SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J.—The roller coaster isn't in the ocean anymore. It's not anywhere anymore, really. Its former home, a small oceanside amusement park on the boardwalk, is overrun with state inspectors, construction crews, and No Trespassing signs instead of groups of teenagers, cotton candy, and Tilt-a-Whirls.
The weather couldn't be more different than a year ago. There's not a cloud in the sky, a light breeze blows through, people are walking around in T-shirts. There are no 75 mile-per-hour winds, no storm swells, no buzzy words like "Blizzicane" being tossed about. It's been a year since Hurricane Sandy destroyed the boardwalk, picked a roller coaster off its supports and deposited it into the Atlantic Ocean, while putting mom-and-pop shops out of business.
Now, the boardwalk is back, its two-by-fours barely weathered in the few months since they've been reinstalled. There are cranes and construction workers and the sounds of drills and people wearing "Restore the Shore" hoodies, but there are also people selling trashy T-shirts, hawking pizza-by-the-slice, selling saltwater taffy. Just like the old days.
A few blocks inland, Seaside Heights has been taken over by dump trucks, traffic cones, and bulldozers. Local restaurants offer contractor specials. Road work and detour signs have been reinforced to seem permanent. There are more hardware stores than a resort town should have. There are detours everywhere.
Most of the establishments are closed, but what else would you expect in a northeastern oceanside city as November approaches?
Back on the boardwalk, Lucky Leo's arcade is open, its Wheel of Fortune and claw games lit up and making plenty of noise. Established in 1952, it advertises the fact that it's open 365 days a year. Not last year. It had to close for nearly two months following Sandy.
"This whole area was just filled with sand and water," Michael Whalen, a manager at Lucky Leo's, says, pointing at an area near the entrance of the arcade. He and his family, who own the arcade, thought it had survived the storm with little damage. "The machines weren't broken right away. We turned them on and they seemed to work, but the next day, 30 of them were broken."
An employee there, Tessah Melamed, has worked on the boardwalk for the last seven years. She was scheduled to work at the arcade during hurricane Sandy but decided to stay home a few miles inland because she was feeling sick. Crossing the inlet bridge back to Seaside Heights from Tom's River, she was shocked.
"We had no idea it was going to be so bad. I came back and I just cried the whole way over the bridge," she says. "This is where I grew up, this is my home, and the boardwalk was just a big hole. It was all gone."
A Lesson in Survival
The hurricane was bad enough, but just after Seaside Heights was finishing up its first post-Sandy summer, a small electrical fire in a candy shop got out of control last month at the end of the boardwalk that suffered less damage from Sandy. Wind gusts helped ignite a blaze that burned blocks of the boardwalk. Not even shells of buildings remain there now.
"We were just saying we had a perfect hurricane and then we had a perfect fire," John Gato, manager of Van Holten's Chocolate, a candy shop next to the amusement park, says.
Following the two-day blaze, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he "will not permit all the work we've done over the last 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night … we have lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens, we will rebuild. We will make new memories, because that's what we do."
Lucky Leo's managed to survive Sandy and was also untouched by the blaze.
"What helps is our name, " Whalen says. "We made it through Sandy and the fire. We feel very lucky."
So do Edward and Cynthia Johnson Jones, a couple that lives a few blocks down from the arcade. Their brick house now sits adjacent to a pit where buildings once stood before the blaze. They said they could feel the heat from the blaze from inside their house. The fire made electrical transformers spark and explode. Their house remained untouched.
Edward has now lived through two disasters in less than a year. He says the fire was bad, but Sandy was like nothing he'd ever seen.
"We were sitting out here with my neighbors. Before Sandy came, the sky turned purple," he says. "You see that house across the street? The sky got dark and all the sudden the bricks came flying off it like it was paper. It was just ripped apart."
Edward stayed to protect his home from looters. The National Guard suggested he leave, even "walking around with guns, kicking people's doors in," but he wouldn't.
After the hurricane hit, he was sitting outside with a flashlight—power to the city had long been out—when a man came stumbling down the street, carrying valuables, his face bleeding. He'd been hit by a brick.
"It was like he was in that show The Walking Dead. He was all cut up," Jones says. "I was sitting right here with my machete in my hand. I yelled out 'Hey!,' and he shot off into the darkness. People were robbing everything man."
The family had to relocate for four months following the storm. The humans in the family weren't the only ones to have a survivalist attitude.
"I have a big fish tank upstairs and we had two little goldfish in it. The National Guard let us come back to check on our house in the middle of the winter. The power had been out for months. The fish tank was completely frozen, with the goldfish just sitting there at the bottom," he says. "When we finally moved back in, the electricity came back on, and we saw the fish swimming around in the tank. We were gone four months. Somehow, they just survived the whole winter."
Bouncing Back on the Boardwalk
Just like Christie said they would, many of the businesses have survived, and lots of tourists have come back. But things still aren't back to normal.
Gato, of Van Holten's Chocolate, says the store lost at least half of its business this summer. Many shops were able to reopen by Memorial Day, but some weren't. His candy store operated with reduced inventory. Lots of shop owners were back within days of the storm, trying to salvage what they could.
"A couple buildings were just destroyed and washed away. For us, there was just this charge to get this store back open and to get going. To just get this monkey off our backs," he says. "Others, they ran for the hills. They just left."
Gato says that the boardwalk is slowly regaining its character. The amusement park's owners are putting in new rides and are looking for a new roller coaster.
"We're holding out. The end of the summer wasn't too bad once the amusement park got some of the rides open and stuff," he says. "They're looking for a new roller coaster because that was the iconic view of the whole boardwalk. Whatever we get back is going to be something to stick a flag on."