I’ve been told I’m a little more pessimistic than most people. I kept telling my dad, “this is going to be bad” and he kept going “Oh you’re such a pessimist.” I’m like, “Dad they’re saying this is going to be a bad storm.” And he said, “They always say it’s going to be a bad storm. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to sit here and I’m going to have a drink and everything will be fine!” I think it was literally the day the storm was getting here was when he thought, “Oh, maybe this is going to be worse than I thought. I should do something.”
Unfortunately, all we really did was we put some sandbags in front of the glass doors so they wouldn’t blow in…and they didn’t, so that helped, I guess. I don’t even think we really boarded anything up, just the front windows, but it wasn’t like a massive “We have to do everything we can to protect the building!” It was kind of a normal, everyday, “Oh, there’s a hurricane coming? I guess we should put some wood up.”
At what point before the storm did you guys close?
We didn’t close. We normally stay open during hurricanes. My dad stays here and people come, because before Sandy and the fire, there were a lot of locals who just didn’t want to leave their homes and they stay and ride it out because we have never had a storm of that magnitude before. A lot of people that I know did not leave until either right before the storm when they saw how bad it was going to be, or they stayed and rode it out in their houses. There are a few people who are regulars here that I was worried about because we didn’t hear from them for weeks afterwards.
Can you tell us your experiences as the hurricane was taking place?
My dad was here during the hurricane. At first it didn’t seem too bad, but then the wind started picking up. A lot of the people who were friends with my dad were here; a couple of business owners with their wives, the chief of police was here, the mayor was here, and some of the council people from the town. We have a great view upstairs, it’s all glass windows, so people were just looking and watching the ocean come in. And you see it happen all the time with storms, where you see the ocean come up and you go “Oh yeah, look at that…” But I think around, maybe 10 o’clock or so, my dad came downstairs to get a beer from behind the bar and the steel doors had already blown in and as he opened the door downstairs he saw all the chairs that were around the bar sliding towards him because the water was already coming in.
It got worse from there. Everybody left except for my dad and two of our employees who live down in a house by the bay. Their house floods during a light spring shower. So the entire week prior I was like, “You guys can’t stay here! You guys can’t stay here!” And they were like “Ah, we’re going to be fine!” I think it was the day of the storm, they started bringing all of their belongings to the restaurant, because it was too late for them to evacuate to anywhere else and so my dad was like “Just stay here with me! I’m not going anywhere.” So they all stayed here and the last time any of us had had contact with my dad was at about two or three in the morning and it was right before his phone went dead. I remember my mom was talking to him and in the background she could hear the two employees praying to God that they would make it through the night because literally the entire third floor of the building was swaying with the wind. The wind was blowing so hard the whole building was moving and there was already 5 and a half feet of water downstairs. I feel like they didn’t know if they were going to make it; I think they were pretty scared.
How did the employees deal with after the storm?
Unfortunately we were out of business from the point of the storm until the beginning of January. It destroyed the business. Our basement had 5 and a half feet of water in it. The only reason the water stopped coming up in the basement was because it started flowing out the backdoor. It came to the top of the basement stairs and just flowed right through the building. My mom keeps all of our Christmas decorations down there and all of our family decorations were in the basement and they just floated away because it was just that much water. It was crazy.
Most of our employees came and helped clean up afterwards. Some of these people have been working with us for 17 years. This is their home. They are family to me.
We had to gut the entire basement and rewire the entire building. We had to throw out all the food, the liquor, the paper goods; we didn’t take anything out ’cause nobody expected a giant disaster…
What do you remember when you saw your business for the first time after the hurricane?
It was heartbreaking. On the first floor there was only like two inches of water. So I was like “Ohhhhh… That’s not so bad I guess…” Plus, people had been cleaning it for like 5 days before I could even get over there. The first time I could get over here was like I think that Thursday and I went down to the basement and you could see that the water line, where the water had settled, was up to my throat and you know it was higher during the storm. I went into my office and my desk was upside down on top of the safe. We can’t even move the safe. The safe is like 1000 pounds and literally when we brought it in here it almost fell through the floor. It was on its side with the desk on top of it in my office which is also the liquor room and all of the bottles were just smashed on the floor and all of the decorations on the walls were destroyed.
And it was…sludge. Like, I know they talk about it sometimes that the water wasn’t very clean, I guess, because it was like going through everything and there was like two inches of just muck. You would step in it and you couldn’t like pull your foot out. It was oil and waste and sludge and debris and I don’t even know what.
How have you gone about the process of rebuilding?
Well you know, my dad always says, “This is our business. This is our only source of income.” so we couldn’t just sit here. We cleaned up right alongside some of our employees. This is their business too. This is their source of income just as much as it is mine. What are we going to do? We have to get this place up and running again so we can get back out there and be open and serve people.
I don’t know how quickly we got any kind of monetary compensation. I know my dad actually put out all of his own money when we were rebuilding to get it done as quick as possible. There are people who are still waiting for money. My dad said, “I’ll get money to help me rebuild eventually, but I have to use my money because I have to rebuild NOW.”
What have been the biggest challenges of rebuilding?
There used to be two blocks of stands and arcades and businesses, restaurants and bars, which people came to. Now from Sandy and from the fire they’re all gone. Sandy took out the entire Funtown Pier that was right across from us, so no one wanders all the way down. It’s definitely put a hurt on our business to be so isolated down here. You’re not coming down here for Berkeley Sweet Shop or Jack and Bills; they’re all gone and they’re not coming back. It’s just heart breaking to know that people like Berkeley Sweet Shop who were here, as far back as I can remember, and all of that history was just washed away.
What long-term affects do you think Sandy will have on your community?
People haven’t come back yet. People who lived here their whole lives just don’t live here anymore and they found a new place to live and it’s, like, what are you going to do? You rely on the off season on those people who are regulars, people who are friendly faces, people who you see every day; they come in for a beer or two after work and you talk to them. Some of those people just haven’t been back because their house is gone and they can’t afford to rebuild it and they’re living somewhere else now. So you definitely see a loss of business in that regard.
Can you just tell us more about what happened during the Seaside fire and how your business was affected?
The day of the fire was crazy. I just watched it get closer and closer and closer and at first it was just one fire truck for a while. It got to the point where it had engulfed the building right across the loading dock from me and I left, and I crossed the street and I watched from across the street. I actually left before this building caught on fire, because I thought “I don’t want to watch the building catch on fire.” I had just been through the disaster less than ago year with Sandy and I don’t want to do this again.
The building, miraculously, was spared from major damage. The fire basically stopped right in front of us but some embers had jumped and caught the roof of the building two buildings down from me and then it came back towards us. The roof on the Tiki bar on the outside of my building caught on fire. We had sprinklers but they were inside the building so the fire was above the sprinklers. Once the fire burnt the Tiki bar down it started moving to the inside of the second floor and when it got inside the sprinklers finally kicked on because the sprinklers were finally able to reach the fire and put it out. I remember the day after the fire I went upstairs on the second floor and I took a picture and the place was just like an empty shell of fire damage and people were like “Oh the Beachcomber burnt to the ground! There’s nothing left!” and I had to take a picture on the first floor and it was literally like there had been no damage done at all.
Do you think there will ever be another storm like sandy?
They say it’s the storm of a lifetime, so hopefully I won’t have to see another. But yeah I mean there is definitely a possibility. Even the houses that are left, I can’t believe that they’re left, because from the damage that I saw here I didn’t think there would be anything left. They ripped up the entire boardwalk afterwards. It looked like a rollercoaster track, it was turning left and right and tilted and up and down it was just crazy. I mean even knowing “Oh there’s going to be a really bad storm”, you never would have expected that. It’s crazy.
When I was a little kid my family owned the Carousal Arcade. It was actually right across the street from the Beachcomber. I remember when I had talked to my dad the next day he knew that my heart was always in the arcade. I’m an arcade guy. I’m not really a bar guy, the arcade was like…my passion.
I remember before he even said the Beachcomber is okay he told me “The arcade is gone.” And that actually broke my heart.
I almost want to cry right now just thinking about it because I grew up in that arcade. From the time I was born until I was 13 years old, I lived in that arcade; all of those machines…they were our machines, two of them were birthday presents for me. There was like a weird old arcade game called “Mikey”…and my name is Michael and I loved that game. I had a Ghostbusters game too and those two games were my games and when we sold the arcade, my dad sold them all of the machines with it. They were still over there, ya know? In the summer when I was stressed and I was busy and I was working really hard over here I would always go across the street into the arcade and I would just walk around and in a corner they had all of these games that were from the 80’s that were my games from when I grew up. I loved hanging back there and just looking at the old games and playing them every now and then and I knew they were gone. They fell into the ocean and just washed away. It was just heartbreaking for me.
It was a scary night. It was a scary time. And it was scary afterwards. To worry about when am I going to be able to get my business back up and running? When are my friends going to be able to move back into their houses? It was rough. But I mean we’re New Jersey. We’re Jersey strong right? We can do it. We can withstand this. We can withstand anything. But that’s not a challenge to anyone. Please, no more disasters!
Assisted by Stephanie Kroeger
Edited by Jennifer Pagliaro
Seaside Heights, New Jersey
Recorded March 26, 2015