cape sitting on the water just off Barnegat Bay. I’ve lived here for over 16 years; my mother-in-law, Jackie, has lived next door—that is, she did—for about 40 years. She raised my wife, Natalie, here. So my wife and I purchased family property next door and began to plant our own roots here. During all that time, none of us even saw the water so much as take a minor spill over the bulkhead. Through hurricanes, nor’easters, and many days of rain, our location was just inland enough and protected by the barrier island that we had no flood worries.

But Mother Nature doesn’t care about history.

On the evening when Sandy made landfall, we saw the water slip over the bulkhead for the first time. And then it just kept coming.

We waited for hours to see if the waters would stop rising. Or rather, it felt like hours. You couldn’t really tell time. Aside from the obvious—the power being out and all—the entire experience was simply too surreal to express in the kind of time we all collectively understand. I think the time from the moment the water hit its peak to the moment it started to subside lasted twelve hours or so, but the truth is, I’m not sure. By that point, every moment was eternal. Endless. Felt like you’d never get out of that moment.

At the time it was frightening, but in retrospect, seeing that some entire neighborhoods were swept off the map, I feel pretty lucky. It could have been so much worse for us.

Still, you can’t get that rushing water out of your mind.

Imagine lying in bed and hearing the surging, sloshing of a river directly underneath you. You’re trying to sleep off the storm, hoping maybe you’ll wake up when the worst is over, but sleep won’t happen because beneath you is the Nile churning with a vigor that suggests power—waters that you know might at any moment rip your life off its foundations and tear you downstream. Unsure if they’re ever going to stop rising.

That’s what it was like that night.

We didn’t evacuate for the same reasons many didn’t: History had taught us that we were not in a flood-prone area. We wanted to watch over the house in case anything happened. We didn’t want to be stuck outside of town. And, arguably, because we were foolish.

I don’t regret staying. We had tense days ahead of us, and yes, we lost some things, but ultimately we were no more in danger here than we would have been elsewhere. It’s not just that, though. It’s strange: The experience was so surreal, so vivid and yet as if I was witnessing it from a distance—I almost wish I could tap into that feeling again. Could feel it again, even if only for just a few moments.

That’s after, though. In the moment, when the waters began to rise and the prospect of losing everything my family and I had built together flashed before my eyes, there was nothing I wanted to experience less.

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