After Sandy: The Islanders, part 2

by Eric San Juan

[Editor's note: Author and sometime PW contributor Eric San Juan is filing post-Sandy dispatches from the Jersey shore throughout the month of January.]

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The news the day after the storm sounded good for Bob Kuhne and his family, longtime residents of the tiny barrier island community of Lavallette. Their hometown had flooded, yes, but it wasn’t catastrophic in the way it was in nearby areas like Mantoloking and Ortley Beach. A friend who had stayed on the island, in fact, had escaped flooding altogether thanks to being in a new home built on a very tall foundation. “If they’d stayed dry,” Kuhne says, “I knew we didn’t have four feet of water in our house. I figured we had about a foot or so, which turned out to be correct.”

First, though, he had to verify it. Kuhne is the sort who needs to see something with his own eyes. Problem: The bridge to the island was closed.

“We were hearing about homes floating away,” he recalls, “so I tried to get some of my kayaking and fishing friends to go out there with me.” The idea must have seemed preposterous, but a friend from the Silverton section of Toms River, which lies almost directly across the bay from Kuhne’s neighborhood, agreed to go with him. So the morning after the storm, Bob and his friend got in kayaks and crossed Barnegat Bay.

(In fact, it ended up being one of three trips across the bay he’d make that day. A warmup for a few weeks later, maybe, when he’d run the Philadelphia Marathon.)

When Kuhne and his friend reached Lavallette, they found a town that somehow avoided the sweeping devastation that had taken place just to the north and just to the south. Not that things looked good, of course: “There were grills in the street, sections of the boardwalk laying around, sand everywhere.” Many of the mom-and-pop shops he knew well were in terrible shape, “practically turned upside down” by tidal surges and displaced sand. Debris littered the streets. Occasionally, he saw others wandering through the wreckage, trying to figure out if they had truly made it through the storm or not.

They had. The town still stood.

The pair checked on Bob’s house to make sure it was okay. All things considered, it was. It had taken on water, but the engineer had called it right: The flooding there had miraculously peaked at about a foot and a half. It was enough to render the house uninhabitable until repairs were done — but not enough to completely destroy their home.

They kayaked back over the bay, and Bob drove his friend home. On the way back from dropping his friend off, though, he spotted long lines forming at the few gas stations that had managed to stay operational, and he realized he had a decision to make: either drive back to where his family had taken refuge an hour away, burning a tank of gas he may not be able to replace in the process, or go back to the barrier island.

“I said screw it. I was there—I might as well stay there and get done what I could get done in the house.”

Turned out, that would mean spending five days on an island that, within hours of his decision, would be shut down by local authorities and the National Guard.

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