To look around, it may be hard to believe this seaside town nearly a year ago was black for weeks for want of electricity, waterlogged and reeling from a storm surge so large that some residents had to flee their homes in kayaks to escape it.
The town’s boardwalk, a 1.3-mile stretch so critical to summer tourism – and specifically, its portion of a $38 billion statewide tourism money machine – that mountains of debris were hastily moved to have it rebuilt and ready for Memorial Day.
Silver Lake, on the borough’s north side, looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, having been reinforced, dredged, and reappointed with still-growing flora, fastidiously placed pavers and a gleaming white gazebo.
Walk any of the neighborhoods and the pounding of hammers and rip of electric saws is still prevalent, but the formerly frenetic pace of reconstruction of the nearly 1,300 homes damaged by the storm has eased off the gas a bit.
“I don’t think its time to be sad,’’ said Colleen Connolly, borough administrator. “I think it’s time to be proud.’’
There are still about 10 families who are displaced after Superstorm Sandy, which made landfall one year ago Tuesday. But that number is down from around 85 as of January, officials said.
Belmar residents are resilient. They live in Belmar, they raise their children in Belmar, they do business in Belmar. No other place will do, Doherty said.
And not one of the families whose homes were uninhabitable with up to a dozen feet of water in their houses -- none of them said they were going to pack up and move on, according to Doherty.
“That’s just not what Belmar folk do,” Connolly said. “I don’t think that’s part of Belmar’s fabric.”
It hasn’t been easy getting there, though.
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In the lead-up to the storm, Doherty was part of daily telephone conference calls with local and state officials tracking the weather and making what preparations they could.
The day before the storm hit, Doherty said, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Mount Holly joined the call. In highly technical language, he explained the weather patterns associated with the oncoming weather – high-pressure systems, low-pressure systems, wind patterns, tracking and all that.
Someone on the call asked him to explain in non-scientific terms.
“He said ‘In other words, no one who is alive today has ever seen a storm like this,’’’ Doherty said. “And he was dead on.”
It was time to move.
Doherty signed off on the first mandatory evacuation the town has ever faced. Hundreds left, but many stayed behind.
Before Sandy was through, more than 1,300 homes were destroyed or damaged. A tiny portion of the town’s boardwalk remained in place, with the rest strewn all over town, some of it making it several blocks west
Silver Lake on the north end overflowed, spilling water for blocks in all directions. On the south end, Lake Como did the same. To the west, the Shark River Inlet spilled over Route 35 and into the westerly neighborhoods.
As the waters rose, some of those who decided to ride out the storm rethought their positions. Nearly 150 people were rescued from their homes as water came rushing through their first floors the night of the storm, Doherty said.
One of those people who showed up in a wetsuit and a boat was Belmar resident Joe McEvoy, part of the Belmar Water Rescue Squad, a volunteer group of watermen who have been pulling people out of the water for nearly 20 years.
The squad was divided up into three teams of six people, McEvoy said. The first 36 hours were around the clock. After that, the teams divided up in to 12 hours on, 12 off scheduled, McEvoy said.
All told, the squad rescued more than 250 people from their
flooded homes, he said.
“We were slogging through chest high water full of diesel fuel, feces, you name it,” said McEvoy, a Marine veteran who lives on 7th Avenue.
One woman was among those who stood out among the scads of rescues during that time, McEvoy said.
She was 92. Her house, on a hill, was not flooded, but it was surrounded by chest-high deep water that wasn’t receding quickly. So frail, the squad was afraid to touch her, lest they leave her with bruises.
McEvoy’s partner spotted a rocking chair on the porch of the house. The woman sat in it and the pair of rescuers hoisted her above the water, slogging through for blocks until she was able to reach dry land.
McEvoy, so tense about dropping the woman and so exhausted from the feat, could not let go of the rocking chair once the woman was safe.
“My fingers literally had to be pried from the chair,’’ he said.
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When Sandy finally blew out of town the next day, the damage it left, left people in shock.
“It was a calamity like nothing we’ve ever seen,’’ Doherty said.
For the next six days, water pumps on the caliber of those used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina pumped water out of town at 60,000 gallons a minute, Doherty said.
All the town’s 140 businesses were closed. Barricades were set up, curfews imposed; ID tags were mandatory to keep out the lookie-loos and allow the cleanup, rescue and assessment to continue unabated.
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When he was able to do get back into town two days later, Joe Connor, owner of Taylor Hardware, opened the business that has stood on the corner of 9th and Main Street since the 19th century, with the help of some gas-powered generators, since no one had electricity.
“We needed to be open,’’ said Connor, who has owned the store since 1978. “The things we were selling were the things everyone needed.’’
Taylor’s Hardware was among the only businesses running in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but among those most revered for doing so. Others included 10th Avenue Burrito and Jersey Shore BBQ, which fed people, free of charge, long after the storm had run its course.
Connor’s items – shovels, gloves, tools, saws and everything needed in the aftermath of a storm made Taylor’s an attraction. But Connor said that wasn’t the only reason his store overflowed with people. People needed somewhere to go, he said, somewhere that was not home, somewhere to gather, talk, kvetch and ask for help.
“There was a lot of that going on – everyone sharing stories,’’ Connor said. “It was a unique experience.’’
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All told, the borough has incurred about $36.2 million in Sandy-related expenses, closing in on twice the amount of its average municipal budget. Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, the borough expects to pay around $3 million in uncovered expenses, Connelly said.
Both Doherty and Connelly said that FEMA has been a savior for Belmar, saying that whatever hiccups or bumps in the road to getting funding to help offset the catastrophic costs the town has incurred has been well worth it in the end.
“They have been a good partner in this,’’ Doherty said. “Without FEMA, I don’t know where Belmar would be.’’
But money’s only half of it, residents and officials said.
Belmar, by most standards a tight-knit group of residents prior to the storm, has become a yet-tighter community while working through this storm.
“Oh, no doubt,’’ McEnvoy said. “It really changed my standing and how I see people in town, and it’s great.”
Doherty echoes that.
“The town came together like never before,’’ Doherty said. “The way the Belmar community came together was truly an amazing and impressive experience.”