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The spray foam snowman

Thomas Bowes

Thomas Bowes resides in Sayreville, New Jersey, but spends much of the year in a family beach house on Chadwick Beach Island. Built in 1964 by his father, the beach house has long been the focal point of summer life for his family. Hurricane Sandy caused severe flooding damage to the house that Thomas, as a carpenter, is working to repair. In his narrative, Thomas speaks to the particular challenges facing those who own second homes on the shore.


What were your thoughts on the approaching storm? Did you take any precautions to prepare for it?

Other than the normal wind precautions of just tying stuff down and closing storm windows and stuff like that, not a great deal. Past storms haven’t been to this magnitude.

I was actually at the house Sunday night to tie up some things before the storm came in.

They were evacuated down there, and I was in Sayreville. We were taking it laid back in the beginning until I started getting text messages of photos from beach cams and friend’s houses, which showed where the water line was. I remember getting a picture of a wave washing over a bench at the top of the beach in front of a friend’s home. I knew that things were different. I knew it was gonna change at that point.

When did you come back to your beach house?

We weren’t allowed [on the island at] first because there were sinkholes, highway damage, gas line leaks, and power line problems. There was also some looting going on. So we were held out for I believe three and a half weeks before we were allowed to go back in.

The first time we came back we had to come over the Seaside Bridge which is Route 37. And you had to show resident documentation. You could come in as early as the morning and you had to be out by 2:00 in the afternoon.

We were only allowed in with one vehicle, so I took my truck with quite a few supplies.

The National Guard and the State Police were patrolling constantly. They were running around with bullhorns and the National Guard had called for Martial Law, which gives them the right to arrest you if your there past curfew. They were patrolling not only the highways and the roads but also the waterways because people were coming by boat to do looting at the time. The homes were unattended, and at that time it brought out the best and the worst in people.

I had three feet of water in the house so I knew that there would be a mold problem. The longer that mold problem stayed the worse the damage would be. So, I had supplies to start to clean up the problem.

Being in construction I knew what problems I would run into when I got there. So the task at hand was to basically empty the entire house and contents onto the front lawn and to tear the walls, everything from 4 feet and down, and try and stop the mold problem that was going to continue to occur until the house was dried out.

Right now the house is 75 percent rebuilt. It’s functional to the point that I have heat, hot water, and plumbing running, which we’ve had to replace. In the process I had to rip out the tile in the bathroom, the walls there, and all the fixtures and also the lower cabinets in the kitchen, which are two very high dollar areas. The bathroom is not finished as of yet, and the lower kitchen cabinets are not installed yet. There is just plywood on the floor, and only some furniture that was actually given to us during the storm.

We’ve been using it since the first year as it is.

You said that the area looked like a war zone?

Chadwick Beach is one of the last beaches, so a large percentage of people got in there before us. You [placed all the] gutted contents of your home onto your front lawn to get the water problem out. Couches, beds, washers, dryers, hot water heaters, cabinets, any clothes, carpeting. In front of our house there were two ten-foot piles of garbage. [It was] the same for every other home. Going in we drove past all [these] homes. Plus, the highway still had deep holes in it. There were sinkholes where not only cars but also houses had fallen into and were half underground. There was a large area of homes that were burned down due to a gas leak. There were boats upside down, on roofs, through living rooms.

There was a pile, I would say the size of a football field [and] as high as a five story building, of garbage and rubble in Seaside Heights. There were [also] two large piles there with bulldozers and heavy claw machines breaking up parts of the boardwalk. They started craning into dumpsters some of the debris that was on people’s lawns. There were other football field size [piles] of cars and boats that [had been] under water. And there were lots with just appliances stacked up. It was a huge task, and I’m not really sure which dump facilities took that. That would be Toms River taking care of all of that as the township.

The National Guard was there protecting the area from looting. There [were] barrels with fires going, as there was no power on at the time. It just looked like a war zone.

Are you finding it easy or hard to replace the items that were lost or damaged?

I’m finding it quite difficult being that there was no help because it was a second home. I think some of the biggest challenges are trying to work and maintain one home and finding the time, the energy, and the money to also work on a second home without burning out is the hardest part. So the money and the energy to work and rebuild is the biggest part of the burden I would say.

Have you taken any precautions for the possibility of a future storm?

There was no money to raise the house from FEMA or the insurance company. There really is no way financially to raise the house and change anything. They are also changing the ocean shoreline, which is why [so much flooding happened] on the bayside.

The beach is a higher barrier than the bay and the tidal water flows in and out twice a day. So during the hurricane the high tide got pushed into the bay and the hurricane, with the driving winds and high waves, keep the high tide in the bay. The bay flooded and raised water levels 7 to 9 feet above what they normally would be even on a full moon and a high tide. The water had nowhere to go and kept getting higher, driven in by the ocean.

By the ocean beach failing as a barrier and [because inlets] had been filled in years ago, all that water ended up ruining all the bayside homes. I don’t really know what, other than raising a house higher then what the new waterline, would be of help.

How have you dealt with the emotional aspect of the damage to your home?

I would say one day at a time. Living and growing up down there and having a tie to the community, also the home that we own down there was built by my father so it has a little bit more meaning. You just take one day at a time. It was devastation. It looked like a war zone when we first went in. People’s lives turned upside down. It takes time to grasp it and put a handle on it. Rebuilding and helping other people if you can.

The public as a whole only sees it in the news and the media. But people involved personally, the ones that were affected, see it differently. It takes years to rebuild and just one day at a time. Just dealing with it and dealing with each hurtle and realizing what’s doable and what’s not doable. And [staying] grounded, we still are alive and still healthy so it’s just time and effort that will make it better.

If another storm like Sandy occurred, would your decision process be similar or different?

Well, first I’d like to say that I pray that a situation like this doesn’t ever happen again. Although, you never know, they changed this from a 100 year storm to a 60 year storm. There have been hurricanes before that have taken out ocean front homes and I know the building codes for those are very different. Hopefully the replenishment of the beach and the change in the way they did that will help tremendously. I don’t know that I could deal with it any differently other than it is something that looms in the back of your mind due to the money and the hard work that you spend to try and rebuild. But because there’s an indescribable tie to the community, the area, and the people, you are driven to do what you can to rebuild.

I don’t know if it would be any different. I would say the only difference for me now is how I go about refinishing the house. It will probably be in a simpler means, so that if [this] ever happens again we won’t lose as much. We are lucky because we still had a house to go back to. A lot of people I know did not.

How has Hurricane Sandy shaped your community? Do you think it has brought you closer together?

I think for some people it has brought them very close together. I saw great acts of kindness, simple kindness. I find that a lot of things have drawn the community together. Not only out of force, also because it needed to make decisions as a whole to get help. I’ve had help from people offering appliances here or there or a piece of furniture here or there. I’ve had friends that have offered help fixing stuff, lending a hand. So, personally I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of good people.

It’s very interesting. As of this past year there are still plenty of houses that are down and not rebuilt. Most of them are knocked down by now. I think it was mandated to a certain date if they hadn’t done anything that they had to be knocked down. I believe there’s only one or two that are not. I think people that are still affected may [have resentment] towards the people just moving on because it was such a hit and miss, home by home, issue. I was still working very hard to rebuild [that] first year [when] the media and the news said everything was fine. [But when there were] people just walking to the beach with their beach chairs and then not a hundred feet away there was still devastation, I think that’s the hard part.

Are there any stories that you would like to share?

Driving in one morning and driving down the shore road, which was under construction, somebody had taken spray foam and they had made a giant snowman out of spray foam. And they had posted the spray foam snowman on the side of the road and put a sign in the snowman’s hand about how mad they were about Sandy. Driving through it was still very emotional. That snowman just made you laugh. As much as it was a tragedy it kinda broke it up with a little humor and I think it really did people a lot of good. [The snowman] wasn’t there very long but it was quite cool that somebody took the time to do that.

Another story I can remember is after we were in really good shape in the house, I had taken a ride one Friday night after work on a bicycle. That’s the main means of transportation down there. I hadn’t had the opportunity up until then to really go into the other beach communities that were close by and to really realize how much of the devastation had really affected the communities on both sides [of Chadwick].

The only other story that I’d like to share is the help that I got from my friends and my family. My daughter and my sister working side by side just as hard as I was to help rebuild. It was quite nice.

Interviewed by Meghan O’Brien
Edited by Meghan O’Brien
Sayreville, New Jersey
Recorded March 21, 2015