N.J. Shore Town Destroyed by Sandy Confronts an Uncertain Future

Physical rebuilding is just the start for Highlands, N.J., a small, middle-class shore town that is fighting to survive.

The house that Tracy Johnson and Paul Merker share in Sandy-ravaged Highlands, N.J., isn’t so much a home as a campsite: insides gutted to the studs, kitchen sink propped up by two-by-fours, a bathroom with no walls.

They endured winter with a propane heater. They cook meals with a portable stove and hot plate. They take baths warmed by boiled water.

“There are days when I say, ‘I can’t take it anymore, I gotta get out,’” Johnson said.

When she goes for a walk, she is overwhelmed by the sight: home after home that has been abandoned or ripped apart, months from habitability.

“You see people working on them, but they’re not nearly as far as they’d like to be. It’s depressing,” Johnson said. “It’s everywhere, and that’s the point. You try to get away from your own home, but even when you do that, you’re still not seeing anything different.”

It’s hard to relax in Highlands, a small but proud middle-class town at the northern tip of the Jersey Shore. The borough of 5,000, where the Shrewsbury River meets Sandy Hook Bay, is undergoing a profound transformation that won’t end with the physical rebuilding. The carnage wrought by Sandy—up to eight feet of water inundated downtown—has prompted what might best be described as an existential crisis, with residents, business owners and public officials confronting daunting questions about the kind of place Highlands will be for those who remain, and how it will survive.

Highlands, a modest fishing and commuter community known mostly for its seafood restaurants, doesn’t get as much attention as other communities along coastal New York and New Jersey that were battered by Sandy. It doesn’t boast a boardwalk or amusement park or golden sand. It is, however, emblematic of the region’s post-Sandy struggle. The borough is in a fight for its life, and the solution just might be a colossal engineering project that has been tried just once before, more than a century ago.

Waves of destruction

Before they can tackle such big thoughts, however, the people of Highlands are trying figure out a more pressing question: how to get safely back in their homes before the next big storm arrives.

A significant proportion of property owners have thrown themselves into the task, raiding their savings to start repairs while negotiating a dizzying tangle of red tape required by banks, insurance companies and the government.

At the same time, an unsettling number—exactly how many is not clear—are trying to sell their homes, or have simply walked away.

In the middle are homeowners and business owners who, for various reasons, are waiting. Some have received insurance payouts but can’t afford to supplement rebuilding costs with their own money. Others have decided to see what additional aid they can get from the state or Federal Emergency Management Agency. The local government has requested about $140 million in grants to divide among property owners, a process that could take several months or longer.

The lucky ones have friends or family to stay with, or can afford to rent a second home. The unlucky ones feel so overwhelmed that they simply cannot decide what to do. The Bay Avenue business district remains pockmarked with vacant restaurants.

“Sandy has really struck a blow and shaken people to their core,” said Steve Szulecki, a scientist who heads the local environmental commission and whose home, on a hill, was spared.

Szulecki described two phases of destruction in Highlands. First, he said, was the physical, which displaced people and damaged their homes. “The second wave,” he said, “is the bureaucracy and economics that people are starting to confront.”

Click on interactive map icons to hear stories and see images of the damage:

Even the local government is in a jam.

Three municipal buildings, including Borough Hall, did not have flood insurance and were evacuated after the storm, Borough Administrator Tim Hill said. The government’s deductible on each building is $500,000, leaving the town, which operates on an $8 million annual budget and is already facing a painful drop in tax revenues, unable to foot the bill. One of the three buildings has been put into partial use; most government offices, including the police department, are still working out of trailers.

In the end, the town may have to permanently abandon the buildings and move to higher ground.

Lifting a community

Public officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to help residents navigate the rebuilding process. They’re taking steps to adopt new construction and zoning rules that will make it easier for people to rebuild.

“We’re hoping folks want to remain in town and we’re trying to enable them to do that,” Hill said.

Ultimately, Highlands’ future hinges on a single concept: lifting.

Most of Highlands, including the entire downtown, sits in a major flood zone shaped more or less like a bathtub; parts of it regularly flood at high tide. The only sure way to prevent Sandy-like destruction is to prop everything on stilts or pilings. Depending how badly a building was damaged by Sandy, and its current height in relation to the sea, a home might eventually have to be lifted as much as 14 feet.

About 800 of the downtown’s 1,200 homes and businesses were deemed damaged enough to require that they be lifted. That number could fall as property owners appeal those assessments.

Lifting is an expensive undertaking. Many property owners have found that their $30,000 insurance allotment won’t cover it. The town's $140 million grant proposal would go entirely toward helping residents meet those costs. Some have gone ahead and started the lifting process anyway.

Those who elect not to lift are taking a gamble: they may find it difficult to find insurance, or see their property values drop.

Then there are the quality of life issues. In a town of stilts and small yards, how do the elderly or disabled or parents of young children get in and out of their homes without hurting themselves?

“There are many folks who are in a situation where they’re not sure if they want to go through all of this,” Hill said. “But in the long term…the common sense approach for long-term marketability is going to come into play. If you don’t raise your house, its value isn’t going to be as high.”

But no matter how high people raise their homes, the streets of Highlands will still flood. And property owners and developers will question whether it’s worth the investment.

The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building a levee system, but the downtown often floods from the inside, through storm drains, and takes additional runoff from nearby hills.

A century-old solution

Szulecki, the head of the environmental commission, believes there is one way to ensure the long-term viability of Highlands: raise the town itself.

His model is Galveston, Texas, the Gulf Coast city that was virtually destroyed by a storm in 1900 and then, over the next decade, was backfilled and raised by as much as 16 feet.

If Galveston succeeded with century-old engineering techniques, Szulecki figured, then a modern, smaller Highlands could pull it off.

He originally suggested it to town leaders before Sandy, but since then the plan has been taken a lot more seriously. Many local officials, including Mayor Frank Nolan, now endorse it. Nolan has estimated that the project—which would be performed in phases, requiring temporary displacement for many homeowners and the demolition of dozens of buildings that could not withstand being lifted—would cost about $25 million, a combination of insurance payouts, public funding and private money.

But the plan has fueled old fears among longtime residents that downtown Highlands, dominated by modest bungalows and vinyl-clapboard homes, will be turned into cookie-cutter rental units and tourist-trap restaurants.

Resistance to change

“This town always had a plan: they wanted to buy houses, knock them down and build condos,” Paul Merker said.

Merker is Tracey Johnson’s fiancé, an unemployed construction worker and Highlands native who says he suffers from insomnia and vomiting from the stress of living in their gutted home. At the stoop is the kayak he paddled around town during Sandy, when he watched what seemed like a tsunami swallow the nearby peninsula of Sandy Hook. His glassy blue eyes and pallid complexion show the toll.

“I think this town is done,” Merker said. “Anyone who has left this town ain’t coming back. I think it will be a new wave of people who are going to have to make it what it’s going to be.”

Merker is among many people born and raised in Highlands who see developers repopulating the town with tenants who don’t have much connection to its history, or stake in its future.

But others think developers could turn out to be the town’s saviors, because there are few options for the growing number of dormant properties—the leveled trailer park, the shuttered restaurants, the abandoned homes.

Those who want to push forward with new development point out that there’s no going back to the pre-Sandy Highlands. What old-timers love about the town—the ability to live modestly near the water and resist interference from the forces of commercialization—seems less viable now. Along the shore there are ramshackle buildings that bring to mind the shotgun shacks of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. It’s hard to imagine those structures remaining.

Determination and hope

And yet, with all the doubts and suspicion and anxiety, there is a fighting spirit that pervades the place. It’s visible on any casual drive around town: constructions crews laying drywall, the sounds of forklifts moving fishing boats out of dry dock, clam shack owners furiously scrubbing floors and tables in hopes of opening in time for summer.

“This is terrible. It’s horrible. It sucks. But guess what? It’s not the end of the world,” said Leo Cervantes, a owner of Chilangos, a popular Mexican restaurant on Bay Avenue that was ruined by six feet of water. A native of an impoverished neighborhood of Mexico City, Cervantes calls himself a survivor, and has called in all sorts of favors and loans to get his kitchen running by Memorial Day.

“This is a new opportunity,” he said. “A new start. To me, this is the only way: you get up and you do it again.”

Douglas Lentz, co-owner of the Inlet Café, a seafood joint, was more blunt. “I got no choice in the matter but to rebuild,” he said as he pushed a wheelbarrow full of building materials into his restaurant.

Tracey Johnson is more optimistic than Merker, her fiancé. She sees hope in that she's managed to hire a small team of local contractors who are, in piecemeal fashion, slowly putting her house back together.

“I look at it this way: I’m not going anywhere,” she said one warm, breezy Friday in early May. “I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I’m not leaving it to be a resort town.”

A few blocks away, on Shrewsbury Avenue, Regina Yahara-Splain stepped out onto the deck of her ravaged two-story home, across the street from a marina. To her right she could see the place where she nearly drowned while fleeing Sandy, clinging to a fence as the storm surge heaved to her chest. As she recalled the experience, tears streaked mascara across her cheeks.

A disabled widow, Yahara-Splain has borrowed from her retirement accounts to raise enough money to rebuild and raise her house. After months of phone calls, reams of paperwork and thousands of dollars in fees, work was finally underway. Talking about that revived her mood, and she began to daydream about returning home for good.

She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her face. She listened to the gulls, a flag snapping in the wind. She took a gulp of salty air. She imagined pulling an air mattress out there and sleeping under the stars, like she used to.

For the first time in a long while, she could see it happening: something very good coming out of something very bad.

“I wouldn’t live in another town," she said. "The people here have come together so strong. People say, ‘How could you stay?’ I tell them, ‘How could I not?”

She smiled. “What greater place could you ever imagine?”

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