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Devastation on the Jersey Shore: A Photo Essay

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By Brendan OConnor on November 2, 2012


I live in Red Bank, New Jersey. Red Bank is what people call a shore town, but it’s not a beach town. The beach is 10 minutes away by car. On Monday afternoon, as the weather started getting pretty wild, my dad and I decided to try to go see the ocean.

Sea Bright is the closest beach town to Red Bank. It lies at the top of a long chain of barrier islands; there are two bridges from the mainland to Sea Bright, the Shrewsbury River Bridge and the Highlands–Sea Bright Bridge.

Lots of people had the same idea as us, trying to get over to the beach to see the ocean. When we arrived at the Shrewsbury River Bridge, we learned that the cops had shut it down to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. I tried to talk to the officer on the bridge, but he told me that he wasn’t allowed to answer any questions.

On the Shrewsbury River Bridge, as the wind and rain got more and more wild, I spoke with two residents of Long Branch, a beach town just south of Sea Bright. Steve Row and Cat McCue had vacated to Steve’s parents’ house in nearby Shrewsbury over the weekend. Steve works at the Channel Club Marina in Monmouth Beach, where they had to pull 60 boats out of the water in two days.

Both agreed that Sandy was already, by noon on Monday, one of the worst storms they had ever experienced. Steve, who lived in Sea Bright for a long time, looked across the inlet to his old hometown. “Glad I don’t live there anymore,” he remarked.

My dad and I headed up to the Mount Mitchell Scenic Overlook in the Atlantic Highlands to see what we could see. Mount Mitchell is the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard, don’t you know.

Turns out, you can’t really see very much of anything from the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard when it’s raining as much as it was on Monday.

While there, we learned that the Highlands–Sea Bright Bridge was still open to pedestrians, so we made our way down.

It’s difficult to talk about particularly rough waters without sounding melodramatic or using cliches, but when you’re standing in front of an ocean as angry as that one was, you really do feel like you’re in the presence of some incredible, alien power. It sounds ridiculous to say, but it’s true.

This was at around 3:00 on Monday. The next high tide was at 9:00, and already the water was closer to the sea wall than I’ve ever seen it. Water is not supposed to be that close to the sea wall.

On Tuesday morning, I ventured out into Red Bank at 8:00 a.m. I wanted to go back out to the Highlands–Sea Bright Bridge to catch high tide around 9:00. This is what greeted me as I stepped out the door:

We got lucky in Red Bank. There was hardly any flooding at all, as far as I know, but we had and still have trees down everywhere, many pulling down power lines. Boats are littering the shores of the Navesink.

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My dad and I crossed the Highlands–Sea Bright Bridge around 9:00. The water, at least in that part of Sea Bright, had receded. A layer of sand and mud, however, covered everything in sight.

That is the northernmost part of Sea Bright. I wish I had ventured farther south, because now the entire town is locked down by the National Guard. Rumors of unspeakable devastation abound. Residents aren’t allowed back into the town for at least a week. They won’t be allowed to move back into their homes (if any are habitable) for even longer.

My dad and I crossed back over the bridge to explore the lower Highlands. It was obvious even from a distance that the waterfront town, even sheltered as it is by the barrier islands from the full fury of the storm, was hit hard.

Here’s the dock at Moby’s up close:

There was still quite a bit of flooding in the Highlands as of Tuesday morning.

The water, while still present (obviously), had significantly receded from its highest point, about two feet.

Laura surveys the damage to her pancake house:

The Highlands marina is a mess. “Fuck this town,” opined a local. Many boats that were not pulled out of the water ended up underneath it.

Many houses in the area, evacuated days before the storm hit, are still empty. Before leaving, the residents scrawled messages across their boarded-up windows. “Really?” one asks of Mother Nature. “Middle finger,” explains another. Welcome to New Jersey, Sandy.

Headed home, we found this boat run aground just before the Oceanic Bridge.

Even without power, Brannigan’s Bar and Grill in Red Bank was not only open on Tuesday night but packed with people sharing stories of the storm and trying to piece together an idea of how badly the beach towns got hit.

I spoke with a man named Renison (“Reny”), a landscaper, who was already back working. A resident of Tinton Falls, he told me that he had made sure to come by Brannigan’s after a long day of clearing people’s driveways of trees. He knew the Brannigan’s people also owned Donovan’s Reef in Sea Bright, which he had heard was completely destroyed.

On Wednesday, I raked more leaves out of my yard than I’ve ever raked before. On Thursday, I was down in Avon helping family friends clean up their house. They had three feet of water in their garage and a foot of water through the first floor.

Everyone in Red Bank keeps noting how lucky we got, and we really did get lucky. All we have to deal with are the relatively minor inconveniences: no power in our homes, waiting in line for hours to get gas, things like that. But even if you didn’t get a tree through your bedroom or two feet of mud through the first floor of your house, even if your neighborhood didn’t burn down, there’s a toll you pay walking and driving around, seeing so much devastation.

It’s no wonder the first places to open back up were bars.

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