TOM: As I make my way through the bruised and battered towns in the North Barrier Island, it’s clear that progress has been made since Hurricane Sandy reshaped the community that I call home. But the Jersey Shore that welcomed the This Old Houseteam as they prepared to produce their 34th season chronicling some of the rebuilding work here still looks nothing like the place I’ve grown up in and lived my entire life.
In fact, in some areas, the Shore is still like a ghost town, with broken windows and ripped curtains billowing through vacant homes. There’s piles of sand and still lots of debris littering the streets. This area is marked by barrier-island communities, which are vulnerable because the topography here of the area is very fragile. The homes here are built on a thin strip of land with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Barnegat Bay on the other.
And in fact, it’s so narrow in some places that you can actually see water on both sides, something local officials were very aware of when Sandy hit. Like Bill Curtis. He’s the mayor of Bay Head.
BILL: Well, we tried to decide whether we were going to evacuate and when. We paid very, very close attention to the governor and we decided what our emergency evacuation plans would be, how to save our vehicles and how to save people, basically.
TOM: A lot of the early rebuilding focus was on getting towns ready for summer visitors, like making sure the boardwalks and the attractions were up and running. Removing all that storm debris and getting dunes in place and beaches cleaned up was really a critical first step to restoring the local economy and getting the Jersey Shore back to what we think is a new normal.
But for the millions of people who call the Jersey Shore their home all year long, life is not just about boardwalks and beaches.
CARLOS: It started out as just a normal, you know, severe storm. I looked at the tide outside. It seemed normal. Nothing unusual.
TOM: Carlos Santos in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, knows first hand exactly what it was like living through Hurricane Sandy.
CARLOS: Through the current coming into the canal was something like I had never seen before. And I kept seeing the water rising quickly. I’ve seen the tide coming in and out and they just don’t notice it but this time, I could notice it very clearly. When the water got over the bulkhead, I knew that we were in for a little bit of trouble because that’s where the end point of Hurricane Irene was and here we are, we were just starting off and we were already beyond that. So, I knew we were in for a rough night.
TOM: And that was only the beginning of the journey for Carlos and his wife, Maria. They then had to figure out how to move forward. But one thing they knew for sure was that they wanted to stay and to rebuild.
And in fact, they’re doing just that even though, at this point, most of the construction costs are coming out of pocket for them because they’re still battling their insurance company for coverage, a situation that’s become way too common around here.
Another Jersey Shore homeowner is Rita Gurry. She’s a nurse who calls Manasquan home. And Rita had actually just paid off her home in September of 2012, just one month before Sandy hit.
RITA: So, I opened the door into my living room. All my furniture and my chairs were – they were in other rooms. They had floated, I guess, all around the house. Everything was just destroyed. My lamps were on the floor, my furniture was completely soaked. It was just – and I made the decision within 10 minutes that there’s no way I can repair this house. My house …
TOM: So Rita didn’t repair. Instead, she decided to demo her house and put in a new modular home in its place.
These homeowners are a couple of the fortunate few. Despite enormous challenges, they have been able to move forward with rebuilding and renovation. And they’re doing that under the expert eyes of the cast and the crew of This Old House.
I met up with host Kevin O’Connor at Rita Gurry’s house in Manasquan. It was a big shock for Kevin to see the damage caused by Sandy firsthand.
KEVIN: We were looking at several communities on the Jersey Shore. But for us, the ground zero has been Mantoloking, one of the towns on the barrier islands. And the devastation there was like nothing I had seen anywhere else on the Jersey Shore. A hundred percent of the homes in that community where affected by the storm: either houses destroyed or flooded. Houses that literally look like they had been through a blender, twisted and turned.
It’s a remarkable site. And unfortunately, a lot of folks aren’t back and aren’t going to be back for a while. So even though we’re not doing a house in Mantoloking, for us it serves as sort of the starkest example of how devastating Hurricane Sandy was.
TOM: So, for the first time ever, the team at This Old House is following the renovation of three homes at the same time: an 1880 Shore cottage in Bay Head, a 1950s Colonial in Point Pleasant and Rita’s new prefabricated house in Manasquan.
SARAH: I guess the hardest thing is deciding what part of the story to tell and what part of the story not to tell because we have a limited amount of time.
TOM: Sarah Monzón is one of the producers for This Old House: The Jersey Shore, which kicks off the show’s 34th year on television. Every season is a challenge and this one was no different.
SARAH: It’s the year of everything. To have to choose three house of everything that’s going on down here and the raw tragedy that we are seeing every day as we drive by, people who have completely been left homeless. I mean it’s heart-wrenching to see row after row of houses that you don’t know if those people are coming back. It’s heartening to cover the ones that are but part of you always thinks, "Am I telling the whole story if I don’t tell the story of those who can’t come back?"
TOM: Everybody loves a comeback story. And when the comeback involves the millions of residents and visitors of the iconic Jersey Shore, it takes on a special meaning for those of us who grew up here. And that includes This Old House host Kevin O’Connor.
Hey, Kevin, welcome to the Jersey Shore. Nice to have you in my neighborhood.
KEVIN: It’s good to be in your neighborhood and it’s good to be home.
TOM: Yeah, you grew up here, didn’t you?
KEVIN: I did. I grew up in Maplewood and I lived there straight through until I went to Massachusetts for college. But I still have a lot of family in New Jersey. I still come back to the Jersey Shore of Long Beach Island every year. I haven’t missed it in almost four decades.
TOM: There’s clearly a lot to do to restore these communities but the good news is that with what we now know about how to build homes that can stand up to storms, they’ll be better than ever.
And just like they have for disasters in the past, This Old House is here to follow what three homeowners are doing to get on the road to recovery. And they’ll help inspire millions more who will watch This Old House show the rest of the nation what it really means to be Jersey strong.