Lou Cirigliano is the Director of Operations for Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. A popular tourist destination, Casino Pier was partially destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Its iconic Jet Star roller coaster – which fell into the Atlantic Ocean – became a symbol of the destruction the storm brought to the shore. In his narrative, Lou talks about the struggle of attracting customers to the pier following Hurricane Sandy, amidst claims that the boardwalk has not yet recovered from the storm. He hopes to restore people’s belief in the resiliency and strength of the shore.
Well, [I’m] right on the shore. Casino Pier is the iconic photo from Sandy. I mean, unfortunately we have the image of the rollercoaster being in the water so we were right… we were not at Ground Zero because I think they’re saying Ortley Beach was ground zero… but we’re just about as close as you can get.
What were you doing in the days leading up to the storm?
I want to say it was October 23rd and Vincent Storino [the owner] and I were talking. He was in Florida and he said, “Have you seen the storm?” And I hate to categorize myself as a weather freak but I love looking at those kind of things so I had seen. And I saw how bad it was going to get. In one of the apps I have on my phone, it had the track going right through Seaside Heights. So we were talking about it about a week before it hit saying, “This is going to be something that we got to keep an eye out for.” We were here, we started in earnest prepping. The water park is already closed up for the season at the end of October, so they had very little to do except with boards on the windows. Bu the pier rides were still up and the pier had to get prepped for the hurricane. We had about roughly sixty days to do it.
Did you think the storm was going to be bad as it was?
Yeah we definitely did. Storino and I talked about how we saw the pressure of the atmosphere changing every day. The way the track was, showing that the storm just kind of may make a left hand turn into New Jersey… the year before, Hurricane Irene came through and did nothing. We had a light pole that turned, that’s about all it was. But for this one, we said, “We can’t take the chance.” We all figured it was going to be bad. They were talking about how bad it can be with the wave heights, and with the whole fact it was going to be a full moon and the other storm coming in from the west… so we all knew that this would potentially be bad. So we were planning on it.
Describe your experiences during the storm.
Well, during the storm, we were home. No one was allowed on the island, so my assistant manager and I both said, “Next storm, we’re setting up a camera outside here.” It was dark, there were no cameras. The internet had already gone down so you couldn’t see the beach cameras and couldn’t tell… we had no idea what was happening. So it was just kind of sit and wait. You know beforehand, when we left here on Sunday, we all said to each other, “I’ll see ya Tuesday morning.” Figured that we’d be back here Tuesday morning, and we never expected it to be that bad.
I woke up like three o’clock that morning. I looked on Facebook because I couldn’t sleep with a generator in my house. It was making so much noise, I couldn’t sleep. So I said, “Let me just check Facebook”. Somebody said that the rides had fallen in the water and I was thinking, well how could they see it? Its pitch black out. So, you know, it was about three o’clock and I was texting somebody I knew who lives down here, and they were texting me back and they heard the same thing. I woke up in the morning around seven o’clock, and I went to check the news, and we saw the first images from Channel 4 of what had happened. They must have had a helicopter or something fly over and they showed the back of the pier and that’s when we knew things were as bad as it were.
Can you describe the rebuilding process?
It’s like the seven stages of when, you know, you get your big news and you go through denial… We started out denying everything. We didn’t know what to do. The owners were committed right from the beginning to rebuild. We didn’t know how we were going to rebuild but we were going to do it. So the process was just more or less waiting it out. We weren’t allowed on the island until, um, I think it was November 12th. So we were just kind of waiting for everything to happen. We were making plans, we were trying to establish a temporary office for a business so we can have some type of continuity… and then try to keep in touch with the staff and let them know what was going on. And then once we got back in town it was: pick a place to start… to just start and go from there. There was no rhyme or reason why we did what we did. There was just so much to do. All the stock that was in the basements here had to be emptied. We had to get somebody to get the stuff that was in the water… so it was… you know, we had a list. We just kept making the list longer every day and crossing off what we accomplished and that’s how we did it. We knew that we were going to rebuild and we were going to come back and do it better than ever… It was just a matter of how we were going to get to that point. And we just kind of said, “Okay, you know what? Today we need a water container to put all our good equipment in.” And we, like I said, just keep at it… do a listing. Eventually, we were able to get to the bottom of the list and cross the last thing off.
What is your opinion on the response of local or federal government agencies, such as FEMA?
Locally, [they] were amazing. My appreciation for the first responders here in Seaside Heights in the local community was just… it was amazing. I couldn’t do anything to help them. We weren’t allowed on the island. I remember calling the Chief of Police, just to see how he’s doing… “You okay? Anything we can do for ya?” The Fire Chief is also in charge of public works. I try to make sure that those guys are… at least know that we’re thinking of them cause they were here… they didn’t leave. The Chief of Police could have left, I mean, there was a low point in time on Monday that the water started to raise so much that everybody said, “It’s time to go.” And they said “We’re not going. We’re staying. We’re going to do what we can.” So the local response was just amazing. And then when we came back… it was kind of on everybody together because they realize that… look at what we did as a team. But the federal, we didn’t really have to deal with much because we’re a private business. So they helped us, they guided us, you know. OSHA came down and talked to us. FEMA came down and, you know, told us what different programs were available for us. As a private business, we had our insurance and we were covered through that. Our plan as far as applying for a business loan or whatever was that… as important as it was, you know, we had to make sure our policies were covered and followed our insurance carriers. So we didn’t have too much dealings with them but as far as locally, they were great.
How long did it take to rebuild?
For Memorial Day weekend we had some things open. The arcade was open. We got electric back to the arcade first week in May of 2013. We opened the pier the last weekend in July, 2014.
God bless my people. We had people that were pizza makers working on the pier… guys that work in my water park as maintenance workers [helping] to rebuild, whether it was hammering nails or cleaning whatever. They did as much as they could, so we had a lot of people pitch in. We don’t have a lot of people on staff, but everybody who was available came in… and it was wasn’t a question, you know … we were doing the nasty work I wouldn’t wish upon my enemies. And we get it done. So the last week in July, the whole property was ready to open. The water park opened on time, Memorial Day, like I said. And the arcade opened on time. But the ride pier was the last component that opened… and I don’t remember the exact date, but I kind of think it was the 26th or 27th of July of that year.
Do you think that the hurricane brought your community closer together?
Yeah. Definitely did. It was almost… I hate to say it, but it’s almost like when 9/11 happened… the whole country came together and then everybody drifted apart. And same thing for Sandy. We’ve always tried to work well with our local townspeople… and the people who operate Seaside Heights but, you know, everybody was concerned about each other. It was definitely a lot closer of a feeling. Then you know what happens is time goes on and people start forgetting. You start getting back to the way that… unfortunately it’s not as close knit as it could have been. And it is always the same way.
[The storm] brought us together as a community and, you know, it was a catchphrase, “Stronger Than the Storm” and “Jersey Strong”. But when you saw what was happening, it wasn’t a just a catch phrase. It was people doing… I mean like I said it was people who make pizza for me on a daily basis, out there in five degree weather because it was our commitment. And we had all my arcade guys doing the same thing. We went home sore the next morning. So it was… everybody was together for one goal. And, you know, even the customers, by the way, they would come by and say, you know, “Thank you for doing what you do.” And they offer to help.
Some people have said that Hurricane Sandy was kind of a blessing in disguise, because it gave Seaside a chance to revamp some of its old buildings and the boardwalk. Do you agree with this?
Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t sound nice to say that. I mean Seaside has all its charm. Every place on the shore has its own charm, whether it’s, you know, Seaside or Point Pleasant, or Wildwood, Atlantic City… they all have their own little thing that people like about it. I mean even on our property, we had some older buildings. And as you saw the pictures of Sandy, you know we lost that part of the pier. It wasn’t built to withstand that. Wasn’t even a category one hurricane that came across, it was, it came across as a tropical storm when it came in, so can you imagine… I’ve always said if we actually had a category one or two or three hurricane that Pennsylvania would have waterfront property, because it just wasn’t built properly. So it was a blessing in disguise for us. We were able to rebuild the pier stronger. A lot of the old buildings that really needed some work were able to get it. I mean, it wasn’t any fun and it was… the money we put into it wasn’t what we were looking to do, but things that were required got done then. So yes, it would have been nice to do without a hurricane, but it forced us to do what was necessary, sure.
Do you think there are any lessons to be learned from Hurricane Sandy?
I spoke at a FEMA conference in South Carolina. They had they invited us all down to talk about our lessons. I think there was five lessons, and I’ll try to remember them. But the first one was: don’t take for granted the early warnings. We learned that because of what we did, we were ready. We knew it was going to be bad. If you can’t find it on the Internet now to show you what’s going to happen, you’re not looking. The second lesson was: forget about the past because last year, the year before, Irene came up and nothing… And the other lesson I told everybody [was] to prepare. I mean, we didn’t have, necessarily, a business or community plan. Last year, with Irene, we were like, okay, well, we know what needs to be done and this is how we’re going to work towards it. But it was a learning curve because some things we remembered, some things we’d forgotten. If Sandy taught us anything… there’s a quote out there that if you those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it… that that’s exactly what’s going to happen with the people who forget about what happened during Hurricane Sandy.
Do you believe that there will be another storm like Hurricane Sandy in the near future?
Yeah. I mean I when I first when I was living in Buffalo, working at the country club, that’s when, the storm [Andrew] was, in ‘92. It was really bad. And I’m over here and the Garden State Parkway was closed. And I called my parents and said “This can’t be right. Is the Garden State Parkway really closed?” And they said, “Yeah.” So that was only twenty years ago. So this one, it was… they say Sandy was a hundred year storm, but the storms you see, Katrina and Sandy… it seems to be common. Me, as somebody to watch that kind of stuff… I’m sure there’ll be another one. Just a matter of how bad it’s going to be and how to prepare. Like you said, the first thing is, not that it would have been necessarily a good idea, but I wish I’d stayed. You can’t appreciate the full force of Mother Nature without being here, you know? But you know, I have my family I have to take care of… and I’m responsible for some things. I don’t know, they probably wouldn’t want me to stay there either. But we did everything as much as possible. We have an amazing team of people that work for me. And afterwards, we had the same thing. People who work in all departments pitched in to help the other departments get ready. So there’s not much more we could have done differently. That’s going to… no matter what happened, we were going to lose that side of the pier. We can grieve for that, you know, the rollercoaster went down. We couldn’t… there’s no way we would have been able to move all the stuff from the basement. At one point, my assistant manager, who runs a good operation, said to me about the basements, “We took everything six inches off the ground.” I said, you know, “Let’s just bring it upstairs and put it on the stands… at least they’re out of the basement. And thank God we did, because the basements got flooded. But we couldn’t have done that with everything. We had so much stock left over that we never had anywhere to put it. We had to bring as much up as we could. But then, you know, we got here to look at the freezers and everything was knocked over and toppled… and there’s only so much crap you could have done. So I think in our heart of hearts, we did everything we possibly could. And we felt good about what we did when we walked out of here on Sunday. You know, you gotta just let Mother Nature take over from there and hope she’s kind. And she was, you know, half kind. Half the property was good and the other half wasn’t.
Are there any particular stories about the hurricane that you’d like to share?
I was standing in line one night, waiting for gas… I had a silly little two and a half gallon gas can that I was trying to fill up my generator with. And I had to keep going back and forth to the gas stations that were barely open. The one day, it was Halloween and I was standing there with my two kids and I had somebody come up and give candy to my kids because they didn’t get a chance to go trick-or-treating. That made my kids feel great. I mean God forbid they can’t use their phones or their I-Pads because the electric’s out, you know? So they were having a bad enough time. And then the next day I was in line for gas and somebody saw me with a gas can and came up to me to say, “You’re using that to get gas?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” He said, “Here” and he handed me, I think it was like, a five gallon or something like that. He was like, “Here, take it. I don’t need it.” And I was like, “Wow.” You know, it shows the goodness of people. Those kind of stories that made the bond grow bigger for the Jersey Shore.
The one good story that I want to tell you… we had a fishing pier, you know, on the north side of Casino Pier. And prior to the storm, I don’t know what he did to prep or not prep, but when we had to start taking the pier down, we had to take all his equipment out. And he had freezers of bait in there. And so it was the winter time or whatever, and we’re moving it out and then it got to the point where the freezers, they were no good any longer. They were under water. So we had to decide what they were going to go, because [there] was Freon chemicals. There’s four of us that said, you know, “We have to do what we have to do.” We have to take the bait out. Well the bait’s been in there now a couple months, and the freezer hadn’t been on. So it’s quite disgusting. And it was no fun to actually do. But myself, my assistant manager, and two other guys were there with big, long tongs reaching down there. And it was the most disgusting time. One of the things was, it bonded us all four together cause we waited till… it might have been one of the nicest days… Of course you know that the smell was… it was interesting. And it was windy too, so the wind was sort of pushing everything right back in our face. But we had so many laughs over it. It just goes to prove, you know, what I said before about everybody coming together… there is no way if you told me today that you wanted me to do that, I’d be like “Alright, okay, how much are you paying me to do it?” But it didn’t matter, we had to get it done. And we laughed about it, we joked about it, and you know, I think I burned my clothes afterward cause that smell… it’s not something I’d wish upon my worst enemies or anybody. But it just puts an emphasis on what I said when, you know, everybody did what they had to do.
We’ve been talking to a few business owners about how the hardest part after the storm was coming back and proving to people that Seaside is back. Is that something that you struggle with?
It’s still happening. I mean my friend’s a DJ and I was over the bridge at Tiffany’s on 37. He was DJ-ing and I saw some new people, and he introduced me, he said, “This is my friend Lou. He runs Casino Pier.” And they said “I’m sorry to hear that you guys aren’t operating.” And I said, “Last I checked, I just came from work! We’re operating. What do you mean?” You know they lived in Toms River, and they had no idea that the pier and that all of Seaside Heights was open again. And, you know, we’re still struggling with that today. I still think… I feel from what we see, hopefully in the end of the spring time, there you’ll see more and more people coming to town and people will realize that the Jersey Shore is open. But you’re right, that there is a lot of that, in the early stages, that people are like, “Oh I heard the pier got washed off the map.” Well, it half did… but we’ve rebuilt it. We’re back. Unfortunately our poor colleagues that had the fire south of us… them not being here and not being rebuilt makes it seem like the whole town isn’t as well. So we’re still struggling with people like, “Oh I didn’t realize you guys were opening it.” A couple weeks ago, we had a conversation with somebody who said, you know, “My friend said you guys aren’t even open yet.” We’ve been open for two years. Yeah it’s one of the things we’re struggling with. You can see that 2013 summer wasn’t good at all. We didn’t have a lot of people in town. 2014, last year, it was a beautiful summer, but the numbers in Seaside Heights still hadn’t come back to where they were. And, you know, you get a lot of communities like Ortley Beach that aren’t rebuilt yet… In Seaside Park they have some houses that need to be worked on… And you know as you go north… them not being here and not bringing their friends… it still hurts. Hopefully, things will start to turn around. But it was, it was definitely an issue, you know? You would be surprised, but we’re still fighting part of that now.
Interviewed by Stephanie Kroeger
Assisted by Jennifer Pagliaro
Edited by Stephanie Kroeger
Seaside Heights, New Jersey
Recorded April 23, 2015
Interviewed by Stephanie Kroeger