Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur, a New Jersey native, travels home in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to see how her beloved Ocean City, and its resilient residents, are doing.
OCEAN CITY, N. J. — I’ve come to refer to my native New Jersey as The Punchline State.
People from other places always make fun of it. The stench of the city of Elizabeth. “The Sopranos” and the “Real Housewives.” Here in the Garden State, we talk through our noses, snap our gum and wear too much makeup.
And oh, how we wish we were as big time as New York or Philadelphia, instead of tucked in between like the wisecracking sidekick you always want to come along but never let drive.
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Hurricane Sandy changed all that.
She put New Jersey on the map by nearly knocking us off it.
As of Saturday, there were 23 storm-related deaths in the state. About 1.2 million people are still without power and 6,000 are in shelters. Sixty-five percent of gas stations were closed because they didn’t have power or were tapped out. Hoboken was so overcome by flooding that the National Guard was called in.
But nowhere took it harder than the Jersey Shore, the place that gave us our sun-kissed color and our national cred, thanks to Bruce Springsteen and the boardwalks and the beauty that no one could deny.
Perhaps that’s why Sandy chose to hit land here, like a girl who crashed an offseason party — and ruined everything.
On Monday, Sandy didn’t so much arrive as bust the door down, with 100-mile winds and rushing water that felt like the sea we so loved had turned against us.
Some people left, and others headed for their basements until Sandy headed north, leaving a 1,000-mile mess that no one thought possible. Roller coasters in the ocean. Gazebos out to sea. And water, water everywhere — swelling wood, soaking carpets and couches, and tearing the siding off houses.
In Atlantic City, Sandy ripped the end off the storied boardwalk, tossed some of it into the ocean and some into the street, the boards like a pile of matchsticks.
I watched it all from Seattle, but I had to see for myself whether Ocean City, my beloved spot on the Jersey Shore, was OK. So I packed my Seattle galoshes and flew home.
I have been coming to Ocean City for most of my life, but more regularly for the last decade, renting a house and making memories that have soothed every sadness and warmed every cold day.
Here, there are certain traditions, beloved people, incomparable food and a shorthand way of talking that pulls us all together. You don’t go to “the beach,” you go “down the shore.” Then you cross “the boards” to get to the beach.
But you can’t go anywhere until you first stop at Mary’s.
Mary Dolan Long is my best friend’s mother and has been a part of my life for almost 40 years. When I arrived in Ocean City, she hugged me hard, called me Precious and hugged me again.
She had returned to her house the day before to find working power, heat and minor damage. No one had been killed, no houses had been destroyed, but Long couldn’t bring herself to walk up to the boardwalk.
“Too much trauma,” she said.
We decided to go up together, locking arms against the wind and the emotions. We walked to the next street over, where the sand stood 4 feet high. That means the water had been at least that deep.
The stairs leading down to the beach were fine, but there was yellow tape across the ramp, which had been lifted out of the ground.
The boardwalk was ghostly, partly because it is November and the shops, food stands and rides were closed anyway.
But the Fudge Kitchen was open, as it is every day except Christmas.
“We see this as comfort food,” said Ahmed Ahmed, 25, the manager. “And we always advertise that we’re open every day. Why should now be any different?”
Local John Howell had stopped in to check on things.
“How’s Brown’s, have you heard?” he asked me. I hadn’t — but I understood his concern. Brown’s has the best doughnuts around, with lines that stretch down the boardwalk in the summer.
“I mean, Sandy is one thing, but don’t mess with the food! The popcorn, the taffy, the pizza,” Howell said.
Sandy did mess with everything else. The dunes were carved down to nubs, moved wholesale down the beach or channeled between houses into the streets. Trees were toppled, their roots exposed. The water lifted industrial refrigerators like they were tailgate coolers. Same with cars, trampolines and so much furniture.
Heavy cleanup machinery now rules streets that kids on bikes own in the summer. Street cleaners and utility trucks, mobile dredging and pumping — the kind of trucks you only see when disaster strikes.
On West Street, John and Marcia Young sat in recliners outside their garage, everything in their house laid out to dry before them — and wet carpets rolled up to be tossed.
“It’s disgusting and frustrating, the mess around here,” said Marcia Young, who came down the day before from their house in Souderton, Pa. “Ten inches of water inside.”
John Young held a wrench in his hand. He had been carrying it around all day. They bought the house in 1986, as their second home.
“This is an all-timer, I guess,” he said.
Down at the south end of Ocean City, where the ocean met the bay on Central Avenue, the streets were filled with sand. The 59th Street Pier, a popular fishing spot, was gone.
Don and Mary Ellen Tomasso saw their Central Avenue house on CNN; the ocean rushing down the side and front streets. And they, stuck at home in Maryland.
“I saw that on TV and I had to run to the restroom,” Don Tomasso said.
“When you’re sitting there watching that and you’re 200 miles away it’s a little unsettling,” Mary Ellen Tomasso said.
Don Tomasso has been coming to Ocean City for 60 years, first with his parents, then with his own kids and now with their five grandchildren.
He was here through the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. They came back from that, and they will come back from this.
“I put my Iwo Jima flag up,” he said, nodding to the American flag whipping in the wind on the pole in front of the house. “It’s a sign of victory.”
Jersey strong, I told him. See you guys next summer.
“Come back up and have a glass of wine on the porch,” Mary Ellen Tomasso called after me. “See what it’s supposed to look like.”
Three houses down is “Dun Wurkin,” a humble blue house that the Kolmer family has owned for 50 years. They lost the first floor of the house in the 1962 storm, “and found the second on Asbury Avenue,” said Kevin Kolmer, who lives in Berwyn, Pa.
“When I came here yesterday,” he said, then paused. “It was hard.”
There are six kids in their family and they’ve spent every summer here.
“It’s a little house,” he said. “Five boys, one girl, all big balookas, and it never seemed too tight.”
His brother, Brian Kolmer, lives in Ocean City and was here through the hurricane.
“I was shocked, but pleased that this house wasn’t gone,” he said, then grabbed a wheelbarrow to haul another load of sand from where it had been swept out of the house.
His smile never faded. Something Jersey about that.
“Ah, when you’ve got the Atlantic Ocean as your backyard,” he said, “that’s the price you’ve gotta pay.”