Michael Jurusz is a Jersey native and owner and head chef of the Atlantic Bar and Grill in Seaside Park. Chef Mike, as he is called, has in a number of places but says there’s nothing better than the “Jersey Attitude.” Though Hurricane Sandy spared his restaurant, Mike witnessed a tremendous amount of destruction in Seaside and nearby communities. In his narrative, he speaks to the losses in his community, as well as his efforts to help others in the recovery process.
Our beaches are the best beaches probably anywhere in the United States. I’ve lived in a lot of states, probably 14 different states, and our beaches are pristine, white, beautiful sand. You go down to Florida and their beaches are rocky and hard. At our beach you can bury your feet in the sand. When Sandy wiped it all out, we realized how beautiful it is. We lost a lot of it and that’s the sad part, because now we realized what we really had. We didn’t really cherish, and now we do.
The boardwalk was tough to see. I knew all of those guys up there who had those restaurants and those bars and shops and to see it destroyed like that was terrible. I lived in Seaside for a couple of years and my son and I used to just walk up to the boardwalk. We have a lot of fond memories up there, and to see it completely gone it totally traumatized him, because he couldn’t believe his childhood memories were gone. That was a tough swallow. That was the biggest pill.
In the days before Sandy, how did you prepare?
I was at another restaurant in Point Pleasant and we started doing evacuation drills. The town actually came and told us we had to be out the day of Sandy. No one knew it was going to be that bad. I lived here. I grew up here. I lived a ton of hurricanes and storms, so it was just another. Nobody thought it would be the devastation that it would be.
What did the evacuation drill say?
We had to close the restaurant by 4:00 and be out. If we weren’t out we would be arrested at 5:00. So within one hour we had to evacuate. The winds started picking up, the streets were empty. It was very eerie, very very eerie. You knew something was coming and a lot of places were boarded up. Everybody started boarding up so we knew something was coming down the pike.
Do you remember when you came back and you saw the area around your business for the first time?
Oh I was in tears. Absolute tears, just to see my friends’ restaurants, my friends’ businesses, people I know, their houses just gone…just gone. It was a terrible scene here, it was like a war, like being bombed. There was just devastation. You remember everything as a child growing up and everything is not there anymore and it freaks you out. I grew up off Mantoloking road. I remember the bridge, and the houses. Not seeing that landscape anymore, even today I drive over it and it’s not the landscape I know, and I don’t know where I am. It’s a scary feeling.
It’s unbelievable, the power of Mother Earth. My philosophy on this is that I think we took it a little light because like I said, it’s another storm. People said, “Lets drink to the storm! Let’s have a storm party!” That’s how people think but we didn’t know it was going to be to that extent. Now, I think when a storm comes through it’s much different. People are a lot more aware of what is happening. It opened our eyes.
What kind of damage did you sustain on your property?
Well the only thing we lost [at Atlantic Bar and Grill] was our dunes, which is huge. We are tying to rebuild them because the dunes are what saved us. Yes, we have a better view now, but at what cost? So we’re trying to rebuild the dunes as much as we can because I would rather have a safe restaurant and a restaurant here the next day then something where they can see down to the beach. You’ll always have a view because we are on the ocean but the dunes needs to be rebuilt because they are what really saved us. And if another storm comes through and we don’t have these dunes up to as high as they are we are going to be in trouble.
What is the process of rebuilding the dunes?
Well it’s a natural ecosystem that does it, believe it or not. We don’t fill it with sand or anything. We just put in sea grass, and all the Christmas trees. The wind blows sand up and builds it higher and higher and higher, naturally. So it’s going to take a couple of years to do.
But nobody’s allowed on ‘em. We see people come to our dunes and we go ballistic. We scream and yell at ‘em “get off!” you know it’s a natural thing that people want to stand on the dunes and take a picture. Kids like to run on them in the summer and we go nuclear on them because you’re destroying the ecosystem. You’re destroying the grass and the stuff that helps it grow so we are very aggressive.
What are you views of the federal government’s response after Hurricane Sandy?
I think they shortchanged a lot of people. I don’t think they knew what really came down the pike. It’s all about money and I think the insurance companies short-changed a lot of people. They tried every which way to not pay. I think a lot of good people and a lot of good places got short changed and didn’t get a chance to rebuild and that sucks because everybody puts in but when it’s time to pay out nobody wants to pay out.
What long-term affects do you think Sandy will have on you personally?
A lot of good friends of mine lost everything. I was very fortunate. I didn’t lose everything. But for them, a lot of them didn’t even rebuild. They just left and that’s a shame because they were life long residents here and they just couldn’t afford it anymore. It affects me because most of them are good customers, but it also affects me because they are friends of mine. I hate seeing people go through that.
I’m a super generous person. I do a lot of fundraising through out the year. I raise anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 for multiple charities. I’ve got 5 of them in the next two months that are coming up that are huge. But one of the things that we did right after Sandy, at Thanksgiving, is Cliff Baker from Singer Restaurant Equipment and I got a bunch of volunteers and we got all of this food donated and we cooked a Thanksgiving meal for all of the first responders, the fireman, the police, and the military on the island. We made 1,000 meals complete, full turkey dinners with not only starched veggies but everything you could imagine: salads, bread, apple pie, and pumpkin pie, and drinks, and soda, and ice cream. We had ShopRite and all of the major companies donate. We cooked it all and we delivered it on fire trucks to all of these guys. You want to talk about grown men in tears.
What was it like seeing the community come together after the storm?
Oh it was great. We needed to, you know? No one was going to help us but us. So we relied on each other. We couldn’t wait for the government, we couldn’t wait for these people to help us; we had to help ourselves. We call it “take care of each other” and we all bound together and that’s what I was saying about the Thanksgiving food because who’s going to take care of these people? Nobody. The government ain’t going to do it. We are going to do it. You know we aren’t going to wait for somebody to step up and do it. And that’s Jersey resilience; that’s the jersey attitude. I’ve lived everywhere and Jersey is tough as nails. You don’t mess with a person from Jersey.
We can sit here and complain about the storm all day long but is it helping anything? No. We’ve got to be positive. We’ve got to figure out how to change. We’ve got to figure out how to rebuild, how to help. Enough of the crying and the sobbing, that’s all done. Now it’s time to stand up, shake the dust off and get back to work. Let’s get back to business. Let’s build this community back to where it was.
Interviewed by Jennifer Pagliaro
Assisted by Stephanie Kroeger
Edited by Jennifer Pagliaro
Seaside Park, New Jersey
Recorded March 26, 2015