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It's not what they expected

Lauren Wanko

Lauren Wanko is a reporter for NJTV News, the nightly newscast in New York City and New Jersey. She is also a lifelong New Jersey resident. As a reporter she covers news stories throughout New Jersey, and she was one of the lead reporters for NJTV News during Superstorm Sandy. Following Sandy, she covered the Seaside Boardwalk fire, and has kept in contact with many victims along the shore. In her narrative, she talks about her experiences reporting on the storm as well as recovery and rebuilding.

In the week leading up to Sandy, were you covering the storm? What kind of news stories were you covering?

Well, we already knew just from following the weather reports that we would send an entire team to cover Superstorm Sandy, but really none of us knew what to expect. I remember the executive producer sent an email that said we’re sending out teams, and I’m usually a one-woman-show. But I knew that there was no way I could go out and shoot myself in hurricane winds. They sent me down to Cape May with a camera-man because they expected Sandy to hit in Cape May. I remember driving down a day before Sandy hit. I was on the Parkway. This was after Governor Christie already said nobody should be out and about, get off the barrier island, and I was driving on the Parkway completely by myself. I remember thinking this is so eerie! I’m driving and I don’t see anybody! I felt like I was driving in to the eye of the storm not knowing what to expect. We started doing our live hits that night as the wind was picking up. We were in Congress Hall. They had evacuated Cape May. Congress Hall was the only hotel that was keeping journalists. So, we were all doing our live hits on their lawn, and it’s right in front of the ocean, so you can hear the roaring waves, and you could feel the wind, and we were literally getting pushed over by the wind. It was that powerful.

I was bracing myself for the very worst the night of the storm. And I remember waking up the next morning, and looking around Cape May and being shocked, because there really wasn’t much damage. We were really isolated because no one else had power. We were the only people who had power, and could tune in to the TV, and we couldn’t understand what was going on. Next thing you know, we turn on the news and it looks like everything north of us was absolutely destroyed.

We got in the car that very day, and started heading north to Ocean County, and that was where we really saw the destruction.

What was it like when you pulled in to Ocean County?

I remember trying to drive to different locations after the storm and not moving on many roadways, because they were blocked by law enforcement. We were sitting on Route 37, and we were trying to get in to Seaside on the barrier island, and we were all parked in a restaurant parking lot, asking the police officers to please let us go over to the barrier island. I must say, police, firefighters, and other emergency management workers were very accommodating to media. They allowed us the access to get the story out to people. They arranged for a bus to drive the media over. I loaded on to the bus with my camera-man, and we all squeezed in, and they took us over the bridge, over to Seaside Heights. We got out and it was just indescribable. I mean, after seeing so little damage in Cape May and being relieved, and so little damage in Atlantic City compared to what I thought we were going to see, and then seeing Seaside Heights completely destroyed, it was sickening. I remember we were walking out on the beach, and you couldn’t make out anything. The rollercoaster was in the middle of the ocean. Right there washed up on the tide were these big ferris wheel carts, and boardwalk stands and we were all looking around, shocked. A woman walks up out of nowhere and is hysterically crying. I walked up to her and she said this is my boardwalk stand, and now it’s all over the place. You know I’ll never forget that.

Did you go back during the Seaside fire? Was that reminiscent of Sandy?

It was! It was so sad to be back because in that situation I remember interviewing a pizza shop owner not long before that, in the summer time, in his new location that he had rebuilt since Superstorm Sandy. I was so happy for him that he was back up and running. Then, all of a sudden, we get to the site where the fire’s taking everything out, and sure enough, I stumble upon this pizza owner again. He said, there’s my business, and I said oh my gosh, I just interviewed you this summer and you were up and running – your new store. He said, well it just happened again. That was really terrible. These people were put through so much. They lost so much to Superstorm Sandy, and so many of them rebuilt, they got back on their feet, they were hopeful for a good summer, hopeful for tourists, and then all of a sudden it gets destroyed again by a fire.

From interviewing people, what do you think are the biggest challenges they’re facing?

Definitely rebuilding. I mean without a doubt, people in New Jersey are hardworking people. A lot of these folks are just middle class people, working hard every single day. They make a living to support themselves. It’s a lifestyle that they love, but its hard work! And it was so difficult for many to imagine starting over again. But, I must say that I was always amazed at the resiliency. These people were determined to get back on their feet. I haven’t interviewed one person who said to me, Lauren I give up. I’m not doing it anymore, I give up. Every single person said I will find a way to make it work. This is what I know, this is what I love, or I just don’t want to leave. Whether it’s a business owner, or a homeowner. It is a Jersey attitude! I really admire it. It really speaks to their strength.

Did Sandy affect you personally?

Actually here, in the town I live in, we got hit pretty hard because we are a riverside community. So, I was covering Superstorm Sandy and at the time I was engaged so I left my fiancée up here to watch my parents’ house that we were living in. I left him here to keep an eye on things, and I was gone covering with my news crew from Sunday until Thursday night. I was anxious to get back on Friday and see. I knew our house was ok, but I couldn’t imagine what the town looked like. We started driving through it, and I was hysterical, because suddenly you’re like oh my gosh, this is my home, how could this happen? Sadly, there are a lot of houses around here that still aren’t rebuilt. I mean, on the flip side, a lot of people are getting money, their grants are coming through and you’re seeing a lot of people rebuild, but there are still very painful reminders of what the storm did.

Since Superstorm Sandy, you’ve mentioned a few times that you’ve come across several different people. Have you followed any of them?

I have! There have been some good stories, and there’s been some bad stories. I remember right after the storm coming across a gentleman in Ortley Beach and his home was still standing, but completely destroyed by the storm. The last I spoke to him was a while ago and he was still waiting for money and he hadn’t been able to do anything. When I drove by recently the house wasn’t there anymore, and I was heartbroken, because you start to build a relationship with these people, and you want the best for them. And I don’t know if he was able to rebuild. You want to see a happy ending for them, and it’s sad when you don’t. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stories I’ve done on business owners who have been able to get back up and running, and are making money again, and have customers coming. So, unfortunately like in anything there’s good and bad, and there are ones that hurt, and they are painful to hear.

Did you see an improvement from the first summer to the next summer?

From a tourism perspective that first summer they slowly got back up and running. But a lot of business owners were saying that folks weren’t coming down the shore because there were all these misperceptions that things weren’t open. There were many businesses that were open and those owners would say people need to come down here because we need them to help support the local economy. So, that was the biggest issue the first year. The second year I think was a little bit more of, ok now the people who have been down here have spread the word and more people are coming down. I think that helped.

Hopefully this coming summer will be a little better than the last?

I just interviewed realtors who said that the rental market is doing really well. So far the best it’s been since Superstorm Sandy. It’s still not at pre-Sandy levels, because the inventory is still low. There’s still empty lots, and there’s still homes that have do not disturb, no trespassing signs stamped on them. It’s a disappointing thing.

We’ve talked a lot about homeowners and businesses, but what we haven’t talked about, are kids, and the PTSD that they suffer from post Superstorm Sandy. A lot of these kids sat down and talked to me, and they were scared. They didn’t want to go back home because they were scared of this big storm and they were scared it would happen again once they were home. They were so upset seeing their parents so stressed out. So it really affected local kids a lot and that’s something that often isn’t reported. I remember interviewing a number of kids impacted by the storm. They would often go to a therapy session together and do some kind of art therapy every week at a local non-profit in Ocean County, and it was nice to see that they were able to vent, and also understand that they’re safe.

A good thing that came from the storm’s destruction was the number of non-profits that have sprung up, or grassroots groups that have sprung up. I did a story on a restaurant in Union Beach. The restaurant owner lost her business to the storm, and was completely down on her luck, like so many people. She decided that she was going to open up in a temporary spot a couple days a week, and serve to local residents for a nominal fee or ask those who couldn’t pay to donate their time for a meal. People are doing that all over the place. I did another story on a group that’s making things and donating the money to Sandy victims. So, in tragedies like this, it’s always inspiring to know there’s so many groups giving back and there’s plenty of those out there, and they stick around. That’s what’s amazing. These groups are not just here and then fold up after a couple of years. They’re still determined to stay up and running. They’re determined to make sure that family members are back in their homes and they have the money they need to rebuild. I’m impressed, not just with the non-profits in general, but the people who are running them. They are determined to donate as much time as they possibly can to make sure that these people are home again.

Do you think that the state is prepared for another storm of this magnitude?

You know, I think that’s a really big question, and one that I ask my interviewees all the time also. A lot of the homeowners who are frustrated with the very slow recovery, with the fact that they haven’t gotten the Sandy Aid money that they so desperately need, they would say absolutely not. I think it really depends on who you talk to and their perspective.

Do you think there’s a certain way people will remember this storm?

I think a lot of people will think when they look back it’s not what they expected, really. When you think of all the homeowners along the shore, who have lived in the same house for years and years, no flood insurance, no issue year after year, because a storm like Sandy hadn’t hit since the 60s, many thought it’s not going to happen again.

What do you think can be learned from Sandy?

To be more prepared, and to not take Mother Nature for granted. I think all of us feel that way now, especially from interviewing people. Everybody from the emergency management coordinators from a certain town, to mayors, to homeowners, to businesses, they all say the same thing: You know the once in a hundred year storm isn’t once in hundred years anymore.

Do you think that might part of the legacy of the storm that New Jersey really came together?

Oh absolutely! I mean residents definitely rallied for other residents, without a doubt. I know Belmar, for example, is trying to raise a specific amount of money to get a few family members who aren’t back in their homes back in their homes by June. It says a lot about all of us here in New Jersey and what we do in a tragic situation. People do stand by each other for sure.

Interviewed by Jennifer Frascella
Edited by Jennifer Frascella
Neptune, New Jersey
Recorded April 13, 2015