Tuckerton Leader

Going Home to Tuckerton Beach After Sandy

Reporter's Notebook
By PAT JOHNSON | Nov 10, 2012
Photo by: Pat Johnson What used to be a home at 29 Parker Road in Tuckerton Beach.

On Saturday, Nov. 3, Tuckerton Borough officials lifted the barricade to let residents of Tuckerton Beach come back to their homes. I was one of them. My nephew, Ray Connolly, and I had dressed appropriately, as instructed by a flyer one of the fire police members had handed us on Thursday when we first drove down South Green Street to check the status of my house on Kingfisher Road. Like all the other anxious homeowners circling the block, we were told natural gas leaks made it too dangerous to allow people back in the area.

I knew this was true because on Wednesday after the storm, I had driven around Little Egg Harbor’s lagoon community of Mystic Island as a reporter, smelled natural gas everywhere and saw the fire trucks. Mystic Island has many roads into the community and could not be cordoned off as easily as Tuckerton Beach, with its one access road.

So we had our work boots on and work gloves; luckily, my big feet fit in my nephew’s hiking boots with the help of an extra pair of socks. I have only one pair of shoes, the ones I was wearing when I left home on Sunday, Oct. 28, sealing off the storm doors with Tyvek tape. I had had two days to get my house in order for Hurricane Sandy, and had no qualms about leaving. I believed it was going to be a heck of a storm, though I had prepared better the year before, when Irene was forecast.

There was still the memory of that storm and the “It wasn’t even as bad as a nor’easter,” conversations we of the “beach area” had about it afterward. (Yes, I know Irene decimated communities northwest of here and I felt for them – but locally it was a dud.)

And that played in my mind. Still, I did get all my important papers together, finished a long-overdue project of caulking and painting window sills, packed one suitcase, got canned goods and water, cat food for two cats and their carriers. Took every bit of semi-valuable junk and some of my artwork and jammed it into the car. This year, thanks to Irene, I left my bike behind and the vacuum cleaner, though I put that on a chair (not quite a high-enough chair, I was to find out). The last task was left for Sunday morning – to get the kayak into the house.

Early Sunday morning, still dark, the cats pestered me to let them out. One of my cats is mostly feral and had eyed the carrier suspiciously. He left for parts unknown.

Daybreak and the lagoon waters were high, slapping against the bottom of the dock, and it was an hour before high tide. I quickly dressed and ran out to the road; saltwater was already creeping out of the storm drains. I got Skeeter into the carrier and the car, hiked the kayak up my five stairs and shoved it into the house, locked the door, taped it shut and, after a furtive attempt to find Minke, decided I would come back during the afternoon low tide to get him.

At the Tuckerton home of my nephew, inland and on a hill, I was welcomed by Ray’s wife, Theresa, and ensconced in the ample guest room with Skeeter, to the excitement of their two dogs.

And with their children, Kelly and Joey, we watched the first pathetic gusts of Sandy rustle the oak leaves. And we watched the weather reports, switching from one channel to the next. The rain held off till well into the afternoon. At low tide, my nephew drove my Jeep to Kingfisher Road, where the tide always pools at the entrance, where it is low. I have spent the last 16 years of my beach residency trying to avoid driving through saltwater, but my nephew said as long as I didn’t get it in the engine, I should be fine. He’s a mechanic, so OK then – we plowed through. My house was fine, but despite calling for Minke, the little gray cat was still doing his disappearing act. I left water and dry food and reluctantly left as winds started to pick up.

Sunday there was not much in the way of storm. At  mid-morning I headed over to the evacuation center at Pinelands Regional Junior High School and was surprised that it wasn’t open. There was one man waiting in his car, and another car pulled up. Rose Spratt, who lives in Mystic Shores, was worried. “Last year wasn’t too bad, but they are calling this the monster storm,” she said.

A worker at Pinelands pulled up to say the evacuation center was scheduled to open at 8 p.m. “That’s crazy,” I said. “Tuckerton Beach is already flooding.”

He said the residents of Seacrest Village Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Mystic Island were scheduled to be the first evacuees in the building, starting at noon, and the shelter would open to others at 8 p.m., though they were trying for an earlier opening, at 6 p.m.

I moved back to my own evacuation center, where we spent the afternoon snacking and watching TV.

Theresa told the kids to pack a bag for a stormy night in the basement recreation room, but since nothing dramatic was happening weather-wise, everyone went to bed as usual.

By Monday morning, this had changed. Sandy was charging up the coast, picking up speed and now, yes, the prediction seemed true: It would make direct landfall on the Jersey coast.

Raymond taped the picture window. All day we watched as Sandy muscled into the trees; branches and leaves peppered the lawn. Then a crack, and an oak tree in the front yard splintered almost in half and leaned precariously toward the road and wires.

The power went out mid-afternoon. Now the force of the wind and rain was apparent, a howling wind, but the house was sturdy and warm.

Luckily, Ray has a generator, and as it got dark, he started it up, and we had dinner and even a kind of TV for a while when he hooked up his daughter’s iPad to the giant-screen TV. The eye of Sandy was going to pass over Little Egg Harbor between 5 and 7 p.m.  “Weird,” we all agreed, that for the second year in a row a hurricane had chosen the Little Egg Inlet as its runway to land.

Around 6 p.m., Theresa let the dogs out and saw a full moon – it’s still and beautiful, she said.

An uneasy night was spent in the basement.

Tuesday and still no power. Raymond rationed the time the generator was on and worried about where he would get gas to power it if the prediction that we would be without power for a week to 10 days was true.

The family got dressed and ready to stack wood and brush after dad cut down a tree with help from a neighbor.

I tried to get information about Tuckerton Beach.

At the Dynasty Diner, I found the president of the Tuckerton Beach Association, Gerard Schultz, catching a meal between volunteer duties. “What street are you on? Kingfisher? Pretty bad,” he said. “But Parker is the worst – most of the homes facing the bay are gone.” His eyes welled with tears. He knows many residents intimately and has made the beautification of Tuckerton Beach his life. He suggested I might have as much as five feet of water in my house. Schultz winced when I suggested I might not rebuild. Years of storm-driven high tides have made me ambivalent about my love.

Schultz told me I couldn’t get on the beach even with my press credentials, but I rode that way anyway and saw a giant silver maple tree lying on the ground. It had been a small joy to see it turn green in the spring and yellow in fall on my trips back and forth to home. Yes, the landscape had changed.

I also saw boats stacked up like toys at G.E.B. Marina.

I parked in the marina’s clamshell lot and walked to the barricade. Bonnie Richmond came out of her house on South Green Street and offered me sympathy and a cup of tea. I met her friend Sue Kramer from Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island. She was evacuated and, like me, didn’t know anything of the status of her home.

We were all in the same foundering boat.

I drove back to town to take pictures of the raging Tuckerton Creek at the dam construction site. The level of the lake had been lowered 6 feet for the construction project, and now it had filled up again. Buck Evans, the mayor of Tuckerton, stopped his truck and gave me a lift back to my car. “It’s bad. I love Tuckerton, and to see it like this ....”  Evans had water in his house, about six inches, he thought. He estimated my home to have much more. “Every street has its issues; there are boats everywhere, and homes have been washed away on Parker Road.”

“Wow, it must be bad,” I thought.

I stopped in Tuckerton’s municipal hall, where the police station relocated before the storm. The station is on South Green Street in the flood plain.

Harold Spedding was the man to talk to, the director of emergency management, but since he was on a radio and a cell phone and talking to someone as well, I was directed to Tuckerton’s new business administrator, Jenny Gleghorn. She told me we wouldn’t be able to access the beach area, probably for days. “Public works is out clearing all the main streets. Our construction official, Phil Reed, is assessing the damages. We’re making every effort to get Tuckerton Beach back to some sort of normalcy. The evacuees at Pinelands are going to have to stay until further notice.

“There are still people out in Tuckerton Beach waiting to be evacuated. This was a bad one, with the full moon and astronomical high tides – there was water over some of the buildings.”

Over at the Tuckeron Firehouse, Chief Lee Eggert’s wife, Caroline, was frying pork roll and eggs on a grill in the open fire truck bay. “I’ve been here all night, feeding the troops, dispatching calls, doing everything I can,” she said.

Chief Eggert was inside with some of the volunteer firefighters. They answered 48 calls Monday night, evacuating people who changed their minds about weathering the storm at home and clearing downed trees from roadways so emergency crews could get through. One of the pumpers, equipped with a generator, was over at borough hall supplying it with power.

“People decided to brave the storm, then changed their minds, and then the water was too deep for them to leave,“ Eggert said. “Some of the older people thought this was just another storm, but then it really took off.

“I had an old ladder truck over at the shop (Eggert’s business is repairing and refurbishing emergency vehicles) and took it through at ‘low ’ tide yesterday afternoon when there was four feet of water. We evacuated two elderly men and a home care health aide from their home at the end of Marlin (Road). The guys (firemen) put their drysuits on the victims so they wouldn’t get wet.

“We’ve had help from the Bridgeton Fire Co. and Cumberland; Mystic Island was busier then we were.”

Back home,as I was playing a board game with the kids, suddenly the lights come back on in  the afternoon. “Yes!” Ray high-fived me.

We watched the news, bad news about Long Beach Island had started to leak into the reports. The Island had been breached in many places – the ocean met the bay. My office is in Surf City. It started to dawn on me that I was probably homeless and perhaps jobless – but for today, all my needs were met and I was well taken care of.

News of the coast was heartbreaking, awful. Surprising footage of Tuckerton Beach was shown on two news shows, surprising because the T-beach had been misidentified both times: Channel 3 said the footage was of Long Beach Island devastation, and the weatherman on Channel 62 believed it to be of Beach Haven West. I recognized our crazy lagoon system from the air and the roof of the Tuckerton Beach Grille –no mistaking it, it was Tuckerton Beach, and it was surrounded by water. But an aerial view didn’t tell me much; the beach has been flooded many a time, at least twice a winter and once or twice each fall and spring. We know we live in a flood zone. The aerial view didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know; it didn’t tell me how deep.

On Saturday, Nov. 3, we delayed going to Tuckerton Beach until late morning to avoid the line of cars waiting to get through. Traffic in town was backed up on Green Street. Now with my level-headed nephew Ray, we approached the barricade and were waved through, driving carefully around the four or five boats the Tuckerton public works department had pushed off to the side of the road.

There was salt marsh reed everywhere, floating docks, boats of all sizes, kayaks. It was crazy. How could there be so much junk? Household items, plastic buckets, pieces of dock, pilings, railroad ties, lumber and boats, boats, boats. Big boats were leaning on front yards; there was one jammed into a house. Roofs, siding gone, insulation oozing from walls like undressed wounds. We turned down Kingfisher. Folks who got here earlier were already pulling rugs, couches and chairs to the curb. I had called my flood insurance company, so I wasn’t going to do much cleaning until the adjuster could come.

My yard had collected two boats. Luckily they were small – an aluminum dory, and a  wooden duck boat that must have been hidden in the marsh since the 1980s, the date of its tattered registration sticker.

The back yard had collected about 2 feet of dead marsh reed, and in that were hundreds of plastic items. My nephew handed me a small rubber ducky. That will be a keepsake.

OK, it was a mess, like everyone else’s yard. I thought of my neighbor two doors down who has spent so much time and effort to make his home a showplace, right out of Coastal Living magazine, and I felt worse for them. I haven’t been the best neighbor on the block – not able to invest as much time or money. I had only recently painted the back of the house, using paint I had bought three years ago.

Inside we saw the water had pushed things around a bit. It had had time to leak through the floor, so there was a thin layer of wet and mud. Raymond got a ruler to measure the water line – 22 inches. I took photos.

But now I had to put on my reporter’s hat. While we surveyed the damage on my street, a neighbor, Guy Smith, and his daughter Megan came by. They stayed in their home, high up on pilings, and Megan took pictures during and right after the storm. Would I want them for the paper? I would indeed. She brought me a CD. Wow. (Megan’s photos are posted at thesandpaper.net.)

I needed to walk about a bit and get some reporting done. I headed to Parker Road, what everyone had been talking about: Seven houses there had been completely flattened and their contents pushed into the lagoon.

I was having a hard time approaching people. Their defenses were down; they were hurting and raw. I could see how they felt – I didn’t have to ask. As I was standing in the back yard of what used to be a summer home, taking pictures of the lagoon filled with what used to be the home, the owner approached me.

He has a distinctive name, Firky Girgis, and I remember talking with him some years ago in my job as reporter about the New Gretna House, a historic restaurant he was trying to purchase to rehabilitate. That fell through, and the building later burned and was torn down.

Now his granddaughters were skipping about in the debris of his home on a scavenger hunt. “Grandpa, we found your dresser,” said one. “It’s over there.” She pointed to a neighbor’s yard. “That’s OK, dear,” he said gently. Girgis’ house had been completely demolished by the storm-driven waves. “I’ve had the home for 20 years and we were in the process of moving here permanently,” he said. “No, no flood insurance.”

This reporter’s notebook, if it continued, would be full of the wonderful relief efforts made locally by churches, schools and neighbors near and far. Sandy had spent its wrath on our small towns and left behind a kind of peace: kind hearts, smiles and warm wishes, sympathy and generosity, the best people have inside them. I believe the community will rebuild with patience and time.

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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