At first, it was kind of comical — a storm called Sandy aimed right at the Jersey Shore. How aptly named.
In the buildup to its landfall, many thought it was a safe bet that Sandy wouldn’t be as serious as expected, like her cousin Irene the previous fall. The state had ramped up for that storm, and my mom and best friend, who had a six-week-old baby at the time, were issued mandatory evacuations for their coastal towns in Ocean County, NJ.
I chatted with my best friend last Saturday night East Coast time. She was once again gearing up for an evacuation, her now 15-month-old son babbling in the background as he tried to “help” pack. My mom emailed to say she had received another mandatory evacuation notice but was going to stay put with my sister and uncle in southern Ocean County, about 30 miles north of Atlantic City, right where Sandy was predicted to make landfall Monday night. Reports came that further up the coast, near my hometown of Brick, NJ, a portion of which sits on the same barrier island as Seaside Heights, where the Jersey Shore was originally filmed, massive destruction to homes was possible.
I stayed even-headed about it all until Tuesday morning Sydney time, when I started seeing all the pictures of early flooding and news updates online. My sister posted a picture in the middle of the day Monday U.S. time on the East Coast of the rising bay behind my mom’s house, a full seven hours before the storm was actually due to hit. There were the normal cheeky Facebook updates about stocking up on booze as companies swiftly canceled the following day of work. But amidst the silly sarcasm, it was becoming clear that the forecasters had been right this time. Sandy was going to hit, and she was going to hit hard.
Then the hilarity turned to hysteria. Lights began flickering in houses as the power went out town by town. The wind rapped on the windows as structures shuttered. I emailed my mom, then tried to phone her, but it went straight to voicemail. I looked for my sister online. The estimated time of Sandy’s landfall — 8 p.m. — near Atlantic City drew closer. In the dark and the dwindling power, the Jersey Shore huddled together and braced itself for the worst as I watched from 16,000 miles away in sunny, springtime Sydney.
I held it together until close to the end of the work day, 2 a.m. East Coast time, when a flurry of tweets told me that much of my mom’s township was already underwater. News reports of electrical fires firefighters couldn’t reach in my mom’s area filled up my feed. I imagined my middle-aged mom and older uncle floating in a living room of filthy flood water, without power, in the cold darkness.
The thing that did it: a tweet that “bodies” were floating around in my mom’s township. Clamminess swept over me as I realized my family could die in this storm. They could already be dead or severely injured. Their house could be gone.
At home, I cracked open a beer and succumbed to the old habit I now only turn to when extremely drunk or extremely nervous — smoking. I hung out my window with a sideways glance at Brendan’s Mac live-streaming storm coverage out of New York. Reporters were stuck in a flooded hotel in Seaside Heights and images of deluged Manhattan, where a close friend lives, popped onto the screen. I continually tried to dial my mom, and then my sister, but their phones went straight to voicemail. Facebook had gone quiet as it was now 3 a.m. on the East Coast. The fear burbled up from somewhere in the bottom of my stomach. I tried to make dinner to calm myself down, but in the end I could only manage a few forkfuls. I fidgeted and paced and kept trying to dial home until I eventually exhausted myself enough to fall into bed around 10:30 p.m.
I awoke with a start just after 3 a.m. I had been dreaming about the storm. My restlessness woke Brendan. A half hour later when I was still awake, Brendan told me to try and call home. I had avoided this, the obvious thing to do, because I didn’t know if I could handle hearing my mom’s phone go straight to voicemail again. It was noon on the East Coast by this time — if she wasn’t answering her phone, it could just be that she’d lost power and hadn’t charged her phone. Or it could mean something worse.
I sat down at my computer to use Google Voice. The first try went to voicemail. I tried again after a few minutes. Three rings, and then, “Hello?”
My stomach somersaulted. “Mom?” I asked. “Are you OK?” In all my years of reaching out for or calling my mother, I was never so relieved to hear her voice as I was in that moment.
She was fine. Everything around her had flooded, but somehow, her house had been spared. There was no power, and she was conserving her phone charge for that reason. Beyond what she could immediately see around her, she had no idea how bad the storm had been. I started reading her tidbits of news — there had been fires, deaths, whole communities swept into the sea. The Mantoloking Bridge, four miles from the house in which I grew up along the road to the beach, had houses on top of it.
She was sorry she had worried me. She was sorry she had stayed behind. Never, she said, would she do that again if another massive storm threatened her coastal town.
I got myself back to sleep and then up for work a few hours later, on Halloween. Facebook posts reassured me that my closest friends were OK. My best friend’s house had also been spared, but she’d had to do a double evacuation, as the first house she went to had several trees fall on top of it.
Then the pictures started circulating. Parts of my hometown have been destroyed. The beaches are devastated and whole neighborhood blocks have been erased from the map. The most apt description of the destruction of the barrier island portion of my hometown is that “ocean met bay.”
A roller coaster from the Seaside boardwalk floats in the ocean. The boardwalk is now just scattered scraps of wood. The peninsula of LBI, where my family spent several holidays, and the last place I went fishing with my dad, is a disaster. Boats sit in driveways, nowhere near the docks to which they’d been tethered. Bridges are closed off. My old elementary school is a FEMA shelter.
These images and the news of the destruction of the area in and around where I grew up make me feel a mix of sad nostalgia and shock. New Jersey is America’s most densely-populated state and also one of its most debt-ridden. The Jersey Shore is not only iconic, but also a main source of tourism dollars for the state. It will take several jackpots and possibly several years to rebuild all that has been lost.
This is my Jersey Shore. I no longer live there, but my history and my people are there. All of my childhood and adolescence took place there. I first rode a bike, kissed a boy and drove a car there. My family and all my friends lived there, and my father died there. To know me — whether you’ve known me in New Jersey, Philadelphia or Australia — is to know that this is where I’m from.
And if you know me, you know that this one will hurt for a while.
To donate to Sandy relief efforts, visit the Red Cross web site.