In the weeks since Hurricane Sandy swamped their towns, many elected officials in South Jersey have stayed busy dealing with the storm’s aftermath.
But Margate Mayor Mike Becker has another job that has also kept him jumping lately: Along with being part-time leader of a small town where officials estimate that more than 1,000 homes were flooded, Becker is a full-time manager of another local institution that’s been a key part of the town’s rebuilding effort — Margate’s only hardware store.
Colmar True Value Home Center, which is also one of just a few hardware stores on Sandy-ravaged Absecon Island, didn’t flood in the storm. Store owner Tom Collins — who’s also Becker’s brother in law — opened his business here in 2000, when he says a modern building code required that the store be 5 feet higher than the street out front. The high-water mark was a few feet below the store in the sloped parking lot, Collins recalls.
So the hardware store was one of the first businesses in Margate that could reopen — even before its electric power came back on. Collins first and then Becker were using flashlights to lead customers around the store that Thursday morning, three days after the Monday storm, to help them find the recovery supplies they needed.
“Everyone was panicked. Everyone had a problem,” Becker said the other day, as a steady stream of customers came by and greeted him.
Those problems included his own — the mayor is still waiting to get heat back in his house, where the ducts were flooded. His appointment with the heating contractor is finally set for this week.
In those first days after the storm, Becker was helping residents who rode out the storm to find the supplies they needed for their own houses at the same time he was trying to convince state and county officials that it was safe to let people who evacuated the island back to their homes — so they could get an idea of what they faced there.
He was also acting as a clearinghouse for information — when he had some to share. But for a while, even the mayor didn’t.
He was going out and looking around the town, though, and at first, he was optimistic. After his first trip, he went home and told his wife that things “looked fairly normal,” he said, in between pages for him on the intercom — “Mike Becker, Line 2.” “Mike, Aisle 27,” and more.
“But every day, you started seeing more and more stuff on the curbs,” he says, meaning the trash piles of flooded walls and floors and more that lined sidewalks. “Two days later, I thought, ‘This is horrible.’”
His guess is that it will take two years for Margate to fully recover. Still, he adds that many officials and homeowners really aren’t sure how bad things are in his and other shore towns — if only because “there are people who haven’t even looked at their houses yet.”
But Collins says the people who are trying to fight the storm’s damage are keeping his doors swinging — the seven weeks since the storm have been as busy as the summer months. And a lot of those customers seem to know the manager.
“Where else can you go and meet the mayor of your town all day?” as Collins puts it.
Roy Goldberg, a longtime Margate resident, said on a slow Sunday morning that he’s a Colmar regular. And he usually runs into his mayor when he’s in there.
“He’s always available,” Goldberg said. “You know where he is. If you need him, you can find him.”
Carmen Rone, the co-owner of Tomatoe’s, the popular restaurant on bayfront Amherst Avenue, has needed hardware often since the storm — his restaurant, his home and two apartments were all flooded. He figures he has averaged three trips a day to Colmar since then, including being the very first customer, in the dark, the day the store reopened before the town officially did.
But Rone says he makes it a point to “try not to bother him as mayor in there. That’s his place of business,” he said. And as a hardware manager, Rone says Becker is “great. He knows where all the stuff is, and he’s pretty informative.”
Still, as a regular, this customer knows not everybody follows that rule of leaving city business outside the store.
“I just watch him get inundated with people with grievances,” this business owner says. “I think Tom (Collins) is much more understanding and more lenient than I would be.”
Becker smiles at the suggestion that one big difference between his two roles is that as hardware manager, people ask him how to do their job right — but as mayor, people tell him how to do his job right.
He said the truth is that as of the other day, he had still heard from just “two people who were negative” after the storm.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people, here or there” — he said, standing in a store aisle and waving toward City Hall, “always keep it a pleasant experience.”
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