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A storm like no one alive has ever seen

Matthew Doherty

Matthew Doherty is the Mayor of Belmar, New Jersey. As mayor, he played a key role in helping his residents to prepare for the storm, as well as in organizing first responders to assist those stranded by flooding. Since Hurricane Sandy he has worked to help those still struggling to rebuild. After seeing two families face tremendous difficulties with insurance, he organized Home by Summer, a relief effort aimed at raising funds to help these families rebuild their homes and return home by summer 2015.


Can you tell us about your experiences during the storm?

As the mayor, I’m the chief executive officer for the town, and also officer of emergency management. We had an OEM coordinator, but ultimately the mayor takes full responsibility. In the days leading up to the storm we prepared as best as we could. One of the things we did in preparation was to place conference calls with the governor’s office. We had several of them. The most poignant one was about two days before the storm; went through what they anticipated, the tides, the wind conditions. At the end of it he said, this will be a storm like no one alive has ever seen before. So, while we did our best to prepare, there was nothing we could do to protect our beachfront. Our number one concern was life and keeping it safe and secure, so we had a mandatory evacuation for the first time in the history of the town.

Were people reluctant to leave?

People were reluctant. We did our best to impress on them. While we said it was mandatory, it’s still somewhat voluntary. One of the things we used was a reverse 911 systems where we call the residents and in a message to emphasize how important it was for them to leave. I stressed that once the storm starts, emergency services will not be deployed to anyone’s house. So God forbid something does happen. No ones coming for them. Most everyone did listen. I remember driving around the streets and it looked like a ghost town leading up to the storm.

Can you tell us about the day you saw the shore after the storm?

During the night our volunteer water rescue team was out saving lives. On the night of the storm we saved over 100 families, people ranging from fifteen months to over ninety years old. They were out there in the pitch black. No electricity, no vehicles that could get down any street. We lost fire trucks, ambulances, we lost a lot of our equipment. So we didn’t have anything that could even get up to the beachfront. The first time we saw it that next morning it was absolutely devastating. It was something that looked apocalyptic. Some of the things I still remember aside from the boardwalk getting pushed in six city blocks, was how much sand there was on the street that almost looked like snow.

How did Belmar go about the process of rebuilding?

First and foremost, when the storm came [we wanted] to protect lives. We were able to do that. We didn’t lose one person during the storm. Next was property. We weren’t able to protect a lot of the beachfront. We had a lot of homes and business destroyed. Belmar is a very touristy community. During the year we have about 5,800 residents, on a nice sunny day in July we’ll balloon to 60,000. Our small businesses are reliant on those tourists’ dollars. So we had a few things we had to do immediately. One was clean up the beachfront; the second was to rebuild the boardwalk as quickly as possible. Without tourists our 140-plus businesses would fail. All the businesses in Belmar are small owned businesses. There are no national chains here. The businesses would fail, you’d see a decline in the property values, you would start seeing vacant businesses. So for us the number one priority was the cleanup and then right after that was rebuilding. We hired some amazing crews to come in and clean it up. They did a remarkable job, and because of that we started rebuilding the new boardwalk the beginning of January 2013. Governor Chris Christie came back in November of 2012. I made a guarantee that we would have our boardwalk rebuilt in time for summer 2013. The boardwalks were completely up before Memorial Day 2013.

What have been some of the struggles with the rebuilding process?

The biggest struggles have been for our residents. The way federal and state resources are allocated it works really well for the municipality, so we receive 90 percent reimbursement for all the work we did. For homeowners it doesn’t work like that at all. We have homeowners still today on March 26, 2015, that are not back in their homes. They are primary homes where they lived prior to sandy, the night before; they have not been back home yet. The reason why is the way it’s set up for residents. Flood insurance was an absolute abomination. A lot of families in Belmar are working class families, so they don’t have $200,000 sitting in a market somewhere that they can tap into for the improvements and repairs they need for their home. Again, the system is set up great for a municipality. If it weren’t for FEMA we would never have the opportunity to come back. Governor Christie has been phenomenal in Belmar. Anything and everything we’ve asked him for he’s delivered.

What was the morale of the community when the storm first occurred?

The day after the storm people were absolutely broken. I still remember walking down Ocean Avenue right around 19th Avenue. A family I know that lives on Surf one block off the beach, whose house was devastated, just came up and fell into my arms crying. They were really indicative of a lot of the people. People were walking around like we were zombies on this wasteland. It was the most depressing sight and feeling imaginable.

How is it now?

It has improved significantly since the storm. Belmar is a small town with a very big name. It has an interesting identity. The way I can almost quantify how the morale has improved in Belmar, we have a lot of people who have second homes and a lot of those folks have primary homes up in north Jersey. After the storm, many of those families sold their homes up in north Jersey and made Belmar their permanent residence because they wanted to be a part of this community. I think that speaks volumes beyond anything I could ever point to. I would also tell you that we’ve had more private economic development in Belmar since Sandy than in the previous twenty years. There’s a lot of new businesses that want to move to Belmar. A lot of it is because how we as a community responded to Sandy.

I remember being down the street where the water was in front of people’s homes. People were using kayaks to get back and forth. I saw a very nice woman. She was crying like most other people. She looked at me and said, “you know mayor you’re not eating.” So while her house is surrounded by water she was worried that I wasn’t eating enough. I think that’s another good story that sort of reflects the community we have here. People genuinely care about each other, care about each other’s welfare.

After Sandy were there a lot of volunteer efforts around town?

The first ten days the efforts were on cleanup and the volunteer efforts were amazing. I was talking to students from Indiana. They just came to Belmar because they saw it on TV and they said, “how can we help?” So when the storm came, it flooded about 60 percent of our town, which was somewhere around 1300 to 1400 properties. We had thousands of people who came. We brought them together in a very organized way. We assigned a certain amount of people to them. We got things donated; mops, buckets, cleaning materials, shovels, rakes, everything. They went out and they cleaned the basements and they took all the contents of the basement and put them on the curb.

One other thing we did that was imperative was as you put your garbage on the curb we came by and picked it up. Some one told me in reaction to something like this, as soon as you put debris outside, cleanup as fast as you can because there’s a psychological effect to it. If you come around quickly it helps mitigate against those horrible feelings. All those emotional feelings of that garbage that you just put out that twenty-four hours ago were important belongings to you. We wouldn’t be able to do any of that without those volunteers.

Can you tell me about the Home by Summer campaign?

Right now, we’re in the middle of a campaign called Home by Summer. It is to help two families: one is a mom [with] two children, and another is a mom with three children and her mother living with her. Each is in a difficult financial situation because of Sandy, but they both wanted to keep their children in Belmar and keep them in Belmar activities. When you ask them why, they say because we wanted to keep some sense of normalcy for our children during all this craziness. So again these are moms that work, trying to keep their families together.

This one family is currently living out in Lakewood, which is about thirty minutes from Belmar, so that means the mom, every morning, has to drive thirty five minutes to Belmar drop the children off, she goes to work, then every afternoon she goes back to Belmar, picks the children up and drives another thirty five minutes back home. They’ve been doing this for over 190 days since the storm.

One of her children is a boy named Sean. He’s in the fifth grade with my daughter Hannah. My daughter Hannah came home one day, some day in January of this year, 2015, and said you know Sean and his family are still not home yet. I said, “We keep up to date on the families that are still displaced, and the ones that are going through rebuilding process.” She said, “yeah but he’s not home. You’re the mayor, what are you going to do about it? And I thought to myself, my ten-year-old daughter is right. We are going to do something about it, and that’s when we started a fundraiser called Home by Summer. Our total goal is 200,000 dollars. As of today we’re over 110,000 and the contractor and is on pace now to complete it on June 1.

Both families had horrible experiences with their insurance companies. The full blame as to why they are not back home rests on their insurance companies. As the mayor with my ten year old reminding me what my responsibility is, that’s why we started this home by summer program. The media has been wonderful. I’ll give you an example, we had an associated press reporter who covered it and his article was picked up by what’s called the AP wire so it went out to about 172 media companies throughout the country. We started receiving money from California, Texas, and Indiana, all over the country.

We received one contribution from a woman outside of Chicago for $5,000. I called this woman up. So I say, “Well what’s your connection? She says I have none, I’ve never been to Belmar, I’ve never been to New Jersey. But, when I’ve read about those two moms and what they’ve sacrificed, I was so moved that I that I wanted to contribute as much as I could.

We’ve had multiple fundraisers. Bars and restaurants have been great. It’s been an incredible outpouring of love and generosity for these two families. And the nice thing about it is, is the way I explain it to people if you give money to an organization you have no idea where it goes if you give money to home by summer it goes to Krista’s house on 8th Avenue or Teresa’s house on 14th Avenue, that there’s no overhead because there’s no executive director. It just goes to one of two places to get contractors to get them back home. It’s not so much been the events that generate the money but the direct ask and getting the stories out about these two moms.

What were the town’s strengths in rebuilding?

One of our best strengths was that we moved quickly. Once the storm hit we were able to get, the best contractor to do the clean up. Then, we got arguably the best contractor for rebuilding the boardwalk. We were able to do that because we were out faster than everyone else, so we got the clean up crew before anyone else and we got the contractor for the boardwalk before everyone else. By doing that we also secured the lumber at better prices so we got better prices than other places as well.

The second one was being decisive. If you overanalyze a problem you will be paralyzed. If we didn’t move quickly we wouldn’t have the boardwalk done. No boardwalk done, no businesses, no businesses, and the town starts to deteriorate very, quickly in a downward spiral that is difficult to get out of.

If you could go back to the day of the storm is there anything you would’ve done differently?

If there’s one thing I would’ve done differently, I would’ve been more convincing to get people out of town. The night of the storm in 60 to 70 mph winds, in the pitch black, in moving water. We had water rescuers using surf boards, swimming themselves, using kayaks, wave runners, everything and anything to rescue people off their front porches. While we had no loss of life or any serious injury, I think that’s because we got lucky.

After the storm we had no electricity and we were able to get a couple generators. And we started thinking, where do we need generators, and one the places we started to realize needed generators was the laundry mat. No one thinks of that. Like I said, this woman sends us $5000, no connection to the town or anything.

We also did a mass at Saint Rose Church. This was the Sunday after the storm. We invited the whole town and we were doing it to honor our first responders who did a great job. There were so many people in the aisle, so many people there they couldn’t do a collection. It was far beyond what the capacity of that church ever held in its existence. I said, “Future generations will look back and say this was Belmar’s finest hour because I truly think it was.”

Interviewed by Megan Moast
Assisted by Stephanie Pappas
Edited by Megan Moast
Belmar, New Jersey
Recorded March 26, 2015