Ortley Beach is a strip of barrier island off the Jersey Shore, a couple hours south of New York City. It was one of the worst hit parts of New Jersey a year ago when Sandy made landfall. It’s trying to rebuild, and made a lot of progress.
The tables at Johnny Fries — one of the few places open for lunch here — are packed with contractors, construction workers, and local government officials.
The town has replaced its boardwalk, brought in new sand for the beach, and the Army Corps of Engineers is going to build protective dunes. There’s a different detour every day, as all the main roads are getting rebuilt.
And still, “A year later, it still looks like Beirut at high noon in three quarters of the neighborhoods in Ortley,” says Louise Pesci. She’s stopped in at Johnny Fries for lunch.
“Houses are still broken down, on their sides or no house at all, just a pile of mortar and sticks and that’s it, I just feel sorry for the people who live here.”
Why the discrepancy? Hundreds of abandoned homes.
As he drives through town, mayor Tom Kelaher passes vacant property after vacant property.
“A lot of these were second homes, they don’t have any insurance,” he says.
He says the damage eto city property alone was 36 million, but for homes it was much worse. He estimates about 70 percent are second homes, and of them, hundreds still look like they did right after the storm.
“People who live here full time are now beginning to call us and say look at this house next door its all overgrown, I see mice and stuff under the deck,” he says. “The town has done everything we can do. We can’t go on private property and rebuild homes for people that’s an individual responsibility.”
Kelaher wants people to move back and make this community what it once was, but so far, these homeowners haven’t done that. He says if homeowners don’t deal with their property, the city’s will have to. It’s already begun citing homeowners by leaving bright orange “unsafe for habitation” stickers on unkept homes. Eventually, they’ll demolish these homes and put a lien on the property.
Fausto Dirado, 69, owns a small cottage in Ortley Beach, which was recently served with one of the a bright orange violation notices.
“When I go down the shore my wife and I we get very depressed,” he says. “We spent every summer for the last ten years down there with our grandchildren with our kids.”
Dirado is retired, he used to work at a body shop. He says right now, he just can’t afford to do anything with his vaction home in Ortley. “I got flood insurance, and I got wind insurance. The wind insurance say they blame the flood insurance, the flood insurance blame the wind insurance. Meanwhile I’m not getting anything.”
If he continues to get nothing, the city will knock down his home, and he’ll get stuck with the demolition bill if he ever tries to sell the land. He says some of his neighbors didn’t even have flood insurance, they couldn’t afford it and lived far enough back they figured they didn’t need it.
Toni Tomarazzo, another Ortley Beach homeowner whose primary home is in Hoboken, says these aren’t second homes of the rich and famous.
“These are not mcMansions in ortley beach, they are small, sometimes cottage like homes, that people have saved a lifetime to be able to invest in.”
Her beach house was destroyed during the storm along with all its contents.
“Second homeowners were not able to take advantage of almost none of the aid packages that have come out from FEMA or the state.”
That’s not going to change any time soon though, and the municipality says it can’t wait forever. Mayor Kelaher says, “We don’t wanna signing complaints against people who are in a bind or stepping on somebody when they’re down but it’s getting to the point where we have to take steps to fix it.”
In this beach town, even one year later, Sandy is still not done wiping out homes.