After the Flood
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
can we continue to live where nature doesn't want us?
The sand was the thing we noticed first. Mostly because it hadn't been there at all yesterday, or any day before yesterday, and now it was absolutely everywhere.
For the first 23 hours after the storm, we hadn't been able to see much of anything at all. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy had made landfall just south of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, the narrow strip of coastline where I spent my childhood summers and where my parents have lived, full time, for the past eight years. Now a day had passed, and information was hard to come by. My parents were fine; they had evacuated earlier that week to friend's place 45 miles inland. But the power was out, and the 18-mile-long barrier island, which is home to 20,000 year-round residents, was basically abandoned, so we still didn't know how much damage our house in North Beach had sustained, or if there were even any houses left in North Beach to sustain damage. Also, the rumors were starting to spread. The Ferris wheel at Fantasy Island has collapsed. A shark is swimming around Surf City. The waves breached the dunes. The ocean met the bay. Whole towns have been washed out. The rumors were not helping.
And then I stumbled upon Jay Zimmerman's Facebook page. Zimmerman is a volunteer fireman in Harvey Cedars, the town next to North Beach. "North Beach damage," read the caption on a smartphone video he'd posted on his wall. "Some ocean front houses are ripped to pieces." Zimmerman had spent the storm on LBI, rescuing holdouts. Afterward he had ventured out to survey the wreckage. I clicked the play button.
The clip was shaky--shot from the back of a pickup truck as it rumbled north up Long Beach Boulevard--but I immediately recognized our neighborhood, despite all the sand piled on top of it. Bikes and porches and trash cans, buried. Sand mounded around mailboxes. No more roads, really, just sand, knee deep in some places and head high in others, like the soft hills of snow left behind after a blizzard. That's what North Beach looked like, only less ... temporary. The nice thing about snow is that it goes away. It melts. But the sand didn't seem to have the slightest intention of leaving.
As Zimmerman approached our block, the sand hills got higher. Another volunteer, a woman, weighed in from off camera. "A lot of debris here, boy," she said. "Jesus." Shards of wood were sticking out of the sand. Home appliances--refrigerators, washers, dryers--were strewn across the street.
Just then they pulled over, and Zimmerman happened to pan from the ocean side to the bay side. And that's when I saw it, hovering above the scrub pines. Above the sand. Pixelated but unmistakable. The tiniest split-second glimpse. The corner of our roof.
I rewound. I pressed pause. Bingo. The house was still standing.
I sent the screenshot to my mom. "Look," I wrote. "It's still there." I wanted to make her feel better. I wanted to sound optimistic. "People will come back to the shore," I continued. "I bet we'll all be surprised by how much better everything is looking next summer."
But all my mom could see was the sand. Whenever a storm surge overwashes the dunes, the sea pushes heaps of sand ahead of it; do that again and again, and the whole barrier island retreats a few feet toward the mainland--right through your foyer, if necessary. She replied 35 minutes later. "It's hubris to challenge Mother Nature--to live on a fragile strip of sand a hundred yards away from the ocean," she answered. "So yes, people will come back ... I just find it difficult right now to think they should."
After a storm like Sandy, America tends to talk a lot about rebuilding. Returning. Restoring the shore. Affected states are spending more than $100 million to rebuild, and the federal government kicked in another $60 billion. As Garden State Gov. …