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When the going gets tough, Union Beach get going

Paul Smith, Jr.


Paul Smith Jr. is mayor of Union Beach, New Jersey, a place he has called home since 1956. This town of just over 6,000 residents experienced some of the worst destruction from Hurricane Sandy. In a span of just 45 minutes, floodwater from the Bay washed away 52 homes entirely, made another 100 inhabitable due to being washed off their foundations, and severely damaged another 400 by inundating them with over six feet of water. In his narrative, Paul speaks to the preparations taken before the storm, the damage the town has faced, and the progress that has been made in rebuilding.

Were you in office during another Hurricane? If so, what was that experience like?

Well, yeah we have had a few so, but none as bad as Sandy. During Irene we had a lot of flooding, but we didn’t have devastation. I’m an optimist, and I was hoping that it was going to be like the rest and die out before it hit us. Usually most of them do. Hurricane Sandy just devastated us, no comparison. The day after I was walking down the beachfront and there was a gentleman walking there who said, “Oh, Hurricane Donna was worse than this.” I just looked at him and said, “Listen, you either weren’t here for Hurricane Donna or you have no clue. Hurricane Donna flooded us, but it did not destroy us. This one destroyed us. So you have no clue sir.”

What was your first reaction when you heard about the coming storm?

Well, I’m an optimist, so I was hoping that it was going to be like the rest and die out before it hit us. Usually most of them do. They hammer Florida, and they hammer North Carolina. They usually die out before they get to Jersey. So our residents, I think, were not afraid, and that’s not good. And thank God we didn’t lose anybody.

What preparations were made in Union Beach?

Our first responders are always ready. They had people evacuated. They were moving people’s cars. They have a routine, and they work well together. Emergency management, our first responders, our firefighters, our first aid and police, they all work together well. In some towns, they can’t do that, but Union Beach can. Thank God. It’s so important.

And during the storm the First Responders were unbelievable. I know a lot of them lost their homes, but that didn’t stop them from helping others.

Can you describe your experience during the storm?

Yeah, it was scary. I lived in a ranch, and we had four feet of water in part of the house, three feet in another part, and ten inches in the third part. We came close to evacuating. I had a hotel in Edison we were planning to go to. But the wife wouldn’t leave ‘cause her daughter lives right down the street.

Did you have different reactions to the storm as a mayor compared to a resident? And was that difficult, worrying about the residents of your town while also having to weather the storm yourself?

No. At least I knew firsthand how they felt. Since most of us on the council had water in our homes, we unfortunately experienced it too. But we were lucky, we were just lucky.

What issues arose in Union Beach during the storm that hadn’t been foreseen or that exceeded your expectations?

The worst part was our school, which is our evacuation center. That got flooded, so they had to evacuate the evacuees. Originally they moved them to Borough Hall. And then they went to the school in Keyport. Then they ended up going to Monmouth University I believe.

Do you remember the first time you saw your town after Sandy had moved through?

That was the next morning. It looked like we were hit by bombs. The night of the storm we lost 52 homes. Totally gone. The flooding was tidal, it was like a tsunami actually, I mean it came in and in 45 minutes it went out. And it hurt. You know they brought divers in, to search the waters to make sure there were no dead bodies. Because you wouldn’t know if you were missing or not, and there was a lot of debris in that water. It was so powerful. One guy on the beachfront had a built in pool in his back yard. I don’t know where it went, but the in-ground pool, gone, just a big hole. That’s pretty strong. There was one house, built to FEMA standards, that didn’t survive because the house behind them came off its foundation and knocked their house off of theirs.

From another house on the beachfront, built to FEMA standards, someone actually filmed the storm as it was happening. The house is right on the beach front and survived the storm. The day after the storm, I was walking the beachfront with our engineers, and the owner was actually in his yard. And he says I’d really like to meet the engineer, obviously not knowing who I was with. And I didn’t know what he wanted to do or say, so I said well why, and he says cause well I’d like to thank him, I think this bulkhead helped us a lot and he designed it. And I said oh well, he is standing right here next to me. Well as long as he wanted to thank him, if he had wanted to yell at him I wouldn’t have told him who was with me. But yes, their house survived because it was built to FEMA standards. So now people know, If you build to FEMA standards you are going to survive.

With all the damage Union Beach sustained, what was the response from your residents after the storm?

They wanted to rebuild. They like it here. We don’t expect it to happen again, but it could. If it happens once it can happen again.

How was the response from the Federal Government, The Governor, FEMA, and insurance companies?

Well the biggest problem was insurance companies. FEMA we actually set up in our Borough Hall. FEMA had our court room from then until May, helping not only our town but surrounding towns. And the Governor has been on the spot. They have been to our town many times, him and the Lieutenant Governor. Our Federal Representatives we have no problem with, our congressmen, our senators. We are different parties, but they are all there for us.

A lot of people are mad at the government and the state about it, and I don’t think it is their fault that everything is so slow. It took the federal government too long to come to our rescue, you know they were in Haiti a day later but New Jersey they waited three months. Which is not right, but that is another story.

I talked to the [Department of Community Affairs] commissioner, Richard Constibal. He went to New Orleans after Katrina. And he says on one block they gave each homeowner $150,000 dollars to re-do their homes. He says half the homes were new and the other half people took the money and left. And he says they are not going to let that happen in New Jersey. We are not going to give people money to go away. They are going to fix their homes and that slowed the process down. But I think they did it right. As much as it is aggravation and more work for them, and they have never been through this before! So I don’t think they should have been picked on as much as there were.

Has rebuilding has gone well in Union Beach?

Since the storm we have had $68.3 million in new construction, we’ve taken down 289 homes, there are still 136 more that have to come down. And most of them come down for nothing. Our administrator got people to come in and do it so our homeowners didn’t have to pay for another expense. And let’s see, we have had 189 new homes, and 184 lifted. There is still a lot more to go. The good news is that the governor was in town yesterday to announce that we are getting our shore protection project, $202 million. It will have levees and pump stations, and we are going to have protection. It won’t start till the end of next year so we have a few more hurricane seasons to weather but hopefully we get lucky. It should be done by 2020.

Were there issues with getting people back into their own homes?

Yes there were a lot. Permitting was an issue. People were mad because we had to charge for permits, but we went from a part-time construction official to having like 5-6 people in an office. So we have to cover the cost of it and some people didn’t understand that. Also I think that most people are fearful that it is going to happen again, and that’s why some of them haven’t come home yet. There are probably 300-400 families that still aren’t home. I don’t know how many aren’t coming back. But we got good news yesterday so I think that that’s going to change.

The best thing is that we didn’t lose anybody. I mean they rescued one couple from a rooftop, the house was totally gone after that. The lady actually sent me an e-mail. She lost 7 pets, she lost everything she owned, she almost lost her boyfriend to hypothermia. Then she said we are four lights away and we cannot wait to get back home, and we can’t thank you enough. I was in tears, I mean this lady lost everything and she’s thanking us. But now they’re home and that’s an amazing feeling, we want our Union Beach residents to come home.

How has the community changed since the storm?

Well I have always said when the going gets tough, Union Beach gets going. We have a strong knit community and they work together well. And it is going to get better, and we are going to be prettier and stronger and more resilient.

And the storm changed me too. It gave me patience. I didn’t have patience before Sandy. But you know now I have to. I realized it wasn’t going to happen overnight. So it is going to take a while to get this fixed and it is still going to take a few more years, but we are moving in the right direction.

As Mayor, what is your proudest moment in the response to the storm?

I think all the people coming up thanking me, and my response to them every time was the same. I said I am just a small part of a great team, I have had a lot of beautiful people helping. I mean it is amazing the help we’ve got, from all over the country, all over the world.

We had Tzu Chi. They were originally from Taiwan. A bunch of women got together years ago and saving pennies from their groceries each week, and it grew into this huge organization. They gave 700 families in town $600 in Visa cards, that’s $420,000. They gave them an emergency kit, which had things like face cloth, tooth brush, tooth paste, and it had a bank in there. And they asked you to eventually fill it up, and donate to a charity of your choice, not to them, to the charity of your choice. So of course I filled mine up and send it to them. It was unbelievable.

We had Cantor Fitzgerald, from the World Trade Center. They gave school families a thousand dollars in gift cards. So I asked him, how did he choose schools? And he told me that on the day of 9/11 he took his daughter to school, if he didn’t take her to school he wouldn’t be here. So he took her to school every day after that. He lost his brother and a lot of employees. So he intern helped our schools.

We had two towns adopt us, Colts Neck and Madison, New Jersey. We actually fly the Madison flag in our town and they fly our flag in theirs.

One gentleman donated a truckload of building supplies. He knew the people at Home Depot, and he said I will buy a truckload it you donate a truckload. And they did. So they came down with two tractor trailers with supplies for people to rebuild their homes. Unbelievable.

Unbelievable all the help we got. I mean some of the volunteers we had demolishing homes were here all the way from California. There was another group that pitched tents in the fire houses, and they were cooking like 700-800 meals a day for people. And they were all volunteers, unbelievable.

Another proud moment was when one gentleman from the Habitat for Humanity international headquarters in Atlanta came to Union Beach. He came like a week after Hurricane Sandy, and he said after seeing Borough Hall – which had FEMA in one room and volunteers handing out supplies in the other – he knew Union Beach was in good hands. It had good leadership. He said I knew your town would come back, so he had me crying but it was good tears. He made me feel great. And I told him the same thing: I am the small part of a big team.


Interviewed by Ashley Fuzak
Assisted by Connor Murphy
Edited by Ashley Fuzak
Dayton, New Jersey
Recorded April 9, 2015