Angelina (Gigi) Liaguno-Dorr is the owner of Jakeabob’s Bay restaurant, located on the waterfront in Union Beach, New Jersey. Hurricane Sandy completely destroyed the business, leveling three-quarters of the building and washing parts of the tiki bar, the deck, and even menus across more than eight city blocks. More than two years later, Gigi is still struggling to secure insurance and loan money to finance rebuilding. In the meantime, she is working with A Spoonful of Hope, a local soup kitchen, and is very active in the town’s recovery. Remarkably, Gigi has been able to stay strong through the process. She hopes to reopen this summer using a mobile kitchen, in time to capture some of the seasonal business.
Have you been affected by any previous natural disasters? How did they differ from Hurricane Sandy?
I was out of business partially with other disasters. A lot of business here is seasonal, so it knocked me out for that season, but I was back up and running within five months. Hurricane Sandy, it’s been two and a half years and I’m still out.
In the days before Sandy, how did you prepare?
As normal, sandbags. We hunkered down as best as we could, we boarded up as best we could. In hindsight, it didn’t matter. We’re right on the shore, and it totally just came in, washed us away, and our stuff was all over town. There was nothing.
Were you especially worried about Sandy?
Not especially. You go through it, and you go through it, so you’re used to it. You brace, and there’s nothing you can do. It’s Mother Nature, you’ve just got to go with it. Afterwards, yeah.
Tell us about your experiences as the hurricane was taking place.
I got here to Borough Hall at 11 o’clock at night. I kept saying, “Can we get down there? Can we get down there?” They kept saying no, so I waited in the police station, and I kept hearing the word, “Rescue Mode”. It was different, you could feel that it was different. You could see all the transformers, and they were illuminating the sky, it was different. You knew that it was nothing you had ever experienced before.
What do you remember when you saw your business the first time after the hurricane?
It wasn’t good. I remember being here at Union Beach Borough Hall, and we took the flashlight. I remember seeing the top, the top part of the building, and I was like, “Ok, so it’s still there”. But it was just a quarter of the building. Everything else was gone. My feeling was… disbelief.
How long after the storm was it before you got to see your business?
The night of…It was 3 o’clock in the morning when we got down there. Then, we got home, and at 6:30, I kept saying, wait till the sun comes up. A part of it was really denial, thinking, maybe I didn’t see everything. I laid in bed, I remember just waiting for the sun to come up, and as soon as it came up, I just got dressed and ran down here, and then it was reality. That it was gone.
What kind of damage did you sustain?
Complete devastation, completely gone. We couldn’t save anything. Our building is known for being teal. It’s our color. Our picnic tables were teal, the awning was teal, the shutters. Our colors were vibrant for our tiki bar, there was teal, there was blue, there was purple, you could see our colors. My fiancée went around town picking up our stuff, and then bringing back from piles. I was like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “I could put it back together” and I’m like, “There’s nothing to put back together!” Our menus were blocks away, our deck, the outer part of our deck was eight streets in. It was a mess.
What step are you in in the process of rebuilding?
I just closed our NJEDA Sandy Disaster Loan. That has been quite a process. Today we’re digging. We’re going to level out the property, we’re going to put up a mobile kitchen, put the tiki bar back, and do mobile bathrooms for this season. ‘Cause this will be our third season that we lost, so we’re going to start that, and hopefully we’ll be up and operational by Memorial Day. After the season in September, we’re going to pull it all out and then start the reconstruction on the building. It took so long for the money to come through, and I need to just get back into business. I believe the town needs it too. There’s nothing out there.
What are your views of the federal government’s response? The governor’s response? Insurance companies?
Insurance sucks. I was insured for 1.4 million dollars, the flood was $500,000. We got the $500,000. Of the $1.4 million I was offered $9,000, so I’m not a big fan of insurance. The state has been great and they’ve been point on. I think that the red tape comes with the federal government. There’s 1.8 million dollars allocated for Sandy Disaster Relief. It was earmarked in three forms: for homeowners, for businesses, and for infrastructure. My understanding is that the federal government said, “Ok NJ, here is the money. You are responsible for disbursement of this money.” But that’s not true. The state has to keep going back to federal government and say, “Can we do this?” They have to keep getting approval, so that’s where it’s getting tangled. I don’t understand, the federal government said, “You’re responsible for the disbursement,” then, NJ should be responsible for disbursement, and let it be. But they’re not, completely.
I’ll be nice, I’m trying to be nice.
What has been the biggest challenges of rebuilding?
Getting money. They tell you all this money’s coming. It’s like, “Ok, so, alright, we’re ready, where is it?” It’s that red tape. It’s tough. If it hasn’t been for the Gateway [Disaster Response], if it hasn’t been for smaller churches, and individuals, I don’t know where we would be. Union Beach is a tight community and everybody truly pulls together, and we just do it. We’ve made progress because of that. When you’re in a situation you either need to either figure out your life or you have to move on, you can’t wait.
Was there ever a point where you thought you should not come back to Union Beach?
No. I always knew that I wanted to be here. There was a point I thought, “Am I going to be able to?” I never thought I would ever not want to. Just wanted that red tape to be cut and the money to be expedited. Disaster is tough and we’re not the first. With different hurricanes, with fire, with tornados. it’s not the first. You would think somebody on a higher level would be able to figure that stuff out. I remember early on, Carl and I set up this donation center in the senior center. I remember questions like, “Can we do this?” “Can we do that?” I was thinking to myself, “Isn’t there like handbook for this stuff? Don’t I drop it in a black box and it tells us what to do?” You would think that… but it’s not.
Are there any stories associated with the storm and rebuilding that you would like to share?
The most important is that we as a community have pulled together. It’s like the mantra, you know, “We think, we can, we did.” We did the best that we can, and, and I know we say that if we’re in it together, the only way through it is together. I saw it. I witnessed it. It was good. When something comes in life, this is a change, whether or not it’s a cleansing from God or whatever it is. For as bad as it is, you have to take the good stuff too.
How has the community been in helping you get through hard times?
The community’s been great. I opened up a temporary location about a mile inland, called “Jakeabob’s Off the Bay.” I tease, because I say Jakeabob’s is in the bay, so might as well go off the bay. That lasted for about a year. During the recovery stage here, people were still struggling, so for the locals to come out, it was a tough to support. They’re figuring out how to get their sheetrock up and their floors done. Going out to dinner was not on the table.
We opened up a community kitchen, and we served Mondays and Tuesdays. We closed that last August, and on August 11th, Dorothea Bon Jovi called and wanted to know if they can help us get back up and operational. So we are doing JBJ’s sponsors “A Spoon Full of Hope” at the firehouse, that’s a great support from them, that’s a good thing.
Tell us more about “A Spoon Full of Hope.”
A Spoonful of Hope is a community kitchen with the same model as Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in Red Bank. If you can’t afford to eat, you and you’re in need, you come in and volunteer an hour of your service, and you get a voucher for five meals. Then you and your family can come and eat. It’s the same healthy, organic food, and its community based so it’s good stuff.
What long-term effects do you think Sandy will have on your community and on you?
What frightens me is that so many people couldn’t come back. They couldn’t figure out the money or how to rebuild. As of today, there’s a hundred and eight homes that are cited for demolition. There’s an absence of people here. The people who were able to figure things out had an 800 square foot bungalow, and now they’re building a 2,000 square foot home. I hope that they are able to afford the taxes, the bigger expenses on the electric, the gas. Everything is higher.
For me, this is three years of my life. The years rack up, they don’t go negative and I’m getting older. It’s taken an effect on my children and my household. My mother’s not well and the one positive, actually the most important positive, is that I’ve been able to stay home with her. That’s priceless. That’s the silver lining. I’ve had 800 dinners with my mother, that’s 800 more than I would’ve had. God forbid, if something happens to her, at least I have that. So those are the good things. I try to take the positive.
Interviewed by Grace Jeong
Assisted by Connor Murphy
Edited by Grace Jeong
Union Beach, New Jersey
Recorded April 14, 2015