After Sandy: The Islanders, part 3

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. This week continues the tale of island resident Bob Kuhne.]

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Days were spent ripping apart a house to prevent the insidious damage that could be done by mold. Early evenings eating with others who had weathered the storm. Nights in the cold and dark silence of a near-deserted island, gun nearby in case of looters.

That was the sum total of the five days Bob Kuhne spent on the barrier island right after Sandy struck.

“I would wake up first thing in the morning and start working,” he said. “First it was tearing out the rugs, then the sheetrock, then going below the house to tear out the insulation.” That was the worst part: pushing himself through mud six or ten inches deep under the house, pulling out insulation one saturated strip after another.

He had no one to help. By this time, the barrier island was off-limits to outsiders. If you had stayed during the storm you could remain there for now — local authorities wouldn’t know he’d arrived by kayak in the immediate aftermath — but that could change at any time, and everyone who’d stayed had their own work to do. “More people than you would think stayed there,” he told me. “After the first day, the people in Lavallette didn’t know if we were going to be mandatorily evacuated or not. You could hear a knock on the door and [think maybe it would] be the police telling you to get out.”

Thanks to a neighbor who had stayed and had a generator, Kuhne was able to keep his phone charged and stay in contact with the outside world. Even that resulted in more work for him to do, though, since he was often the only link to the island his evacuated friends and family had: “People knew I was on the island, so they were asking me to peek into their house.”

One of those homes belonged to his mother- and father-in-law, Judy and Jimmy O’Reilly. The O’Reillys had lived on Barnegat Bay for years. Jimmy, an avid sailor, is employed at one of the better known local boat yards and is affectionately called “Captain” by his friends and family. Bob took a bike over to their house and found that, despite being in the same town as his, it hadn’t fared as well. The water had flooded between six and eight feet of their first floor. The interior looked as if someone had shoveled a truckload of the bay floor into it and then shook it like a snow globe. Upstairs, despite not being flooded, clothing and bedding and furniture were already starting to stink.

When I saw Judy O’Reilly a few days after the storm, she tugged at the sweater she was wearing and told me, “This is all I have.”

If anything can be salvaged from their home — and as of this writing, more than a month after the storm, that remains unclear — it will be considered, in the big picture, a win. For like so many homes in nearby Ortley Beach and Mantoloking, the O’Reillys’ was perilously close to bursting into flames. “I got into the O’Reillys’ house,” Kuhne told me, “and I heard hissing. The refrigerator had floated up and fallen onto the stove and turned on the gas.” The place was filled with it. He had to kill the gas, open the windows, and air out the house before he could think about doing anything inside.

As the days wore near their end, Kuhne gathered for dinner with other islanders in situations similar to his own. They’d eat together and share stories — “It was a little bit of sanity each day.” For a few days, they ate well, dining on fare from the Crab’s Claw Inn and Bayside Café that was in danger of spoiling.

Hurricane debris followed by lobster tail. Not bad, all things considered.

The nights were much worse. That story comes next.

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