Carpenters are installing a railing along a rebuilt boardwalk, intent on getting it ready for the Memorial Day weekend. The smell of fried food hangs in the air as vendors fire up their fryers for funnel cakes and French fries. Almost everywhere, painters are trying to cover rusty spots outside concession stands selling T-shirts and offering games of chance.
This will be the first Memorial Day weekend since superstorm Sandy ripped up boardwalks, flooded a wide area from Long Island to New Jersey, and uprooted many lives. Now, with the unofficial kickoff to summer, Jersey Shore merchants are hoping that tourists come for a day in the sun, a dash in the surf, and a walk along the boardwalk to spend some money.
It’s key they do: Summer is when the lion’s share of tourism happens here, and tourism is central to the region’s economy.
“Hopefully, people will come down and support us,” says Vinny Scuzzese, who has been running Vinny’s Games in Seaside Heights for the past 21 years. “We’re open.”
But tourists will find uneven progress in the recovery efforts after Sandy. While many repairs have been made, and places like Vinny’s Games are open, visitors will have to overlook the fact that many amusement rides won’t be ready. Restrooms will be in short supply, and lot of fishing piers are still closed. Also, in some areas along the shore, lodging won’t be as plentiful as in past years because Sandy swept some rental homes into the sea.
According to the state of New Jersey, about $19 billion comes from tourism in the area that stretches from Monmouth County (the closest shore county to New York) to Cape May (the southern tip of the state). But merchants say the combination of a cold, wet spring and the public’s uncertainty over what might be open has already cost them.
“We really need a good summer because our spring business was so far down,” says Mark Tenore, who runs some parking garages in Seaside Heights.
Some merchants in this beachside community were encouraged that Prince Harry toured the area last week. The prince was shown the Casino Pier where the Jet Star, a roller-coaster type of ride, was washed into the sea and became a media symbol of the power of the storm. As Harry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) watched, a crane worked to remove the debris.
“A visit by royalty was good,” says Mr. Scuzzese, who notes that it resulted in a lot of media attention on the rebuilding process.
A key step is communicating to the public whether a particular area is open for business. For example, on Long Beach Island, the damage was not as severe in the northern area as in the southern area, says Fran Puskas, a real estate agent at Long Beach Island Real Estate.
“There are places on the southern part of the island that are still being repaired; the sand is still being shoveled out,” she says, specifically mentioning Holgate, a beachside community that was badly hit by the storm.
Prince Harry also visited Mantoloking, only a short distance north of Seaside Heights on a barrier island, to see homes that have crumbled along the shoreline. Mantoloking made news after Sandy because the ocean breached the island, creating a new inlet. The US Army Corps of Engineers worked 24 hours a day to get 3,300 truckloads of sand into the breach.
Mantoloking had 60 homes washed away, and municipal clerk Irene Ryan says there could be another 100 to 150 homes that need to be demolished. Residents have been warned that visiting the beach is dangerous, she says: There are no wood walkways down to the water, and the beaches are experiencing strong riptides.
“There is still a lot of debris in the ocean,” Ms. Ryan says. “Things are still washing in.”
Further north in Monmouth County, Ocean Grove lost a portion of its boardwalk to Sandy. The force of the storm also destroyed the community’s fishing pier. A person answering phones for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which has an affiliation with the United Methodist Church, says that the beaches will be open for the Memorial Day weekend and that parts of the boardwalk are also operational.
It’s not clear when the damaged parts of the boardwalk will get rebuilt because the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Ocean Grove federal funding. Ocean Grove is appealing the decision.
Just north of Ocean Grove, merchants on the boardwalk at Asbury Park say most of them will be ready for the start of summer.
“We’ve had to replace all our plumbing, all our appliances, all our electric wires, and now everything is brand new,” says Eddie Catalano, whose boardwalk shop named Eddie Confetti sells ice cream and coffee.
He estimates that during Sandy, his shop had about three feet of water inside. But he has cleaned it up, repainted everything, and is just waiting for the crowds. “We’re ready to do business,” he says.
To a lesser extent that would be true of Sea Bright, a town about 10 miles north. During Sandy, the ocean flooded over the community and joined up with the Shrewsbury River.
According to a town clerk who asked to be referred to only as Chris, many of the 1,412 residents have not returned yet. “I don’t know if we would be more than 50 percent occupied at this point,” she says.
Many of the beach clubs fronting on the ocean there were destroyed. But they all expect to open – even if in a limited fashion – for Memorial Day weekend. “Some will be less functioning than others,” the clerk says.
In the middle of Sea Bright, the United Methodist Church in town is open and glad to tell that to the residents and visitors. A large sign draped across the front of the church proclaims, “Praise God! We are open! All are welcome!”
The church sustained about $200,000 in damage from the storm, says Pastor Michael Turner, who will hold services this Sunday. He views Sea Bright’s recovery as an opportunity to help other storm-ravaged areas, such as Moore, Okla., which is picking up the pieces after Monday’s tornado.
“We received hope from Katrina,” he says of the rebuilding that took place after the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast. “Now it’s up to us to rebuild, to pass on that hope,” he says.