Patricia Harth is a resident of Edison, New Jersey, and she lived in the state for more than half a century. Since her childhood, the shore has been her “summer home.” Like many New Jerseyans, she rents a property on the shore in the same place each summer, hers being in Toms River. Though she did not experience personal loss to property or possessions as a result of Hurricane Sandy, the storm nonetheless has had a tremendous impact on her life and the lives of her summer neighbors, many of whom are year-round residents. In her narrative, she speaks to this sense of loss, as well as to her thoughts regarding the future of the shore.
Why do you visit the Jersey Shore?
I can’t afford to live at the beach so I rent for the season.
How long have you been visiting the Jersey Shore?
Ever since I was a kid with my family. As an adult, probably about 10 years now renting full time for the seasons.
What does the Jersey Shore mean to you?
Relaxation. Entertainment. Family fun. A lot of fun times!
Do you remember where you were when the storm was taking place or when you realized the severity of the storm?
Oh, yeah. I actually was here in my house in Edison. I was one of the fortunate people that had electricity and water. I was glued to the TV, it was unbelievable, I mean, just seeing the roller coaster in the ocean and the houses that were there one time and were gone. It didn’t look like the same place where I was the summer before.
Two days later we left for vacation. We went to Jamaica. There was no impact there or anything. But we came home and it was still…the devastation.
How did hurricane Sandy affect you as a renter?
It affected me in many ways. Being down there I got very close with the neighbors who lived there. They were their permanent homeowners, so it affected me in feeling for them and seeing the devastation. That was one of the reasons we went back the next summer, even though a lot of things were closed down. Luckily, the house we rented was still available, so when we went back there we actually tried to help as much as we could with our surrounding neighbors and just to bring back with the community financially by going to what was open.
How did you help your neighbors?
We helped the gentlemen next door around the yard and around the house. We did a lot of cleaning for another lady down the road, we cleaned up her yard for her and helped as much as she would allow us to help her and, you know, just being there and just going to the beach when we could.
Sandy has influenced business and the rental community in the area, how do you think the dynamic has changed as a renter? How has Sandy affected the quality of your visits to the Jersey Shore?
Definitely there are less people there. The beaches are smaller, if the beaches are open. Just walking through the neighborhoods, it’s so sad seeing the homes that aren’t getting rebuilt because the owners probably don’t have the funds to rebuild them. I hear a lot of stories about that – people who had to walk away.
What has been the hardest part as a renter in Toms River?
Just looking around and seeing how people are trying to get back on their feet and build back their homes. The street we’re on… there’s about seven lots that are just empty. Some people may never come back and some people are doing their best to get back.
Are there any stories associated with the storm that you would like to share?
I know the first time we got in there was New Year’s Day. We were trying to go see our neighbors, and the National Guard let us go into the neighborhood. I guess we didn’t look like looters, three friends coming from Atlantic City, New Year’s Day. He actually said, “if we let you go through here to see them, will it make them smile?” and we said, “we hope so,” and he said, “Then go!” That’s when we got out to Chadwick Island and saw the total devastation. To see it on TV and to see it in reality was very overwhelming. Unfortunately our one neighbors, he wasn’t home.
A lady I work with, she’s has a family of five and they live in Toms River on the bay year-round. That is their family home, they’ve been there for forever. They made the decision to stay the day of the storm. Her son, who’s married, and his wife live a couple miles away, came down their street in his Jeep and said, “The water’s getting really high, you need to leave!” Her husband, he was afraid of looters. He’s grown up in this house his whole life and he basically said, “No, we’re going to stay!” As the water came in they moved up to the second floor of their house. As the night went on she said the scariest part was once the water hit a certain level. She had about four cars at her house, very nice cars. When the water got to a certain level, it triggered the car alarms and they couldn’t turn them off. All through the night the car alarms just kept going until they finally died out the next morning. Staying up all night, watching the water come up to their house. After the storm, her husband continued to stay, he went out with his shotgun to scare off looters. He said they were coming in on boats trying to rob these beautiful homes that face the water. Luckily, they were all safe, they just lost their valuables. I think when she looks back at it now it probably wasn’t the best decision, she should have just left him there but… you know, you do what you do.
There’s a place, the restaurant Sunny Hunny, and there was a picture on the counter that somebody took right before they bailed out – you could literally see the wave coming over the houses, just ready to come and hit Central Avenue. It’s a really neat picture. Who would have thought it was like a tsunami. It’s the way you look at it. I don’t know anything about storms, but because it hit this person but it didn’t hit this person, it was almost like something you see on the cartoons, you know. It just touched down in different places but uhh… we went out and wherever you went that was your conversation. We met a lot of strangers. A lot of people thought we were part of the community because we went back. And I’m glad we went back.
Do you know any other people who were affected by the storm?
I do, I know quite a few of them! A friend of mine in Spring Lake, she lost her home, she rebuilt it, and sold it. A good friend of mine, she’s in Point Pleasant, and she said, she thinks what saved her is that she has a full basement so all of the water went into the basement and it never really it just kind of stopped right by her first floor, she was lucky.
How do you think the community would react to another natural disaster of this severity?
I think it will break them. I think if one hit now people would just be done, you know, ‘cause they’re still broken. Even if you’re strong, this is a tough way to survive.
What do you think are the lessons for the future that should be learned from Sandy?
There’s a lot of lessons learned. Years ago, when the beach houses were built, you never knew that a storm was going to come and knock them down. People keep getting bigger and better and more beautiful homes… build them high on the pilings. And I wouldn’t put your life’s valuables into a house that sits near or on the water. You never know what’s going to happen again, anything can happen anywhere. Look at all the snow we had this winter, people’s roofs could have caved in and you would have lost your house that way, it’s just hard to say.
Interviewed by Allison Jones
Edited by Allison Jones
Edison, New Jersey
Recorded March 21, 2015