Last week I received an annual Christmas letter from my long-time outdoor education friend and colleague, Jim Merritt, but this letter was like no other. Jim and his family live in Seaside Park, that part of New Jersey so terribly devastated by Hurricane Sandy and the resulting tidal surge. I’d been very concerned for the health and safety of Jim and his family throughout the hurricane, waiting to hear from him, and once I heard he was safe somewhere, I spent a good few hours searching the terrible photos of Seaside Park to see if I could see how his house had fared.
In addition, Jim teaches at the nearby Sedge Island Natural Resources Education Centre in Barnegat Bay, and I’ve been really concerned whether it (and the fragile marine environment they have been restoring) have survived. Here is Jim’s revealing update on the current realities in Seaside Park and Sedge Island.
I am writing our annual Christmas letter in the same place where I have for the last few years. I am sitting in my comfortable chair by the window where I can look out at the bay. It is sunny and windy. The temperature outside the house is 34F. It is winter at the shore and as usual, very few people are around. But, as a result of Super Storm Sandy, things here are different now, and perhaps forever.
The temperature inside the house is 46F. I am in a sleeping bag wearing a hat and jacket. I have a small electric heater warming me and a 6’ tall tropical Papaya tree that Judy has begged me to warm every time I visit the house. Yes, we are still VISITING our house as we have been for the past two months. The island is still under martial law.
We are only allowed on the island from 8AM to 4PM. Before we drive over the bridge, we first show our sticker to the State Police and then, closer to our house, we pass through a local police checkpoint. In spite of all that, things are moving much faster than predicted. Once we get the gas turned on (the main gas line was broken at the northern end of our island), we can get the heating ducts in our crawl space replaced, get our furnace working, turn the water on, and we can live in our house. We hope to be home by Christmas.
During the height of the storm, ocean water ran down our street like a river and added to the water flooding in from the bay. The water was four feet deep in the street in front of our house. Most of the boats in the local marina floated off their winter supports and drifted around our neighborhood. Friends who stayed during the storm felt fairly safe in their homes until they witnessed a tidal surge. A three-foot wall of water smashed in the fronts of many houses facing the bay. Huge old beachfront homes were washed off their foundations.
We had complied with the mandatory evacuation order and had packed our most valuable possessions and left the day before. We are more fortunate than many of people on the Jersey Shore. Our house is higher than many buildings on the bay side of the barrier island. We got water up to our deck, but it did not come in our house because our floor is 8.6’ above sea level. Also, we have been planting dune grass on our beach for years to hold sand and increase the height of the sand dunes. Only at the highest tide and only for a brief period of time did water run down our street through the narrow walkway that we use to access our beach.
Our neighbors across the street, like so many others, lost everything on the first floor of their house. All of their possessions including furniture, appliances, insulation, sheet rock, are now in the street in front of their house. Cars look fine, but salt water has completely ruined the electronic components and they will never run again. Many of our friends have lived in their house for decades with no problems, and never felt the need to purchase flood insurance. It is very sad.
For the past two months we have had the good fortune to be able to live near Seaside Park. Immediately after the storm, some good friends offered to let us stay in a small apartment behind their house in Island Heights. Within a week they moved to their house in Vermont leaving their entire Island Heights house for us. We have been thoroughly spoiled with a king size bed, big screen TV and a great hot tub. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Obviously the storm has affected our lives in many ways in addition to being out of our home. Judy’s school in Lavallette is also on the barrier island. Although the school building was undamaged, all of her students had to evacuate the island and find housing elsewhere. Many lost their homes, their cars – everything. The Lavallette school board rented space in a Greek Orthodox Church and ninety percent of the students are attending their new school. Every day clothing, food, school supplies and many other donations arrive for students and faculty.
The buildings at Sedge Island Natural Resources Education Centre remain standing, but water up to eight inches deep ruined our kitchen and appliances. Our docks were washed away. Two rows of batteries for the solar power system were under water. One of our Clivus Multrum composting toilets floated two hundred yards north, and came to rest in a slightly higher part of the island.
The DEP estimates that it will cost $500,000 to repair the damage and that we will not be able to open next year. The Sedge staff is far more optimistic. We are using volunteer help to make many repairs ourselves. We are planning a fundraising campaign to purchase materials and replace things we have lost. We want to open Sedge in April 2013!
I have gone and on about the storm, but obviously it has had a huge impact on our lives. We know how fortunate we are. We are alive and healthy. We lost very little compared to so many others. Family members from New Jersey to California have been incredibly supportive. Friends from all over the world have inquired about us. We are OK. Love to you all.
Jim and family
P.S. The day after Jim wrote this, we got our gas turned on and we have been given permission to repopulate as of today, 12-20-12!! We hope to spend our first night in the house the on the solstice, 12-21-12!