New Jersey Town Still Struggling to Rebuild After Sandy

September 10, 2013 Updated: September 16, 2013

NEW YORK—The mayor of Sea Bright, N.J., knows a thing or two about the struggles of post-Sandy recovery.

Mayor Dina Long has a full-time job and works as a volunteer mayor for the seaside community of approximately 700. She lost her home in Hurricane Sandy and is paying rent on temporary housing plus her mortgage.

“Ten months later, I’m still displaced,” Long said during a break at a water resiliency and planning conference in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 9. “We’d like to rebuild a safe house, a flood resilient house.”

Long is required to elevate her home, but did not get a fair insurance settlement, making the cost of repairs equal to or greater than the value of the house. Long’s situation is not unique. Almost a year after Sandy, Sea Bright has only recovered about half of its pre-Sandy population of 1,400.

“Some people have mailed their house keys to the mortgage companies,” Long said.

Long had taken the day off from her non-mayoral day job to represent Sea Bright at the H209 Forum, an international gathering of experts on planning, infrastructure, and resiliency from the United States, the Netherlands, Vietnam, and beyond.

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The two-day conference in Manhattan, which runs through Sept. 10, brings together experts from coastal cities to share differing approaches and expertise. One of the forum’s aims is to commingle creative ideas and proposals across many platforms and geographic locales.

As Mayor Long held court on stage before an audience of about 300 people, two student teams from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) presented their visions of what Sea Bright could do to become a more resilient coastal town.

The undergraduate students from NJIT’s School of Architecture made presentations using the town’s dominating sea wall as an integral part of their proposals.

One of the teams, Ashwin Yadav and Benazir Rowneki, envisioned a multilevel condo building near the town’s sea wall that incorporates shared outdoor space, ocean views, and an elevated structure that would prevent future flooding in the case of another storm surge.

Their plan is also part of the 3C competition under Operation Resilient Long Island, now in its second round of public online voting. The competition’s goal is to “catalyze the discussion of rezoning in communities that are vulnerable to coastal storms,” according to their website.

Sea Bright was decimated when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge covered the town, hitting 100 percent of their businesses, which have yet to fully recover.

But Yadav thinks that the community response to change might be one of the greatest hurdles to a more stable, sustainable future.

“It’s hard to convince people [to try something new] because everybody lives in a single house and nobody wants to share,” said Yadav, who noted that even when he and his project partner were exploring the community for inspiration and research, homeowners were defensive about them walking on or near their property. They were forced to walk along the sea wall.

Yadav, originally from India, and Rowneki, originally from Afghanistan, are partly informed by their cultural experiences. They said they are more accustomed to seeing a collective cultural response to disaster and hard times in which the community bands together, rather than coping and struggling alone.

“In Afghanistan, everybody knows everybody,” said Rowneki. “People help each other.”

Though Long admits that among Sea Bright’s residents, “to this day we still don’t know where some people live,” she does see her town as a very tightly knit community.

But with rebuilding already underway and a municipal budget of only $5 million a year, forward-thinking proposals like those from Yadav and Rowneki just aren’t possible yet.

“Most of what was damaged was private property,” said Long. “We must rebuild to withstand future storms.”