Sandy Hook: Will Hurricane Sandy Remake the Coast of New Jersey?
In the years before 1989, when Hurricane Hugo crashed on shore outside Charleston, South Carolina, they had a thing on the nearby beach town of Sullivan's Island that was traditionally known as an "Island House." Typically, a Sullivan's Island "island house" was one story tall, with maybe another half story of small rooms under the gently sloping roof. It rested on stacked concrete block piers, maybe four or six feet off the ground. Under the house was dirt, or maybe crushed shells. A simple outside shower let you wash the sand off your feet when you came back from the beach, before you climbed the stairs to the house. The windows had slatted shutters, more for the sun that for protection from a possible storm. A broad screen porch on the front offered a view of the ocean, if you were on the beach or within a street or two of it.
Island houses were small — humble, in fact. Often they didn't have air condiitioning — just screened windows and ceiling fans. Kitchens were basic and rustic. They were the perfect house for an easy-going, quiet, simple getaway at the beach. My grandparents retired on Sullivans Island after my grandfather Cush's long Army career, which included both World Wars. Through the sixties and seventies, they were on permanent vacation at the beach. On Fridays, Cush might hang a martini flag on the pole under the American flag, a relic of Prohibition days. He and my grandmother Kathleen, who was born and raised in Charleston, lived out their last days in that island house. In summers, sometimes our family would come to visit and to spend a week at the beach
Hurricane Hugo did not damage my grandparents' island house. It's still there, although they passed away long before Hugo came. But Hugo did destroy many, many island houses — blew them down, washed them away, battered them beyond repair. Sullivans Island looks different now. Shoulder to shoulder along Atlantic Avenue and I'on Avenue are the new houses that sprung up after Hugo: Big two-story or three-story modern houses elevated on high pilings, with slabs underneath, with modern kitchens, and air conditioning.
I'm not putting it down — those houses are still a delightful place to spend a week on the beach. For family reunions in the 1990s and 2000s, my six siblings and I got together about ten times with our parents and our kids, renting as many as five of those places at a time, and we had a grand time. They're very, very nice. It ain't like it used to be, as the North Mississippi Allstars sing — some of the grace, the charm, the lazy, breezy restfulness of island life, is history now. Still, the new houses are very nice.
Those old island homes wouldn't have lasted forever, Hugo or no Hugo. Lots of island houses that survived the storm ended up getting torn down and replaced. But Hugo started the ball rolling. People who own an old, maybe outdated beach house, but one with lots of memories, often don't want to part with it, even as it becomes obsolete; and if they don't have the money to fix it up or replace it, well, they just keep it going. Old houses on the beach can hang on for a long, long time. But Hugo forced everybody's hand.
So — here comes Sandy. Sandy is going to hammer New Jersey in a few days. It's going to sit there for a long time, with wind and rain. How will the Jersey shore come through it?
I've spent a little time on the Jersey shore in the last few years. Not much, but enough to see that along the shore, right on the water, right there on the ocean behind just a narrow beach and a little bitty sand dune, are a lot of old legacy houses. Jersey has a lot of those houses that have been in a family for a while, and haven't been torn down and replaced, or even modernized much. They're not on brand new FEMA-compliant elevated foundations — they're on stacks of block. They don't have shearwalls and impact-resistant windows — they've got board sheathing and old single pane windows.
How will those houses make out this week? That really depends on the storm. The wind won't be too bad — maybe 50, 60 miles an hour — at peak, maybe a little more. But this storm will move slowly, and that wind will be there for hours. It could do a lot of damage.
And then there's the storm surge. This storm may not be intense, but it is big and wide, and it will be pushing a lot of water along a wide, wide, stretch of shore. Those little dunes are not much protection, and a lot of those little houses are pretty low down. There's a full moon, and there could be two high tides happening anyway at the same time that Sandy's storm surge is washing up onto the shore. Some houses are going to be washed out. That's a certainty.
I talked yesterday with David J. Festa, a Jersey Shore contractor who happens to be working on one of those old legacy houses. It was built way back before mid-century in the classic beach house fashion. It's not elevated at all — in fact, it has no foundation at all. The floor sills rest right on gravel. Sometime in the 2000s, somebody started an illegal second-story addition on the building. When the authorities noticed, the house was condemned; then the bank foreclosed. At auction, a new buyer took the house with the understanding that the second story would come off and the house would get a real foundation. What with one thing and another, that foundation has just been finished, and right now the house has no siding. Festa's part was limited, and he's out of the picture now; but he says, "Yeah. It's right on the water. It's going to get wet."
All up and down that shore, this huge storm is going to bring some change. Like Sullivans Island, in their own way, these places are kind of laid back — certainly for New Jersey. People there have a soft accent that is more like Philadelphia or even Maryland than New York, and they take it kind of easy. From Cape May to Avalon ("cooler by a mile"), up to Atlantic City and on up to Asbury Park, the shore is going to get redrawn this week. It's the old houses from the old days — the 20s, the 30s, the 40s — that are going to suffer the worst, and for many of them, this is probably the end. It's also a new beginning; as always, the insurance money and the spec dollars will come in, and bigger, newer, better, stronger houses will spring up to replace the houses that get washed out.
But people there, I'm sure, will still remember and miss the old days. You know ... it ain't the same no more.