Dave Estelle is a retired police officer who has lived in Sea Bright, New Jersey, all his life. He is currently the captain of the First Aid Squad, and has helped to organize responses to several hurricanes including Sandy. During Sandy, he was forced evacuate all first responders temporarily due to the storm’s intensity. In the aftermath, he worked for about two months straight helping the people of Sea Bright to recover. In this narrative, Dave Estelle talks about his personal reaction to the storm, the emergency calls he received as a first responder, and the recovery of the town of Sea Bright.
When did you first hear about Hurricane Sandy, and what was your initial reaction?
Well, being at Sea Bright, we always have our ear to the weather, always watch the Weather Channel. You got to watch cause if you like the weather now, wait a while, it changes so fast here. We just followed the weather reports and weather bulletins and through OEM, Office of Emergency Management.
Did you think the storm was going to be as big as it was?
Originally no. But then I heard the Weather Service say that it was going to come up the coast and make an abrupt turn towards the Jersey Coast. I thought we were going to get the strongest part of the storm, the strongest quadrant and it came true.
How did you prepare for the storm?
Well, being a fireman, and I was on the OEM, I was captain of the First Aid Squad, and basically we started identifying our special needs people. They needed to be identified early on, to get out of town. Secure all loose items like garbage cans, dumpsters, things that could float, just trying to batten the hatchets down as best as we could. We repaired all of our emergency vehicles, we fueled them up, we checked the oils and the fluids and made sure we were geared up as best we could, ready to fight the storm.
Was there an emergency evacuation for all of Sea Bright?
Oh absolutely, the people of Sea Bright were told days [before] to prepare for this. We can’t force them to evacuate, but we can advise them as far as weather, what we know it will be like and what they should do, [but] there were people who stayed.
Can you explain what you saw when the storm hit?
Well, I knew we were in trouble early Monday morning because the tide came up overnight, the wind started kicking in and the tide never went back out all the way. It came up to Ocean Avenue, it was unusually high then and we saw the tide wasn’t going out and we knew that in an hour or two it was going to hit. There were plans that if it got too bad we were going to abandon town, abandon fire, police, EMS and OEM, which we did. We ended up leaving town here around 2 pm Monday afternoon. The tides were already well up on their way and the waves were just up at the parking lot and we still had a good four or five hours till high tide. And the director of the OEM made the decision to abandon ship. I was at the south end of town half a mile down trying to pull this truck that water gotten into and shortened out so I was trying to get it off to the side of the road [when] it came over the radio that all units report to the fire corps immediately, we are leaving town.
What were some of the calls you received during the storm?
We came back over the bridge Tuesday morning. We sent out a rescue team, I think we had three rescue teams, one team went north and the other team stayed in town and another team went south, we went from the bridge and we experienced the smell of gas, wires down, numerous gas leaks, and numerous water leaks. We were actually in the search and rescue mode, we were looking for people, we didn’t know whether to look for deceased people. It was funny cause we would be looking and then we would look up and we would say “Look there is someone in that window!” It was people who stayed and some of them called and said they wanted to get out and we would get them out on the truck to high ground and get them out of town. And this is for days and weeks afterwards, we were just bombarded with gas leaks, water leaks, you name it we, got it. The utilities were going crazy. That was probably about 90% of the calls we got were utility leaks. People wanted to get out of their house, people had second thoughts when they were rescued and wanted to be taken back to the house.
We got a call that [a woman] was trapped in her house, and the water was rising. It was overnight, Monday into Tuesday morning, and 2 or 3 of our guys got her out, in fact one of our police officers almost got swept away. She was hypothermic, they got her in the back of the ambulance [but] that was almost a fatality. There was no fatalities throughout this storm. No major injuries or fatalities, thank God. I don’t know how we did it.
Were there a lot of people trapped in their homes?
No, nobody was actually trapped, these were people that stayed and they were sorry they stayed. The next morning [when they] saw the damage, the gas leaks and all that, they wanted out real quick. There was never anybody trapped, we never got any calls that anybody was trapped. So that was good.
What was your reaction when you saw Sea Bright after the storm?
I was born here in 1956 and I have seen a lot of storms come and a lot of storms go but I have never seen that before. My First Aid building that you are in right now, you can see the water line and that’s where the waterline settled. It was higher than that but that’s where it ended up settling. I never thought I would see the day that I saw water at all, not to mention the height of it, in the fire house and first aid squad. Basically the ocean and the river came up and just met. So a lot of force were waves of 62.4 lbs. per cubic foot and you could do the math there
So what were some of the biggest problems you faced in the immediate days after the storm?
Danger from utilities, wires down, buildings with structural compromised. We had open gas leaks, we had blow outs, houses knocked off their foundations, ruptured the gas lines, we had wires down, we didn’t know whether they were hot wires or not. Water leaks all over, collapsed ground, so it was a little bit of everything, it was just a big mess.
The sand was unbelievable, when you rode down Ocean Ave, they cleared a path for us like one lane and you looked up and it was like 6 to 8 feet in the air it was like looking in a tunnel. You felt like the sand was going to come down on you. Between the business district and the northbound lane on Ocean Avenue, it was nothing but solid, like crazy sand. Two of the beach clubs were completely gone. They were a pile of rumble it was unbelievable, I was like wow. It was just crazy, crazy, crazy.
Was there anything in particular that stuck with you?
There was nothing really… thank God there was no loss of life. We did a couple of EMS calls during the storm. We took a guy out [who] was bed ridden [and] we had to get someone who had a front loader to clear his yard out so we can get to his house, get in, get him on the stretcher, come out, and put him on a backboard, brought him up over the sand dunes, pulled the ambulance in a parking lot, put him in the rig, and took him to the hospital. That was probably one of the last calls cause after that, the rig didn’t start running no more.
How many hours a day were you working during the storm?
I was on call for about 2 months straight. We basically had a routine, we would get up in the morning and we would sleep down in Borough Hall on the basketball floor court out there. I had a blow up bed and some guys had cots set up there. No running water, no showers. I hadn’t had a shower in about 3 weeks. I was a driver so I had to get up early, and get the crew up and we would hop in and if we got a call at Monmouth Beach we would make it over the sand, all up and down the beach was covered in sand so we had to go all wheel drive. We were going through about 4 or 5 feet of sand mounds, going to answer calls at Monmouth Beach. This went on for almost a month, and then we came back here, got our trucks back, and we started working out of here. The local residents set up a system in our fire house with a kitchen facility. [They] set up a grill, then we had the military men set up the tents, it was big operation here as time went on. It started out with only one or two people in the kitchen the first day or two and then people from around the area came in and we got food donated. We had the military and army setting up their tents [and] they were cooking for us and that’s basically what we did for about two months.
How do you think the town’s response was with the recovery?
Its slow and steady, you can see today. Two and a half years later, a lot of the houses are being raised. Some houses are still on the ground, others just walked away, sold their houses, you see different stages of repair. Some of the houses, if you look carefully, you can still see where the water lines are on the houses and I’m 6ft 3in and its probably another foot or two over my head. This is from the river tides. This is a very dangerous situation where the ocean had breached up by the Sea Bright-Rumson Bridge, there was a ton of water that went there and I go over the bridge. I had to back up in the dark, the bridge was completely black, and the boats and cars by the way were floating up and banging against the bridge. It was boats all over the place, they were in the waterway, in the channel, there is still a truck at the end of this avenue, you can see where the water picked up a pick-up truck. There was a lot of debris in the channel, the Shrewsbury River. There are still houses where if something else happens you’re going to get hit again. We have seen a lot of businesses that are still at ground level. There were people that had some kind of grant or loans that are raising them, there are all different degrees of damage.
Would you change anything about the town’s response?
You just try to get better each time it happens. Things that when you get done, you can teach the First Aid core what you did and didn’t do and what you did good and what you could have done better and what you did just right and that’s how you do it. You try to better yourself [and] hopefully we will never see this again but you know as I do we are going to see something like this again. The way the patterns are going crazy so we are probably going to see another one of these if not worse. It’s just a matter of time and tracking the storm. It’s just a matter of how it moves and how strong it is. You try to better yourself for the next one. Make sure you got your merch equipment out of harm’s way, your men are ready to go, your firemen and first responders are taken care of with food because they need to last because we were basically we were 24/7 here. In one 24 hour period we had 37 calls for water leaks, gas leaks, what we were doing we were cutting meters off, standing by for the gas companies, electric wires down, cutting water off. That’s basically all we did you know 90% of our job was utilities.
Have you been in any other hurricane relief before?
Many times. I have been in the fire company and with the EMS for 41 years. As a police officer I started my police career here in 1975, I went to a town called Deal in 1980 and I retired in 2005 as a sergeant, so I did 30 years in law enforcement. And I have seen several storms. I have been to every storm since I was a kid. I lived in Sea Bright, I have lived in Monmouth Beach, Hurricane Donna back in the 60s, all of them, Hurricane Floyd, you name it I’ve been through it. I’ve seen bad ones but I have never seen it this bad.
How do you think Sandy compared to the rest of the storms?
No comparison, in a field of its own. Trust me, I’ve seen some big ones, I’ve seen some doozies in my life, and that’s what scares me is because this wasn’t even a hurricane. When it made landfall it was classified as a super storm. It was a hurricane when it was coming off the coast, then right before it hit the coast of Atlantic City, it made landfall as a super storm, it wasn’t even a hurricane. That was scary because you got five categories of hurricanes and it’s scary to think that this didn’t even hit as a category one hurricane. It’s just the way it came up and that quick left turn, that upper quadrant it just pushed everything in, as it moved farther in its wind just brought everything crashing into the shore.
Do you think Hurricane Sandy has changed you in any way and if so, how?
Humbled me. You can never say you aren’t going to get water in this town, the last sacred part of town that was high and dry was underwater. So basically your highest part of town was compromised so, you do the math.
What do you think New Jersey can learn from Hurricane Sandy?
You can learn from what happened to Louisiana, take notes from them, see what they went through. Biggest thing is that people got to keep an eye on the weather, they have to have a package ready, have your medications, have your checklist, as the storm approaches, make sure you have contact with the rest of your family, let them know where you are going make sure you have a route going out of your town and have a place to stay. Early evacuation, there comes a point where we are not going to be able to come in and help you. We tell people, when it gets to the point that it did, you have to get out of town, you are on your own. And people were on their own for about a 12 hour period. The police, the firemen, we packed up and left. We didn’t get back until 7:00 that next morning.
Where do you see the recovery process of Sea Bright in 5 years?
You’re going to see a different Sea Bright. Obviously you can see our municipal complex within a matter of weeks is either going to be torn down or boarded up and I’m going to have to move my First Aid out of here. I’m talking about down to weeks now. This building is actually condemned right now. I have nowhere else to go right now, I have to move out to the end of one of our side streets where the fire trucks are.
We still are not safe. We still have to keep an eye on the weather all the time. It’s one thing we always do in Sea Bright; we are always weather weary. We are always watching the weather. We have to.
I see houses coming back, you see houses that are going to be rebuilt or raised. The businesses have all come back. From the bridge to 7/11 there was nothing. It took a good two years or more to get the businesses back. I would say not all but 90% of the businesses were back. But there was nothing here, we had nothing in town, there were no stores, it was like living back in the 1800s here, there was nothing. I had to worry about my mail. The post office was destroyed, I had just grabbed my police pension check, I got it just before Sandy, otherwise it would have been gone. We have a temporary post office because there was no place for people to go. They had to go to Rumson all the time and some people had trouble getting to their all the time
So you think recovery is far from over here?
Oh yeah they still got years. But this town will never be the same and this town will be a different town when it is all said and done. More condos built, you will see more of those houses along the waterfront will be taken down and then sold to people to make those waterfront condos. I say in five to seven years you will see a whole new ball game, a nice municipal complex built here. They are going to make one whole, police fire and first aid department. I can consolidate all the services into one building here. That’s what the plan is. Hopefully it will be completed by 2016, it’s supposed to be moved in by the first of 2017. It was an experience to say the least.
Interviewed by Gina Palmisano
Assisted by Stephanie Pappas
Edited by Gina Palmisano
Freehold, New Jersey
Recorded April 8, 2015