Bob Peck was working at his local hospital when Superstorm Sandy hit Toms River. Since junior year of high school in 1968, Bob has lived and worked in Toms River, and is intimately familiar with his hometown. A year later, he reflects on the tremendous impact the storm had on his community of 44 years, and shares his views on the rebuilding process.
You know, I had never experienced anything like that, and we were all watching the news like everyone else was for days ahead of time, and the strangest part of that storm for me—I mean, you’ve grown up and you see these terrible storms in other parts of the world and you watch it on the TV. I didn’t really think too much about it, except you feel terrible for those people and you see their houses are floating away, and then you go on to do whatever it is you’re doing. And what started happening is, I was getting phone calls from friends out of state, and because we had no local communication and we had no TV, we had nothing, we had no way to see how bad it was. So, you know, our friends are calling, describing what’s going on, with cell phone communication, and yeah, this is gone and that’s gone. I just couldn’t conceive of it, that in fact we were those people on TV. And then when I finally did see it, it was amazing.
I happened to be out in the storm. I do work part-time for Community Hospital, which is the major hospital here. It happened that I was on a day shift the day of the storm. I do security there. Well, by the end of the day shift, the people that were supposed to come in to relieve me couldn’t get in. All their houses were getting flooded and there were fires, and it was just a nightmare. Every other phone call was something terrible. So I wound up actually working about 28 straight hours at the hospital. The only out of the ordinary, kind of interesting thing was, after midnight, the wind was unbelievable, and rain was coming down hard, it was really something, and I’m sitting at the desk and I look up and there’s a man standing there and he’s got other friends and family members that are there with him, it was Joe Pesci, the actor. He has a home here, and one of his friends was ill and had to come to the hospital by ambulance. So, actually I spent the entire night of the storm with Joe Pesci. He was a great guy and great to everybody that was there. But the hospital administrators didn’t want him being bothered, you know? But he was terrific with people, so actually, I spent the storm kind of laughing unaware of what was actually happening in the area.
You can’t smoke in a hospital, so we went down to the basement of the garage. And it was during that time that we were both down there, as it turns out, he grew up in Newark and Belleville, where I grew up, but he’s ten years older than I am so we didn’t hang with the same crowd, but it turned out we knew some of the same people. So every time he’d want a cigarette we’d go out and we’d talk about different things and, you know, our old home town and that kind of thing, just, you know, general stuff. And while we were there we both heard that same sound that I’ve never heard before, that people talk about, that boxcar sound of the wind. It’s eerie, like when there’s a tornado. I never heard that before. And I remember he looked at me, he had a cigarette in his mouth, and he said, “Bob, are we gonna die?” I said, “I don’t know, this is not too good here let’s get inside.” It really was frightening, but fortunately we were okay. And to his credit, he continued to be terrific to all of the staff and the patients.. You know, like I said, everybody else was dealing with “death and destruction” and I’m laughing at his antics..
Power in the hospital was very limited. There were no supplies coming in, there was nothing. It really was a very strange time, you know, because we’re all so spoiled, you know? Our iPods go out and we’re in trouble, right? The world’s over.
So were you in your home at all?
No, no. my children, they all came to my home, they all left their homes, so they were all together at my place. I had expected to come home, but, you know, I’m stuck there because no one else could get in. I only live about three miles from the hospital, so, like I said I was stuck there until very late the next morning, before anybody else was able to get in to relieve me.
Was there any damage in your community that you saw?
Oh, devastated. I mean, I live here in Toms River. Earlier that night, we had to go out and try to pick up personnel. We needed nurses to come in and every street we turned on, ,trees were down all over, I mean, wires were down all over. It really was nothing like I’d ever seen, other than in a movie, you know? It was just crazy, and people were hunkered down wherever they could be, nothing was open. We laugh, but you couldn’t, like, the simple things, you just couldn’t go stop at Dunkin Donuts and get a cup of coffee because nobody had anything. Everything was shut down. And it stayed that way for a couple days.
How else did you see Hurricane Sandy shaping your community?
I think the best thing that I ever saw was some of the people that came out of the woodwork to help each other out. Pat Donohue put together what they call The People’s Pantry, and that’s on Fisher Boulevard Toms River, open to any victim of the storm, it was all free, food, clothing, furniture. People were donating to her, and she’s still operating, every day of the week. And she’s still feeding about thirty-five hundred families a month. This is not a poor area, but since the storm, the new stats that have come out put Ocean County third in food stamps in the state, because so many people have lost work, they’ve lost their homes and they’re displaced.
The economic impact to the community here, is, I can’t even imagine. It’s gotta be so devastating living here in Toms River, Ortley Beach is part of Toms River, Ocean Beach, Normandy Beach, that’s all Toms River. Those homes paid higher taxes then everyone else, because they’re on the beach. Well, now they’re gone. So the town still has a budget of whatever it is based upon expected tax revenue and those people were paying that much of the bill. Well, now they’re not there to pay it. So now everybody else has to pay the difference. Now the tax rate just went up. So everyone else has to try and meet the bills of the town, so you know, that becomes an economic hardship on everybody. Ocean County generally is kind of a commuter county, probably sixty percent of the people commute to North Jersey or New York, or Atlantic City, Philadelphia to work every day. Most residents do not work here. So the rising cost of everything and trying to put your kids in school, it’s very tough, very difficult time for everybody.
Do you have any views about the government’s response?
Oh, I think the governor did a really good job given the circumstances. I mean, no one’s ever experienced anything like this before, you know, in New York, New Jersey. I mean, billions and billions of dollars of damage.
The FEMA money has put people in hotels because their homes are nowhere near getting ready. You gotta make a decision, are you gonna rebuild or are you gonna tear it down? And if it was more than fifty-one percent damage then they’d let you tear it down, the government would pay for that. So a lot of people opted to do that. A lot of people can’t make a decision, because it’s a life changing decision. And now that we’re at the end, that money’s nearly gone. It was supposed to be for a year, a year from the storm. Well, okay, the storm was October 29th. But [with] the damage and everything over there work crews couldn’t even get anybody there till February. I mean, every street had that much sand in it, it all had to be moved, telephone poles, all the infrastructure, roads are collapsed. So before they could really go in there to start repairing, it was actually April. So really, you only had six months to do what they had to do before the money ran out, because the government says “Well, it’s April, you know, we had a year.” Well you should have been there for that part of the year, I mean, you couldn’t do anything. It was a very tedious process.
I think there’s a certain unfairness by the government in that, if you lived over on the beach where all this devastation happened, and everybody keeps focusing in on the beach, but it’s not just the beach. It’s a lot other areas of Toms River, Brick Town, I mean, this side, on the mainland, that are destroyed, completely gone. Did you know, if that was your primary residence, you were entitled to money from FEMA, but if you have a summer house, then you’re not entitled to any help because that’s your second house. But aren’t you paying taxes on that house? So why can’t you get anything? And there’s a heck of a lot of people, because many of those homes are their second homes. There’s no FEMA money for them. I know if I was one of them I’d be pretty ticked off.
Those people are being treated like second-class citizens, I just don’t think it’s fair to them. So, the long-term effect, what’s gonna happen to them? Are they gonna rebuild? How are they? Can they afford to rebuild?
What lessons for the future do you think should be learned from Sandy?
Well, the governor said it best, in that, I just remember seeing him on TV saying, “I’ve been governor for three years and so far I’ve had three one-hundred-year storms in a row.” Because we’ve never had this one year after another after another. And hundred year storms are hundred year storms, because they don’t happen that often, but we’ve just been slammed, and the best thing I guess that they’re doing now in preparation is building all the dunes. It’s ugly, you know? My whole life, I could drive up and down along the beach and see the ocean, and it was beautiful, and now you can’t see it.
The thing that still gets to me, that, you guys probably don’t really know the area, but I’m sure you saw it on TV, where the ocean came through to the bay and wiped out part of the Mantoloking the bridge and the roads and everything that was there. That bridge has since been repaired. There were all these beautiful, beautiful homes up there. I mean, mega million dollar homes, ten, twelve million dollar homes, not your average house. There’s nothing there now but sand. As you come over that bridge, when you get to the high point, you were able to peek between those houses and you could see a little bit of the ocean. Now, it’s like a moonscape, there’s nothing but sand and ocean. And when you’ve lived here forever, your heart just sinks. Brick had an entire beach neighborhood that burnt up. All the gas lines started exploding, and remnants of that are still there. They’re knocking that down. It’s just hard to imagine when you go there.
The other thing that happened, lessons learned, we’re gonna need the dunes. And as an aside to that, there was a court case pending in Long Beach Island, where they wanted to put dunes in front this of a beach house, in fact, they did, and the homeowner was suing the town for doing it because, you know, he bought the house for however many dollars, and he didn’t want his view obstructed. They were in battle in court and the judge ruled that the homeowner was right. The town planned to appeal the ruling. Coincidentally, it was about a week or two before the storm. Then the storm hit. Well, the homeowner’s house was saved because the dunes were there. He withdrew his suit, because now he realized, without the dunes, there’d be no house. That actually changed the law in New Jersey. They set a precedent with that case, so that’s why now the state can claim eminent domain for the safety of all. Some people still don’t want it. Well now the State is saying “too bad, you’re gonna have it, get used to it.” But I have to tell you, it’s ugly.
All the sand that they use is re-acclimated sand, I’m not exactly sure of the process of how they cleaned it. But it’s like brown. It almost looks more like dirt than it does like sand, but the town said the color will come back. So it’s not as pretty as it was, as far as long-term effect, you know? You wanna see the ocean, you could see it from almost anywhere, now you gotta find some street end where there might be an opening between the dunes so that you can get up and see it. Again, the economic impact, the beaches were loved, Toms River has many beaches. Last year we had only one beach all summer that they got ready. Lifeguard headquarters and beach equipment, were all wiped out from the storm. It’s just crazy.
Interviewed by Diane DeLuca and Christina Tyra
Edited by Conor Reid
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013