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The beauty of the storm

Mark and Lorraine Case

Mark and Lorraine Case are residents of Toms River, New Jersey who attended Saint Elisabeth Episcopal Chapel in Ortley Beach. The waterfront Chapel was a landmark in the town for 128 years, and it was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Both Mark and Lorraine explain the tremendous loss their community faced after the storm, and share how their faith has helped them face challenges in the storm’s aftermath.


Mark: Now, you are interviewing us for Saint Elisabeth’s, which is the church. This is our church story.

Lorraine: We got married in the church. It was totally gone. It was right on the beach. The church hall, which now we’re holding services in, is behind it. There was a parking lot, which is totally gone. And the church was, like, it was never there. There wasn’t a thing left of it. Yet behind it, the youth hall was up on stilts, it did have to be redone, but it still was standing.

Mark: In Ortley area we are the only church, and have been for 128 years. I was talking with some of the neighbors and everything outside and it was always the landmark. The church was right on the beach, so that’s what was neat about it. You catch the church and maybe go to the beach.

There was a big storm in ’63. We, personally, have been through one that I think was ’97-’98 and it was really weird ‘cause the actual bay and the ocean on that storm, it was nor’easter, not a super storm or anything, the water, the bay and the ocean did combine and yet, the church itself was like a mote. There was no water around the church. It’s God. I am going to get a little bit into faith, it was like a mote around it and just the church was there. You almost have that feeling of invincibility of it and all. We went to the services on Sunday knowing the storm was coming on Monday, and we did do some saving. We did take the vestments out of the church. We did put all of the shutters up on the church and everything. It’s a small church, it held 75 people.

Lorraine: People on vacation can go there. I’m Catholic but I go to that church because it is very similar to our service and also a lot of people in the area, even if they are on vacation, you can’t miss it, because it was right there going to the beach. A lot of people that attended that weren’t even…they can be Catholic or anything…

Mark: And you know, we always did things to maintain it. I go back actually, myself, to about ’78-’79 that I started attending the church, got very involved in it. So from about 1980 on, I have been a trustee, a trustee meaning the board of Elders, the people who run various churches.

Warden is an old English term that means “caretaker,” somebody who watches over things. Anything that has to do with the justice system is has English terms to it and ours is the warden term, so that is my position for the past ten years, fifteen years.

Was there anything that surprised you about the damage?

Lorraine Well, I think the bell because we cannot find the bell and that one goes back. So everybody heard that bell. Even one of the people that came here, she said, even though she did not attend the church, she can remember that bell. We did not find that bell.

Mark: The church itself was designed as the bottom of a boat. On the bottom of most ships, at that time, they had scissors effect. In other words, the cross beams would be way down low and they could store cargo underneath the scissor effect and that would hold the hull. Well, if you take the scissors and hull effect of a ship and turn it upside down, that was the top of our church. We have what is called the scissor arch structure in the ceiling. And underneath that was where our pews were. All of this was a part of our history, and it gave warmth to it, an old feeling. And yet, you can go in there and have more modern services.

Lorraine: It was nice because you had the setting, everybody would walk just up to the beach. People like that for taking pictures of weddings. So, that part of it was really nice.

Mark: The thing that we did just about four years ago, I think it is, was that we took the two lots right next to us and put on pilings a fellowship hall. And this is a small area, would only hold about 50 people, and was put on pilings.

Lorraine: It was supposed to be like the new center. You could use it if you had a wedding. If you had the wedding there you could have it there next to the church right on the beach. So that was basically when the church was gone, he was in charge of the building of the hall. He was in charge of building them. And now when the hurricane comes…

Mark: We had our Sunday service, worship and everything. I did feel the necessity to take the vestments away, put all the shutters up, and like I say, we had had the feeling we had gotten away with other things and so many times these things, how many hurricanes, how many storms, have come up the east coast and bypass us and go up and hit New England or scoot right on out? You get that cry wolf attitude enough times that you have wolf cried that you just don’t even take the truth when the wolf actually attacks. And that’s what happens I think enough. So, we closed everything up and you have to figure everybody that was ready for the hurricane itself went over to the main land, so this Sunday into Monday…

Lorraine: So, we evacuated…

Mark: Yeah, and as the interest would have it is that our wedding anniversary was the day the storm hit.

Lorraine: Yeah, we will never forget that.

Mark: So we were spending our wedding anniversary at our house and everything, and we were sitting there.

Lorraine: Our own house, which is in Toms River.

Mark: So, we were not in Ortley Beach, we are over on the mainland, pretty much sitting there the whole day because it started early and then it got worse and worse through the afternoon into the night. Of course, your thoughts are going, “What is happening at the shore,” but not really thinking the impact that it could have.

Lorraine: Until you are watching it on TV and then you realize.

Mark: But that isn’t until days later. You got to imagine now we went two, three, four days without electricity, without power, without TV, so we had no idea. Here it is Monday, we sat through the whole day, Tuesday, the storm is moving out. That it wasn’t almost maybe until Thursday or Friday, I’d say it was a good three days, before anybody had the chance to come over here and understand the impact.

Lorraine: We had no gas. We couldn’t get gas. Even for us on the mainland, they did not let anyone over the bridge unless you finally showed residency there. That was the long way from there…

Mark: So, basically, it wasn’t until the end of the week that we realized that pictures were being taken when Obama went over. He flew over the whole area. There were pictures being taken all up and down, and that’s when we realized there was nothing there. It was really creepy. Where we knew the beach to be, where we knew the municipal parking lot to be, where we knew our church to be, it was nothing. And you get disoriented because the landmarks you would use, such as a home, such as a church, such as the people across the street are all gone. Numerous and numerous…massive amounts of debris everywhere…

Lorraine: When I went over there; it was amazing that the parking lot was gone. There was just sand, the church was where the waves were hitting. It is hard to imagine…and then there were houses that were in the middle of the street.

Mark: It just floated right down the street!

Lorraine: It was very strange because when you went up the street, there were houses missing, which were across the street from the church, totally gone too like the church was, or just pieces of them left. The whole boardwalk was gone, so it was just Sandy, the ocean, the boardwalk, where people go on the beach, in a gazebo, nothing was there. I said to him “Where did the parking lot go,” and as I said, where the church was, the waves were breaking.

Mark: But maybe that was what? Maybe 200-300 feet out? That the ocean did not come out that far before!

Lorraine: There would be houses that were totally gone, but behind the church, there was a house, part of it was broken off, so you wonder where all of this goes? They did find the bishop’s chair in the bay?

Mark: I am talking about foundation, water pipes, sewer pipes, air conditioner, buildings, scissor building built like a ship, and everything.

Lorraine: We thought maybe pews would be found.

At the time, did anything seem salvageable?

Lorraine: No, there was nothing there. It was like an empty lot!

Mark: It literally must have gone up the street and into the bay because we would have been the first thing hit. When eventually we did a study later on, when we got our funding to put the things back together, there had to have been at least one wave that was at least 38 feet high. But the pieces of our church are 100% gone, except for a few pieces as Lorraine was mentioning, one of them is the bishop’s chair. It always sat at the front of the church, there would be a chair designated for the bishop when he visited, that would be his chair. The priest would not use it. Nobody else would use it. The entire chair, one of the few pieces that was a whole piece was found…

Mark: They found the chair in Silverton. They had to go across Ortley Beach, across the bay, and found {the bishop chair} in the sand in Silverton on the mainland. There were pieces of plaques of people that were in memory that have done things for the church. Pieces of those plaques were found in Bricktown. Plaques and stuff like that were found on the beach. So, we just have a few pieces of the church that went clear across and found in the sand and had to be dug out.

How did you hear about all of the missing pieces?

Lorraine: Well they had it online, didn’t they?

Mark: Facebook. One of the things that is gumbo.

Social media!

Mark: Yeah, social media! The impact of social media.

Lorraine: If anybody heard about Saint Elisabeth’s, that’s how we were contacted. But it’s just amazing that so few pieces of this church…

Mark: Have been found and it have only been found because of the connections that are done and funneled through Facebook and pictures like that. So we were able at times to go over in the end of November and the beginning of December here to see what the impact was. And we had the opportunity to really shed the tears and understand the emotional impact, you know, what it can do. And that is generally a good week to two-week process. You’re seeing and you’re totally figuring how the heck you are going to do this, how are you ever going to handle it and what so many people are dealing with. I had that period for the end of November, beginning of December, and seeing where everything was by about the middle of then, just remembering the emotional…it just chokes you up. But you have to have that period. By about the middle of December then, we were able to connect with the insurance companies that we have for the church.

That is one of the blessing that we had as a church. We were blessed in that the insurance company for the church was excellent. It’s a company that just deals with churches; it’s got good monies, ok, and they started writing checks. We were blessed!

Lorraine: He started moving with the rebuilding of the church hall, so that we can have services there too. We knew the church, and we didn’t know what we were going to do about that, but he started rebuilding it and that’s where we are having services now.

Mark: We were blessed in the aspect of that we had funds. We had checks written. It was neat and scary. To get a check for $100,000 and it’s written to your name. It’s like, “Oh man! I’m rich!”

You are trusted. You are held responsible for that church, you have to cash that check and put it into a fund to be able to start the rebuilding process. So, we got the funds and we were able to start to go back in to take a look at what we need to do. A period here of five to six months where you are talking no electricity, no natural gas, which was most of our heat…

You are basically talking about all of your utilities. And all of this devastation is there and all of the basic things you need to build. When a builder comes in and wants to come build a house he knows that out in the street is sewer, out in the street is water, out in the street is electricity, and he has got to, you know, design the home to connect up to that. Well here we’re trying to put a building together, we don’t have gas, we don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, and we are working with all these different…

Lorraine: JCPN&L. they couldn’t do anything without the heat.

Mark: You are talking ten degrees and you are trying to do something to fix up the place.

Lorraine: They said that it needed to be warm for them to do anything too.

Mark: So, they are held up. They are the ones to supply the heat and everything and electricity for you and they couldn’t do it because it was too cold.

Lorraine: They kept saying we’ll try to get to you in two weeks because they had to get power to so many different areas.

Mark: I don’t know how much you can weave this into faith aspects, but God, and we feel very strongly in God led us to build this hall next to the church.

By the end of December, by that point, the National Guard and FEMA had come in and been able to start and clear the streets. That was all they cleared, just the streets. And they took everything and just dumped it on people’s properties on both sides.

Lorraine: You have these big mounds of sand that looked like mountains.

Mark: You’re talking four-five feet of sand, pipes, debris on top of the sand, so everything is about six foot higher. But here we are, you can see this is level with the church.

Pieces of the boardwalk were underneath our building. This was a good six-inch thick parking lot that was out there. Huge sections of that parking lot were ripped up and thrown by the power of the water into the buildings, into our buildings. So, the parking lot may have hit the church and knocked it a part and knocked these other homes apart.

Was there more damage inside the hall rather than the outside?

Lorraine: Because the water was all the way up, even though they were up on stilts, the whole wall, everything had to be gutted. The whole place had to be gutted.

Mark: You have to imagine that all the windows are busted out, the doors are busted out, so here we are trying to put it back together in December, January, and it is ten degrees and you have no way to block that wind, so we are trying to gradually throw things back on the windows. Plastic, frame them out. Trying to get some blocking of that wind because, what it is now, the ocean? We are ocean front.

Lorraine: The church was there and we were next. There is no parking lot, boardwalk, no church, no sand to the beach. It was already up to us.

Mark: That 38 foot wave had to come and figure by the time it hit up here maybe it was 20 foot up because that is from sea level. It goes through that door, through this window, the wave, and there’s a long hallway there. As it goes through the hall it busts the doors inward. Imagine where the handle is being busted inward.

We had this big mess. We had a ton of sand. We had so many barrels of trash and everything else that were taken. And once again, it was great…I got to say.

Lorraine: It looked like there was a war. Like bomb…you know? When the first time he took me over it looked like a war zone.

Mark: In the streets, everywhere, there was debris: nails and pieces of wood. Yet, in the craziness of all this, we had some beautiful sunsets that after all this devastation and what you’re dealing with, there was tremendous beauty. Beautiful sunsets, beautiful sunrises, that it gives you a strange contrast. You would cross that bridge and you were in World War III. It was total devastation. Someone took an atom bomb and just blew the whole place apart. You cross over the bridge, and everybody is going on about their day.

I’ve attacked this whole building on the basis that this is going to happen again. And that is something that has got to be woven into your story so much is people have got to take the attitude that if it happened once like this, it can happen again. And in the building codes and things like that, they have got to start to consider…what I did here in the wiring of the building, there is no wiring underneath our building anymore. All of our wiring comes in from the side of the building, and is up four foot high, and comes down to the outlet. Most people, when they build a home, are going to have the wiring underneath the building, and come up to your outlets, come up to your stove, come up to your furnace, or whatever you’re building. So, ours is actually going higher now. Plus, we do not have fiberglass installation, we have the blown in installation that expands, urea formaldehyde foam, and you can literally take buckets of water and splash it on this stuff and it just repels it off and flows back out.

Lorraine: He did a lot of things just in case…

Mark: I’m trying to take that attitude that this is based whether it is electric, whether it’s the foam, we have our own generator now. We have an industrial grade generator that, once we lose power, this thing kicks on and we have power through the building. The doors, everything that we did in putting back was always taken from the aspect that things were going to happen again

This eastern wall, where the wave literally came through, that door and those windows on the eastern wall, we put hurricane shudders. They bring the hurricane shudders down to protect the little businesses, the games of chance, and stuff like that. Everything we looked for was Dade County standards. So, these are some of the renovations we did. The mounds of trash that was collected and once again, FEMA, these guys, were great. They would pick that stuff up in a day or so. We had finally gotten the debris off of the lot, out of the building, etc. and the next step, was to actually get the sand out of the way.

How long is the rebuilding process going to take would you say?

Mark: We’re done. That’s what’s nice. As far as our hall, we have been worshipping there since Memorial Day 2013. In my heart, I always wanted to be done by Memorial Day. I gave a promise to everybody that we would be back by in the hall worshipping by July 4th, Fourth of July, which is generally the mental image of summertime, and we were finished about a week or two before Memorial Day. So, we are back up. But, if you are asking about the town, I would say a couple more years. I mean, we are talking a couple more years of devastation. But you think about it, compare us with Katrina in New Orleans. Here we are 15 years plus roughly from Katrina, you go down to New Orleans and it is still devastated. I mean, it still looks like ground zero, buildings collapsed. But there is something with New Jersey…maybe the attitude? Maybe the economy? Maybe the people? I don’t know, but I know it will be back with in a couple of years looking 95% done.

Being a couple of faith, how would you say your faith helped you through the process of rebuilding, of going through the storm? How has your faith helped you get through everything and lead you up to now?

Lorraine: Faith has helped through many of life’s storms and the same with this one. Knowing that God has a plan. Bad things happen to good people, but God’s got a plan and that faith gets you through. It may take time, but God does things in his own time, but that does help.

Mark: It all fell into place and once you step back, you can see how the process moves through in the realm of politics, in the realm of rebuilding, in the realm of the storm and the ice storm, whatever, that things happen…

Seeing how you guys are so into faith and such, when you guys first opened the church on the Fourth of July, how were the people’s reactions towards you?

Mark: You get together on Sunday. It’s your family. You’re catching up, seeing what’s going on the past week or so. That was our family.

But what you got to imagine now, you got your family and imagine you have in your family of 45 and you get together for Thanksgiving, and then a couple of months later, you get together for Christmas and there’s only ten people there. And that’s what was creepy…

We are back up to our normal run. So, we are back and up to it, but it was scary there for a while when you would get together for Christmas with your family and only ten people show up, it’s like “Oh. Where did everybody go? Where is everybody?”

Interviewed by William Wolf and Michael Scilla
Edited by Megan Moast
Ortley Beach, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013