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Working for pizza

Meghan Michaux


Meghan Michaux lives in Lavallette Beach, New Jersey, and since 2005 she has owned Meg’s Grill. She decided to ride out Hurricane Sandy in her beach house with her husband and two children, and while her home received no damage, her business was severely damaged. With the help of contractors and her employees, Meg’s Grill was one of the first businesses to reopen in Lavallette after Hurricane Sandy. Since then, Meg has continued to serve her community and is rooting for her fellow residents and business owners to come back to the shore as quickly as possible.

Did you prepare for Sandy?

Nope.

I stayed on the island. So it was nerve wrecking. But we didn’t believe it would be as bad as it was, like anyone else who stayed. And throughout the course of the night, when the water kept getting higher and higher, we were worried that it was gonna flood the house or take the house because my kids were there too. So, that was basically it. It was just waiting for something you couldn’t stop, it was horrifying.

Can you describe what that night was like for you?

Well it was dark because they cut the power like around 2 PM. We live across the street from a building with a generator, so their generator came on so they had a light in the backyard so we were able to see the flooding. The road started to flood around 6 o’clock at night, and then we started to see more significant water. We realized at about 9 o’clock that the dune had failed.

Around 9 PM, that was when the water was coursing through the streets. It started to fill up our yard, and then it started to rise. It just became a matter of lifting up as much furniture as we could, trying to protect what we could, salvage what we could. My kids had fallen asleep by then, so they were completely unaware of what was happening. We watched huge pieces of debris going down the street. We realized later they were our pavilion and our boardwalk.

Then around midnight the water receded faster than it rose. So within an hour the water had completely receded down to dirt. Then an hour later the bay came up and flooded everything worse than the ocean did. So, if you survived the ocean, the bay is what took your house because the bay came up higher than the ocean did and it stayed two days. So the ocean breeched and that was it. But then it filled the bay and with the wind pushing it inland, that’s why Toms River became so destroyed. So the wind pushed the water into Toms River and when that started to recede it filled us back up. So, we all sat here on a flooded island for two days.

And then two days later the water receded enough where we could get out of the house. Then it was finding houses in the road. On my street, floating debris didn’t hit one house. Everything that floated down the street that night just went straight down or stopped in the middle of the road.

Did your neighbors receive any damage?

The only two houses on my block that received damage had basements. Other than those two houses not one person on my block had their home destroyed. It was awesome.

But the weird thing was, in this town, everyone that I know who stayed their houses were spared. So, they might’ve flooded, but they didn’t lose their footings or come off their foundation. The majority of people that I know in Ortley Beach, their neighbor’s houses came off their foundations and for some reason their houses stayed on their footings. So, call that what you will, luck, but everyone that I knew that night their houses flooded but they didn’t end up floating into the middle of the highway. So, that was great, but it was a horrible night and when it was over it was unbelievable. Leaving the island was the worst. It was bad where we were, but when you left you realized how much worse it was in Ortley Beach. Going off the island you would run into people on their bicycles just completely traumatized by what had happened. It was horrible.

And your house was fine?

My house, it’s a block from the water so it was fine, yeah. We lost cars and stuff but we didn’t lose my house, which was great.

How did the storm impact you emotionally?

You know I was concerned, but I couldn’t panic because I was with my kids. It’s a very strange feeling. It’s sort of like when your hiding under the bed and you see someone’s feet coming at you. You were just waiting for impending doom to get you. And when we realized that we needed to leave, at that point we couldn’t get off the island because the bridge and the causeway were flooded. So, at that point it was a matter of just trying to keep your family safe.

We found the majority of the people that stayed on this island were people like my husband, born and raised here. They have never seen anything quite this bad, and so they just didn’t think anything like this would happen. We had places to go but we didn’t, and you know we saved our house that night but we should have left.

Two weeks after Sandy, whenever that was, I think that’s when we were able to start getting back on the island.

We got back to our house right before Christmas. However, as soon as we were able to get back onto the island we started rebuilding.

Can you describe what it was like the first time you saw all of the destruction to your business?

The first time I was able to see my business was two days after the storm. The water was still stuck in the building, it couldn’t get out. The water broke a door down to get in and then the door shut behind it. My back door was blown off its hinges. They found it in the middle of this room. When we saw my business the day we left the island, there was still two feet of water trapped inside. There was no doubt in my mind that night that this building did not make it. And at that point it wasn’t even a concern. I was too concerned for my own home and my kids.

The day they were able to get into the building I was not here. I had taken my children to Florida because we didn’t have power for two weeks. The island didn’t have power for almost a month, but the place where we had originally evacuated didn’t have power for two weeks.

We had pulled our garbage in that night so that the wind didn’t blow the cans over so. When the storm came in the building it blew my garbage. All of my food was two weeks old. The mud, the mold, the smell that you’ll never forget once you’ve smelled it once…everything was ruined. We had all the tables and chairs up, all of the chairs in the room were fine. Everything else was completely knocked over and this room was just full of mud, garbage, and equipment. It was disgusting.

It was destroyed. Twenty-six inches of water and it destroyed everything inside the building.

Were you able to salvage?

My grill, my slicer, and those bar stools. That was it. Everything else was on the curb.

We gutted the entire building, cut four feet of the walls out. The floor stayed. Took every single piece of wood out of the building, took every table and chair out of the building, redid the front windows, redid the back room, redid the store next door. We had to redo everything.

You own the store next door too?

I do. I own this building so we had to rebuild the space but the florist next door is new after Sandy. She was not here beforehand.

The florist opened Mother’s Day weekend two years ago, that’s when she opened.

What was there beforehand?

A gift shop, like a charity store. They didn’t come back. They had two locations, they kept their non-destroyed location open but they closed this store.

What has the rebuilding process been like?

My employees worked for pizza in order to get the business back on its feet because that’s all we had. Every employee came back, helped, cleaned the place up, put it back together. We didn’t lose a beat.

This town was incredibly encouraging for people to come back and they did not get in your way. They did everything they could to help. This town of Lavallette was exceptional in trying to help you get back to where we were before the storm.

They made obtaining permits very easy.

What kind of permits did you have to apply for?

Certain repair, certain plumbing, and certain building permits.

The town had set up a makeshift Borough Hall because the Borough Hall was destroyed. But the Department of Public Works was intact. It was high, so it didn’t get destroyed. So you went to the makeshift Borough Hall, you grabbed the permits you needed, you filled them out, you submitted them back in, and as quick as they could process them they did, and they got them right back to you and your work started. It was amazing, it was fantastic.

As a resident the town helped you clean up your garbage, get rid of all your debris. As businesses they helped with resources. They helped to try to give you any information they could. They kept their website very up to date so that they kept you abridged of where the recovery was going, what it did, who it hit, where it went to, what was restored, what still was under repair. I found, from my experience of other people and other business owners, this town was paramount in getting residents and business owners back in their homes and businesses.

When were you able to reopen after Sandy?

February 1st. We opened and the Crabs Claw opened on the same day and at the time. It was like a national holiday that we both got opened on the same day. We both won, we both had the lights on, it was just a great day. Everyone on this island was in here that morning, everyone was in the Crabs Claw having a beer that night. It was just one of those amazing days in quiet Lavallette history. We were two of the first businesses to get back on our feet and it was just a huge sense of victory and accomplishment for us as a community.

How is the business different today than before the storm?

It’s still the same. It’s maintained it’s same beat, on the table kind of vibe. The only exception was when we reopened in the middle of February, people had nowhere to meet up so people called us to meet at our back table. They didn’t have to eat, they just could come in here and use the space because it was warm and we had a bathroom, which was a really big deal at the time.

How were you able to have heat and the bathroom so soon?

Cause I have an incredibly great relationship with my contractors. One of them I ran into in the middle of the road, I almost ran his car off the road. The rest I have their cellphone numbers and they were as eager for me to get back on my feet as I was.

There was a very strong sense of community and a very strong sense of you had to win because we all lost everything. Every business and every homeowner that got back in their house was such a sense of victory to all of the people that lived here because to lose a business is one thing, to lose your home is another. I didn’t lose my home that night, but when you saw everything that had taken away, you had to win. When we opened back up, it was a great victory for a lot of people because it made it more normal to be out here in the midst of how gross it was.

Have you seen a difference in business each summer and winter following the hurricane?

I think pre-Sandy they were better, the summers. But there’s also not as many businesses post-Sandy as pre-Sandy. So, when you’re on an island in the middle of summer you sort of trap people here and they’re stuck with what they can get. So, we were almost as busy post-Sandy but there were fewer businesses. When you factor those two things together, for us it was fairly similar to years previous but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the same kind of business, it’s just less options for people that are here. But it’s getting better.

The winter is significantly better because there’s so many more contractors out here than normal. Normally in January and February people go down to Florida, they go down to their other homes, they visit their kids, they get outta dodge because it’s cold. There are so many more people working here now.

What are your views on the federal government’s response? FEMA?

As a business owner they had one major grant available. It was a very daunting process but they made it very easy to qualify for it. So, if you were on your toes it was a fairly quick process to get your grant. It took me longer because I was juggling a lot more things at the time and I couldn’t devote myself to it. They wanted you to get the money that they were offering, and as a resident who didn’t losing my home I thought the government did a fantastic job. That’s my feeling.

I was fortunate that I had saved money. I had my own personal insurance on the building so I was able to use that. So, we rebuilt the business on our own and then when we received the grant money we were able to finish our capital improvements then.

What do you see for the future of the Lavallette business district?

I think we have one more year to go and then I think that it’s gonna be remarkable in the way the improvements have made this island better. I think we just have to get through this summer, complete construction on the roads and the infrastructure, and I think that once we come out of this it’s really and truly gonna be fantastic.

Are there any lessons that you can pass on from Sandy?

If there’s gonna be a really bad storm, don’t stay. Number one, don’t stay on an island when it’s gonna flood. Other than that, I don’t know if there’s lessons to be learned as far as listening when people tell you to leave.

I have a lot of memories from Sandy that are really wonderful and terrific and I will keep forever. There were a lot of really fun things that happened in the rebuilding process and there were a lot of great personal things that happened in just the way that people became incredibly human afterwards.

I just remember walking up on the beach and finding a toilet, or I remember tiling my bathroom with an employee in this tiny four by six bathroom and just giggling. Just in the rebuilding process when you know we’re here at eleven o’clock at night cleaning sawdust and someone would show up with a couple bottles of wine. There were moments when things brought the lightness out of something that was really unpleasant. And I will never forget opening day being the best memory ever.

The lesson is to have a will-to-hammer cause I think a lot of people did learn how to become way more self-sufficient. You know when your shoveling mud for five weeks you learn to be less reliant on other people and to figure out how to get things done yourself.

I find that a lot of the people that I know with a good attitude about Sandy have put it behind them. We don’t talk about it much but we talk about funny things, we talk about the toilets on the beach, we talk about the crazy foam that came up, we talk about the bicycle that’s wedged under one of the bulkheads and how every once in a while it peaks back out and then it goes away. We reference those things or when we find amazing sea glass on the beach, “Oh, this must be from Sandy.” So, we try to reference Sandy in a positive light instead of in a negative light.

For me, as horrible as Sandy was, it has worked out. I’m back on my feet, my business is back, I didn’t lose my employees, I didn’t lose my house, and we’re all back to work. So, the glass has never been anything but half full for me because this experience didn’t take me down with it. Some people it has, and for very obvious reasons, but for me things have really worked out and the cards have been in my favor.

Having insurance, having help, having incredible people that work for me helped. We came here everyday and worked for pizza. Because I didn’t get unemployment and I’m a business owner, I had nothing to pay them. They came here and they sludged sewage to get open and that’s why they’re my friends. Those kinds of things, they’re not so much stories as much as what kind of people they are.

I have put this all behind me, and I don’t look at the pictures anymore. I don’t like to think about when I saw the ferris wheel come down. It’s very sad to me to see those things and it’s still sad for me to go to the boardwalk where there’s huge pieces of piers missing and the rollercoasters are gone. Those things are incredibly sad but I try to spend as little time in those memories as I do with what’s happening now.


Interviewed by Meghan O’Brien
Assisted by Shannon Yeager
Edited by Meghan O’Brien
Lavallette, New Jersey
Recorded April 8, 2015