Sometimes, numbers are the only way to tell the true tale of a disaster incomprehensible in scale and indescribable in words. For the victims of Hurricane Sandy, those numbers paint a bleak picture. The storm is estimated to have caused between $50 billion and $71 billion in damage along the Eastern Seaboard over the course of a few days.
Along the Jersey Shore, the storm caused an estimated $37 billion in damage. The wounds caused by Sandy's landfall are still fresh for many of the towns along the Jersey Shore hardest hit by the storm, but business owners, residents and towns are beginning to return to normalcy. One of the biggest steps in that return is opening in time for Memorial Day. Despite all the challenges of the past months, business owners and mayors insist they will be ready for the peak summer season.
The importance of being open for business in time for the summer cannot be overestimated — not only for those towns, but for the state as well. Estimates place the economic impact of Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties — those lining the Atlantic Ocean— at around $19 billion, representing more than half of the state’s entire tourism industry.
For business owners, those tourism dollars have a much bigger and more immediate impact.
"You have 100 days to make your money for the whole year," said Lou Cirigliano, director of operations at Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach in Seaside Heights, N.J. "It is not like a business open all year. We are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day to make as much money as you need to support yourself for the rest of the year,” he said. “If you lose any of that time, it has a ripple effect, for sure."
Casino Pier has been fighting that ripple effect since it was forever linked to Sandy on the night the storm made landfall. The amusement park — which has been a fixture on the Seaside boardwalk since 1960 — became the indelible image of Hurricane Sandy when its Jet Star roller coaster fell into the Atlantic Ocean intact. Casino Pier lost not only the coaster, but also more than 250 feet of pier — 200 feet of pier on the north side and 50 feet of pier on the south side — along with most of its rides and amusements.
Despite the destruction, the company will be open — albeit in a limited manner — in time for the summer season. Casino Pier will be missing the part of the pier that bore the greatest brunt of the damage from the storm, and the company is optimistic that half of its 38 rides — along with arcade games, games of chance and food stands — will be ready for the summer season.
"We have seen a ton of people commenting on our Facebook posts about the new rides and how much they want to come back," said Maria Mastoris, marketing director for Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach. "I think that people are optimistic, and they are seeing progress with the town's part of the boardwalk which is open. It is going to be different, but come Memorial Day, people will see we are ready."
"We were proud of our location before, but we are going to show the world that Casino Pier is back and better than ever," said Cirigliano. "There is no reason why you shouldn’t come here or back to Seaside, and you will be more than happy when you do. This is our livelihood, and we are putting our sweat into it. We may have had a bump in the road, but we will come back better than ever."
Other business owners on the Seaside boardwalk are also optimistic about returning.
Vinny Scuzzese, owner of Vinny's Games, has been operating his two stands on Ocean Terrace instead of on the Seaside boardwalk since January.
"My building survived; as soon as there is a boardwalk, I can reopen," Scuzzese said. "I have some damage to my roof and awning from the wind, but I am waiting on insurance money, which is taking forever."
Indeed, a large challenge for business owners in their fight to reopen is the abysmal response of insurance companies in the aftermath of the storm. The businesses interviewed for this story all reported that delays in payment from insurance companies have slowed their recovery efforts. Other businesses have had their recovery plans derailed completely, as their location in a prime flood area makes them uninsurable.
Eastern Lines Surf Shop — located at 16th Street and Ocean Avenue in Belmar, N.J. — was denied money from insurance after pieces of the town's boardwalk slammed into its storefront and left more than two feet of sand and water in its first floor. Business owners Darby and Don Tarrant paid out-of-pocket to reopen their business and now are hoping the summer season will be strong to help them recover the costs.
The million-dollar question for Eastern Lines and other businesses hit by Sandy remains whether or not people will come back to the shore. Realtors in the areas hardest hit by Sandy confirm there is an interest among renters in returning.
"I have had clients, and unfortunately, there is just not inventory for them," said Chris Katz, a broker for Coldwell Banker in Monmouth County. "People want to come down to the Jersey Shore; I just don’t know how much stuff will be there for them. The interest is still there, but there is not a large inventory."
Other indicators, however, paint a different picture. Matt Doherty, mayor of Belmar, N.J.— which was 60 percent flooded and had 1,250 homes damaged by Sandy — said so far, the evidence is positive. There’s reason for optimism: Seasonal beach-badge sales are up more than 30 percent year to date from last year’s season, which was the second busiest in the town's history.
What makes that number even more impressive is that the badges went on sale Dec. 1, 2012, when the beaches and 1.2-mile boardwalk were decimated in the aftermath of Sandy.
"The boardwalk is part of the character of the town," said Doherty. "We have 140 small businesses in our community, all family owned — no major corporations that are dependent upon tourism dollars in the summer to survive. One summer without tourists and those businesses would fail, and those families would be decimated. Without a boardwalk, we wouldn’t have a true summer."
That feeling was a driving force behind Belmar's decision to take one of the more aggressive approaches among Jersey Shore towns to repair the town’s boardwalk. The hard work has paid off as the boardwalk will be ready in time for summer, four months after the first pile was driven 25 feet into the sand. The move was not only critical to the physical recovery of the town, but it also provided a psychological boost to the town’s 140 small businesses.
With the boardwalk set to open in the coming days, Doherty has a message for Jersey Shore businesses: Be ready for the onslaught of visitors that the town normally attracts in the summer. Belmar, which is home to about 5,800 yearlong residents, generally sees its population grow to more than 60,000 residents during the summer.
"I have been telling businesses to be ready and be prepared for a busy summer," Doherty said. "Post Sandy, I think people want to be a part of the rebirth of the Jersey Shore. It is up to our business owners to provide an outstanding experience. As important as it was for the town to have the boardwalk ready, it is just as important for business owners to be ready — or else this year will just be a flash in the pan."