This part of Union Beach wasn’t a summer community. You could tell by the Christmas decorations, the middle school calendars, the ice skates, the vinyl records dusted with silt and scattered among wooden beams that had been snapped like matchsticks by the force of the water.
Some of the homes on Brook Ave had been lifted off their foundations and pushed yards away, leaving behind cement staircases leading to nowhere. First floors were swept out from underneath roofs that were now pitched like tents in a refugee camp.
Homeowners still moved about the ruins, though many had already been back to salvage the essentials. They posed religious statues and animal figurines that had no place in temporary shelters as guards along cinder-block foundations, as if they could keep the waters from rising up once more.
Governor Chris Christie made it clear that folks along the barrier islands needed to “get the hell off.” But was there a similar charge for the people who lived along south Raritan Bay? We’d heard stories from other passersby of residents waiting on their roofs for a boat rescue when the waters rose with a speed that no one had anticipated.
Union Beach was New Jersey’s Ninth Ward.
The sooty vinyls caught my attention. Was this a grandfather’s collection? How many generations had lived in these homes? I scanned them for an artist or album title I would recognize – anything that would make this tragedy mine. I was trying to understand why some of these residents were so hostile to visitors, taking the time to post signs like “No Camera Zombies” and “Did You Get Enough Pics?”
We had heard the whispers in Seabright, too. Its 10-foot sea wall couldn’t keep the ocean from meeting the bay, dumping five feet of sand in its streets and pouring five feet of water into some first floors. The sea punched right through beachfront wedding venues and knocked cabanas back against the sea wall, like exhausted boxers clinging to the ropes.
“Sightseers,” I heard someone mutter as we walked down Center Street. If only they’d known that Bjoern lived here 10 years ago. Perhaps they retracted their acrimony once they saw us talking with his former landlord, their neighbor.
I wanted to tell them, I get it. I wouldn’t want my home to be your tourist attraction either. Throughout our survey, I would look away if the seas had ripped out a front door or a bay window, exposing a living room or dining room. I hadn’t been invited into those spaces.
But the Jersey Shore belongs to everyone who lives in the state. We cried for your loss and we bear the burden of rebuilding, too. We are your volunteers, your donors. Don’t shut us out.