After Sandy: The Islanders, 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.]

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More than a month after Hurricane Sandy flooded his Lavallette, N.J., home, Bob Kuhne is still cleaning up the mess. The cleanup is just the start; after that will come the challenge of getting his family back into the home they’ve lived in for about 16 years. That, he told me, probably won’t happen until the spring.

He takes it in stride. Kuhne is an engineer by trade, and engineers, as he admits, can be a unique species. Like most engineers, he isn’t prone to panic, instead taking a measured approach to just about whatever you throw at him; a careful observer can often see the wheels turning in his head. He knows how to assess risk, knows the limits of his own capabilities, and instead of worrying when trouble approaches, he merely begins to plan in advance on how he’ll deal with it.

Right now, Bob has a lot of planning to do.

He has lived in Lavallette with his wife, Jaime, and their two daughters for about 16 years, in a two-story home about three blocks from the ocean and one block from the bay. Their tiny community is on the barrier island now famous for being smashed by Sandy, though it was previously famous for the Seaside Heights boardwalk and the luxurious beachfront mansions of towns like Mantoloking. Living in Lavallette means the Kuhnes’ lifestyle is deeply tied in with the rhythms of the barrier island: bike rides up the beach, a quick jaunt in the kayak, and, yes, flooded streets when nor’easters roll in. When friends think of the Kuhnes — and in the interest of full disclosure, my family can be counted among those friends — part of what they think of is life at the Jersey shore.

When news of Hurricane Sandy started to creep into our consciousness about a week before landfall, most of us at the shore knew we had to prepare, but we didn’t worry. We had been through storms before, after all, and it’s not like we were routinely smashed with major hurricanes like those in Florida and the Gulf Coast.

So when Kuhne realized he’d have to evacuate his family, he took it in stride. They’d done it just a year prior for Hurricane Irene. All it meant was a night or two at his sister-in-law’s — nothing more than a minor inconvenience and a chance to spend extended time with family. They packed and left the island on Oct. 27, the Saturday before the storm, knowing they’d be back in no time.

But then those early reports started coming in. Things weren’t looking all that routine. Atlantic City was flooding. Waves were starting to hammer the shore. And unlike so many times in the past, those early estimates of massive tidal surges were not revised lower at the last minute — they remained steady, or even increased.

Back in my hometown of Brick, during lulls in the storm my family and I wondered aloud how the Kuhnes were faring. If things were this bad where we were, surely Bob and his family must be experiencing much worse?

The next day, while I was getting reports of whole swaths of the barrier island being wiped out, Bob Kuhne had managed to zero in on a better source than people feverishly trading the worst stories they’d heard. He talked to a neighbor who lived just a few blocks from his Lavallette home, who — some would say foolishly — stayed. “We knew from firsthand accounts what happened out there,” Kuhne recalled. “I knew Lavallette was still standing.”

So the day after the wind and rain and flooding had subsided, Kuhne decided he’d go out to survey the damage himself. He couldn’t access the barrier island from the Mathis-Tunny Bridge, though, and it was the only way to cross from Toms River to Seaside Heights, and in turn Lavallette.

Instead, he took a kayak.

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