William Johnson lives in Ocean Port, New Jersey, and is owner of Scala’s Pizzeria in Long Branch. At the time of Hurricane Sandy, he was a Councilman in Ocean Port. Though his home and business were spared much of the destruction that others have faced, his neighbors and mother-in-law were not as fortunate. In his narrative, William speaks of his experiences during the storm as well as the process of recovery. He is pleased to see how people in the community have pulled together to get through the storm.
Have you been affected by any previous natural disasters and how did they differ from Sandy?
Sure, we were affected in a 1992 storm, nor’easter. Sandy was much worse. It’s some of the same kind of damage that we had in 1992 but sandy just took it to a different extreme.
In the days before Sandy how did you prepare?
I live right on Shrewsbury so we’re exposed to the waves and water. Our house is approximately 25 feet from the bulkhead of the bay. Our house was actually built after the ‘92 storm so it was built higher than other houses in the neighborhood. I thought we’d be okay as far as the flooding, but I was afraid of the wind damage so we boarded the rear of the house.
Were you especially worried about Sandy?
No. About a year prior to that we had Hurricane Irene which scared everybody the forecast called for you know pretty high winds and flooding but all you really got was the flooding and it never really materialized so we thought Sandy would be the same, but that afternoon we knew it was definitely something different.
Tell us about your experiences as the hurricane was taking place
At the time I guess the governor declared a State of Emergency so we closed the business. The business was not open. But I was home with my family. In the afternoon the winds were so wild and the waves were actually hitting the back of the house. We observed that part of our patio was washing out into the water so we knew, you know, when the high tide hit or the surge hit it was going to be much, much worse. So we decided it was time to evacuate. They asked voluntarily to evacuate before and we didn’t think we had to because we were high enough but I was afraid of a structural collapse so I had, myself, my wife, my two daughters, two pets, and my 83 year old mother-in-law. Now, when the tide went back the street had flooded but when the tide went back out, the tide prior to the big surge, the street was still flooded so we had to drag my mother in law down the middle of the street, you know, to get to higher ground. Couldn’t get a car down there because everything at that time was bad. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, now the surge didn’t hit until a good 12 hours after that but at that time we knew it was going to be horrific.
What do you remember when you first saw your home after Sandy?
When we evacuated my house we went to Tinton Falls which is about 3 or 4 towns over, stayed with my brother in law. We both got up 4:30, 5:00 in the morning to get back to our houses. Now I live on the water, and my mother in law lives next door. So we went to go see what kind of damage was done. It was the spookiest, eeriest, feeling just driving through the streets trying to get back to our home. Normally it takes fifteen minutes. It took us almost an hour because we had to drive around downed power lines and downed trees and it was, at the time it was a ghost town. It was 5 in the morning there was no one out. We knew the tide was going out so we figured, let’s be the first ones back, just in case. We can see how bad it is or if anyone needs help. It was unreal. Just driving, turning onto my street I had just seen the damage then and just like I said there was nobody there. Everybody evacuated and it was gut wrenching to say the least.
What kind of damage did your home and business sustain?
Fortunately, physically, Scala’s did not sustain any physical damage. The boarded up windows were enough to prevent any flying debris from breaking the windows. We were closed for 10 days so that’s 10 days of lost income. Even though we have insurance for that it paid us a small fraction of what we lost in revenue.
Our house, we were fortunate in that respect also. We sustained probably around $50,000 of damage. The patio washed out into the bay. The crawl space flooded. We had to change the insulation, had to change the air-conditioning duct work, had to change things outside but I say that we were, compared to all my neighbors, we were extremely lucky. Those poor people were out of their houses for months. Almost every single house on my street flooded. We were back in a matter of a couple weeks. All we had to do was empty out the crawl space, do a little remediation and we were back as soon as the power came back. So we were a lot more lucky than everyone else. But for weeks following it was just totally, totally…I keep using the word gut wrenching. It just put a knot in my stomach.
We were driving down the street to get to our house daily coming home from work and everyone had all their personal belongings piled up on the side of the curb. You know it was saturated, it was flooded, it was all ruined. The town made plans and provisions to have front end loaders just pick it up at take it away. So it was heartbreaking to see everybody’s personal belongings out on the curb side. And it was mountains of it. It was piled up and you know much higher than the car. Both sides of the street. Furniture, clothes, appliances, whatever have you.
How have you gone about the process of rebuilding?
For us it was pretty easy. Like I said we just had to have different contractors come in, replace the air conditioning, replace the insulation they were the two biggest things. We had to have contractors come back in the summer to re-do the patio. It was simple. For my mother in law next door, she got wiped out. She even raised her house after the ‘92 storm but she didn’t go high enough. Once you get eight inches of water, it’s the same as having 8 feet of water in the house. Once it goes up you have to replace the floors, plumbing, everything has to be replaced. My brother-in-law is a contractor, so he was able to expedite the whole process and he actually had her back in the house by Christmas time. The storm hit Halloween, or just before and she was back in the house before Christmas, which is pretty remarkable. Since he’s a contractor he was able to accomplish that. Most had to wait months for insurance or FEMA.
What are your views of the government’s response?
I was a councilman at the time and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. We had people here from FEMA who were all from out-of-state. I mean they tried to do the best they could but their hands were tied also. We had local residents coming to us asking what’s going on, how to apply for help, and we couldn’t give a straight answer. It was pretty frustrating. Fortunately it’s a middle class to upper middle class neighborhood, so a lot of people could repair their homes and then apply for insurance afterwards. In poorer sections, like Long Branch, it didn’t work out that way.
As for the storm response itself, the towns went out and cleaned up all the debris, the downed trees, and cleaned up peoples personal belongings. That was all a function of each individual municipality. We did a great job. But dealing with FEMA was a bit of a nightmare…it still is.
Can you tell us more about your experiences being a councilman at the time?
I felt a responsibility to all the residents in town. I’m one of five council people. I was involved in OEM for Oceanport, but I kind of felt bad because I was so concentrated on my own family, and my mother-in-law next door. I don’t really think I fulfilled my duties. I was hoping other people who weren’t so affected, they would pick up the slack and they did. The mayor and the councilmen really picked up the ball. A couple days afterwards we did what we could, we were responding to the fire department. There were so many calls, and we were having a shortage of volunteers. These poor guys were up 24, 48, 72 hours at a clip. They had to go home and get some rest. What happened was there were electrical problems, obviously, trees down on wires, people heating their homes with fireplaces, and flues were catching on fire. It was a mess all over town. I responded a lot more than I usually do with the fire department. We would try to help people as much as we could on being the liaison between FEMA and our local governing body.
What had been the biggest challenges?
A lot of people who were in low-lying areas want to raise their homes. The funding, the whole process, was so onerous, and it just took so much time. Some people with their families were out of their homes for a year or two years, and they were told not to do anything. The phrase they were using was if you put a shovel in the ground, you’re not going to qualify for FEMA. So people were afraid to do anything to their homes until they got the approval from FEMA. That took a long time, took years. So I feel bad for those people who are rebuilding.
What were some of the things the town did to help in the recovery process?
The first thing immediately after the storm the town hired a contractor to go around and clean up the debris. People were emptying their homes on the curbside and didn’t know what to do with it. Everything was ruined. They were told take pictures, document everything, and the town will remove it. That was probably one of the biggest things the town did in the immediate aftermath. Like I said the town formed Oceanport Cares, they tried to help people out long term. Clothing, you know, furniture, whatever they couldn’t afford they tried to help them.
People were kind of downtrodden after it happened, and everybody knew someone who was affected. Try to do the best that you could. I think it brought a lot of people closer together. In my neighborhood we were all doing what we could to pump the houses out and clean the houses out. My neighbor, she started getting gas in her home, I went over there and turned the gas off for her. The fire department probably wouldn’t have showed up for an hour later they had so many calls. It brought neighbors closer together. My partner at Scala’s cooked up whatever food we had left over, brought it to the neighborhood and we had a good party. I think we were eating bologna sandwiches for two days and finally had a hot cooked meal. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
Interviewed by Stephanie Pappas
Assisted by Megan Moast
Edited by Stephanie Pappas
Long Branch, New Jersey
Recorded April 7, 2015