Sandy Episode 3: Stories of Survival

  • Transcript

    When Hurricane Sandy made the Jersey Shore its direct target, the damage was devastating. Now, almost a year later, This Old House is documenting the renovation of three uninhabitable homes in three iconic New Jersey Shore towns.

    TOM: And The Money Pit has been given exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to bring the stories of these renovations, and the victims behind them, to you, presented by Red Devil. And in the next episode, This Old House takes a look at a town that was basically wiped off the map.

    LESLIE: Yeah. Every single home in the borough of Mantoloking was damaged and some were completely washed away. You can watch This Old House: Jersey Shore Rebuilds on your local PBS station. This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by The Home Depot. More saving, more doing.

    Here’s our report.

    TOM: Of all the television images that followed Hurricane Sandy’s attack on the Jersey Shore, it was the images of Mantoloking, New Jersey, that of a town literally ripped in two, which captured the absolute havoc caused by the enormous storm surge.

    Mantoloking is a small, quiet community on the Barnegat Peninsula. With only 300 full-time residents, the population grows to over 5,000 every summer, most of who live on the beachfront or on the Barnegat Bay with just a narrow strip of homes and State Highway 35 separating the two sides of the barrier island.

    Visiting the area just six months after Sandy hit, This Old House host Kevin O’Connor describes what the team found.

    KEVIN: In terms of the property damage, it was incredible. The storm literally breached that little island and it connected ocean to bay. And in the process, it took about 12 or 13 houses that were on the beach, washed them across the state highway and into the bay. And we were down there six months later and some of those houses were still in the bay.

    It was 100-percent devastation in many parts of this community. It wiped out services, natural gas, electricity. It wiped out the highway. There was extensive damage to one of the only two bridges to get on or off of the island. So in many respects, it was one of the hardest-hit areas of the storm.

    TOM: Along with Bay Head to the north, this area of the Jersey Shore is known as the Gold Coast. There’s traditionally styled houses reflecting a seashore Colonial design, similar to what you might see in places like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.

    Fortunately, 100 percent of Mantoloking residents evacuated the barrier island before Sandy struck, which resulted in no injuries or loss of life. But the oceanfront homes, with their million-dollar views, were quite vulnerable to the open sea as Sandy literally ripped the island in two, washing away over a dozen homes in the process.

    In Bay Head, the borough just north of Mantoloking, Mayor Bill Curtis says steps his town took decades ago prevented the kind of damage that reshaped Mantoloking forever. Bay Head had constructed something called a “rock-wall revetment.” It’s a sort of natural retaining wall that was key to the town’s survival.

    BILL: One of the things that saved Bay Head, I’m convinced, is the rock-wall revetment that Bay Head has had since 1962, through 80 percent of the town. On north end of town, where there’s no rock wall, that was the major destruction. We’re the only town along the barrier island that has a rock-wall revetment and it saved our homes. Yes, we got battered but it didn’t undermine all of the homes on the oceanfront and have them swept into the homes behind them.

    TOM: In Bay Head, the This Old House team is following Jed and Chris Laird as they rebuild their 1800s beach cottage. It’s a home that’s been in their family for decades. And knowing that they would be away from their home all winter, Chris Laird says they prepared as best they could when they locked up for the season last October.

    CHRIS: The last time that we were at our house before Sandy coincided with the Bay Head Halloween Parade, which is the Sunday before Halloween. And every year, we pack up our house and move north for the winter and basically close the house down. And we had prepared for Irene the year before and basically moved valuables and electronics either north or upstairs and hoped that nothing would be touched in the upstairs.

    A lot of people were concerned about potential high-wind damage, so we thought, “Keep things away from the windows.” And we basically moved art and electronics either up north or upstairs and didn’t really do much else than that.

    TOM: And those small steps did help save some of their valuables. But that was perhaps the only upside to what they found when they finally got to see their home several days after Sandy struck. Jed recalled his first impression.

    JED: “This is awful.” It was horrific. It was clear that 5 feet of water had come in and stayed there for an extended period of time. Most visible image I had was our refrigerator had face-planted on the kitchen floor. How powerful was the water that allowed it to effectively pick up the refrigerator and deposit it on its side?

    TOM: For most Sandy victims, taking in what happened and deciding what to do next was an extremely confusing process, with lots of conflicting advice. The natural desire was to get back in as quickly as possible and start to live life again. But according to Chris Laird, waiting before making any major decisions was truly the best advice.

    CHRIS: A structural engineer said, “Based on my report, you should rip it down and start over.” And we didn’t want to do that but you get so many voices when you’re in a state of panic that you – and thankfully, we did nothing. You know, we had our good contractors, Phil and Kevin, saying, “We can do this. We can get it back to where you are, where you want to be and make it the house that you’ve always loved,” that we’ve had so many family memories in.

    TOM: For the Lairds, at least, the memories won out. After three decades of spending time here at the Jersey Shore, they just couldn’t bear the thought of losing a home that had been in their family for generations. So, they started the long process of rebuilding. And along the way, they got some unexpected support that’s been a true saving grace.

    JED: And This Old House came and we, first of all, started with – our basic goal is to get our old house back. The guidance was helpful but it was really just the underlying interest in our effort. There weren’t specific structural things or design things that they said, “You should do this or you should do that.” They were just the opposite. They were – “We’d like to document what you intend to do.” But their support has really, really been buoying to us.

    TOM: So, as the Lairds hoisted the sails on their rebuilding project, the This Old Houseteam was on board as they cast off together on the journey to take back a home: a home that Hurricane Sandy almost carried off to sea.

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