The thing about sand bars is: you're probably not supposed to live on them. You're likely not supposed to build beach houses with docks so comfortable you can sit and watch the bay for hours without realizing it, eateries that serve the best mussels you've ever tasted, or hole-in-the-wall bars where "everybody knows your name." Most of us learn in 6th grade Earth Science that barrier islands were meant to roll around the ocean floor, to move and change shape and protect the mainland from storms. But most people who grew up on one were pretty damn happy they did.
New Jersey was spoiled. Yeah, Jersey surfers tough out severe winters, flat spells, yada yada. We know. But every hurricane season, when surfers see those storms brewing in the South Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, Garden State surfers feel confident that if Alice, Bob, Clyde make it up the East Coast, Jersey will reap all the rewards and hardly any of the wreckage. Until it doesn't.
"We knew we were in for it," says Brian Farias, lifelong Long Beach Island, New Jersey, resident and multiple surf shop owner, looking back on the events that led up to Sandy. The barrier island, LBI, hugs 19 miles of South Jersey coast (between Seaside and Atlantic City)--all of which played bulls eye to Sandy's target practice. "It was the kind of storm you heard your grandfather talking about--the late-season hurricane, the arctic front--but what we got was worse than we could ever imagine." Farias had evacuated and made it back by ski a few days following the storm, despite the heavy presence of National Guard patrolling all the waterways.
"It was like a jungle in the store," he said when he first got back in. "The smell was terrible." His shops had lost almost all their inventory, on top of physical damage. One of the smart ones, Farias gutted and cleaned them out, ASAP.
"It was painful," Chris Huch says of locals waiting days to get back on the island to assess damages. Huch, another LBI local and executive director for Alliance for a Living Ocean, immediately began organizing a renegade cleanup and, apprehensive that the municipalities might interject, passed on all the information via social media and word of mouth. More than 1,000 volunteers showed up for the first effort, clearing debris from bayside shoreline and roadsides, and helping to demo houses, with similar turnouts every Saturday following.
Jeremy DeFilippis, part owner and creator of Jetty, the LBI-born surf and skate lifestyle brand, was displaced for a month from his Surf City home. He had left his truck on the island ("like an idiot," he adds), but from his brand's standpoint, was more than prepared for the storm. The already grassroots, charitable organization saw so much success from their Katrina relief T-shirt sales, so DeFilippis and the crew designed Sandy Relief tees, ready to order, way in advance. They knew they would need to get funds to people quick--and the thing went viral.
Waves for Water jumped in and partnered with Jetty to guide them through LBI's first real disaster blueprint. W4W, the Ergo Clothing crew, Farias, Sam Hammer, and so many other New Jersey standouts and ambassadors in the surf world gathered to nail down a solid plan to help get their respective areas back on their feet.
"The surf community really took the lead," says Huch. At the end of the day, Jetty will have donated upward of $175,000 towards the cause. "They donated 10 grand to us, just before Christmas, to get our office back up and running," Huch continues.
"All the surf companies stepped up," DeFilippis adds of the Californicentric industry. Shops in San Diego, Orange County--even San Francisco--were shipping supplies back to the Garden and Empire States. "Even Kelly Slater had said that if he won the next event he'd donate all the money to Sandy relief efforts."
Not for nothing, though. Four weeks after Sandy's touchdown, residents and business owners had traded in the 4 feet of water and 4 feet of sand that covered their streets for piles--no, walls--of debris. Some homeowners still weren't allowed near their property. It took five weeks for people to get hot water that wasn't contaminated with chemicals and sewage and heat in their homes. By then it was early December and winter along the Northeastern seaboard gives the phrase "colder than a witch's tit" some real meaning.
Now, at the nine-week mark, the island is a ghost town. The terrain has changed and every new storm brings more flooding than the last. Homes are still fragile. Mainstream media's forgotten about it all, tourists have mountain towns and tropical getaways in their peripheral vision and seasonal residents have gotten comfortable in their inland homes, preferring to deal with it all come spring.
But Farias, DeFilippis, and other locals still feel the detrimental reality. Farias lost an entire month of business, at the very least. "We've made so much progress in just two months, but it's still a long road back," he says.
DiFilipi and the folks at Jetty were so busy with their (continuing) relief effort, that now, "we have to really focus on trying to actually have a profitable month," he says, gearing up for Surf Expo in January. "But it's not a sprint. Things aren't going to be back to normal for a long, long time," he continues.
They're worried about beach replenishment--about the Army Corps of Engineers dumping sand right at the water's edge, without a thought about the natural contours of the shoreline, eradicating surf spots that have just started to show up again after the last replenishment. "The sandbars [on LBI] are probably the best I've ever seen them right now," he says. "People need to step up, because the Army Corps of Engineers doesn't care about messing up surfing and fishing for us." They're not just pastimes; these activities mean tourism and business dollars. Residents are worried about the upcoming summer season, and tourism has already declined in the past decade, to begin with.
But DeFilippis looks at the effort as an opportunity to rebuild LBI safer and to rebrand the magical little island. "There's no boardwalk. There's not really an amusement park. It's family oriented, the fishing and surfing there are amazing. It's a special place." It's no wonder its residents feel such a deep bond to the place.
"I'm looking forward to looking back on this and thinking, 'Wow, it's over and look at all we did,'" says DeFilippis. "It's just crazy to think that it'll be over a year from now that I'll actually get to do that."