In the back of the room, past the crane games and around the corner from the slot machines spitting out plastic tokens with every pull, the sandbags are still lined up against the glass doors that once served as the boardwalk entrance to the Seaside Heights institution Lucky Leo’s.
On Monday, Seaside began allowing public access to the shore town for the first time since Oct. 29, the day Hurricane Sandy arrived on the Jersey Shore. The roads are still littered with debris, most of it pulled out of water-damaged properties, some of it carried there by surging ocean water. In place of the boardwalk is beach sand, pushed up against the buildings that did not fall, with splintered boards jutting out at odd intervals.
At Lucky Leo’s the neon “Open” sign has been turned back on, glowing as it has for decades. The sign is stark among its devastated surroundings and Leo’s serves as an odd ringing-and-dinging outpost in a ravaged landscape. And though Leo’s owner Steve Whalen isn’t expecting much in terms of business, turning that sign on is a step in the right direction.
“Every day, every day we want to be open,” he said, standing behind the prize counter as Leo’s hosted an annual charity holiday party. “What’s business going to be like? I think it will be soft. But, we’re open. We’re open for business.”
Seaside Heights officials have promised to welcome tourists to the resort as early as this summer. What those tourists will find when they arrive remains to be seen considering the magnitude of the destruction and the prohibitive costs that are likely to come with restoration. Getting to the point where the town is as least open to the public, if only for a few hours each day, is one of those necessary steps towards recovery, a signal that things will turn around.
Late Monday morning, the contractors and utility workers who have shared the barrier island with police and National Guardsman over the past seven weeks were joined by area residents. They’ve all seen the damage in videos and pictures printed in newspapers, posted online, and shared through social media, but they wanted to see it first hand. But those who arrived Monday weren’t there to gawk, but commiserate.
“This is knocking the wind out of me. To see it in real life is so much more profound,” Toms River resident Ed Bavais said. “I grew up here. My aunt had a house on O Street (in Seaside Park). This was my childhood.”
Bavais home suffered significant damage as a result of flooding during Sandy. The first floor of his home needed to be torn out. A car, the deck, all of it was washed away or destroyed by the salt water. Still, though devastation was all around him, he needed to see where it landed first.
His immediate reaction to seeing what’s left of Seaside Heights was something like physical pain, he said, as if he was coming to following a punch to the nose and needed a moment to shake the cobwebs out of his head and refocus his eyes on what was right in front of him.
Restoration, he believes, is possible. Though it won’t be easy.
“I don’t know how they’ll do it,” he said. “It all depends on the money they get and the people who can help.”
Despite opening the bridge to the public, Seaside Heights wasn’t inundated with onlookers. Police were on patrol making sure people didn’t linger for too long on the beach or where the boardwalk used to be, but it was with respectful consideration that they allowed visitors to take a moment, understand and realize the totality of Sandy’s impact.
Steve and Helen Romeo made the trek to Seaside from their temporary housing in a Toms River Holiday Inn. The couple has been living there since their Manahawkin home was knocked down by surging tides.
Even with their home destroyed, along with many of their possessions, seeing Seaside was just on another level, they said.
“It’s unbelievable to see it all gone,” Helen Romeo said. “This where everyone would come. When relatives would come up from Florida, this is where they wanted to go.
“I heard the boardwalk was gone. I was thinking little chunks of it, here and there. Not this. It looks like bombs went off.”
First, it’s shock. Once the magnitude of the damage is understood, people start to think about the future. Despite the obstacles ahead for business and home owners, optimism about Seaside’s future still remains.
Leo’s employee Jeff Davies showed up to work two days after returning to the country. In a month he’ll return to the Air Force for another tour of duty. In the meantime, he’s here, he’s part of the restoration.
“It is shocking, but I feel good about how much I see going on,” the Senior Airman said. “I’ve been back in the U.S. for two days and I’ve already met people from other states who are here to help out. This is where I call home and I’m going to do my best to help out while I’m here.”