Long Beach Island trailer owners work to reclaim their paradise lost
LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP -- Ellen Lewis sat on a trash bag covering her wet couch inside her trailer on a recent Sunday afternoon and let out a sigh behind her dust mask.
Beneath her feet, a 3-week-old laminate floor she had installed just before Hurricane Sandy struck was covered with wet mud. Her small trailer on Long Beach Island Trailer Park’s short gravel Marlin Road off West Harding Avenue was her little piece of heaven, she said as she sloshed the mud around with her feet.
Her trailer, fenced in with enough room for her dogs, is named “At Last.”
Lewis was one of many owners cleaning out their tiny homes by the sea, wondering what will become of their trailer park and its rows of modest escapes at the shore. The trailers sit on six parcels, valued at $12.5 million. The trailer owners pay rent on the land, about $7,300 each year for small, gravel lots linked to others by narrow paths.
Rebuilding is taking place all around the park, but it is so far focused on the multimillion-dollar homes that sit next to the ocean across the street.
Meanwhile, the owners of the trailers, whose prices start about $26,000, are worried. They’ve discussed with property owner Bob Muroff how much it will cost to rebuild.
The township could require trailer owners to buy new trailers, which will increase the cost for long-time owners to return, Muroff said. There are also stricter regulations and building codes in place, he said.
A tea kettle still sat on Lewis’ stove, and on that Sunday morning she cleaned out her silverware drawer that was filled with water. The narrow trailer with just enough room inside to turn from the sink to the small kitchen table had about 3 feet of water when Sandy caused the ocean to breach the dunes in the Holgate section of Long Beach Township.
The force of the water ripped a hole in the side of Lewis’ trailer.
At her primary home in Cranbury, Middlesex County, Lewis had lost power during the storm. She followed news coverage on the Internet with her phone that she charged in her car, all the while wondering what had become of her vacation home.
“It’s never real until you see it. It was like looking at a war zone when I came down here. I thought to myself, ‘This must be what a city looks like when it’s bombed,’” she said.
Sandy pushed the park’s mobile homes around like toy cars, tossing them off their small lots and ripping decks away.
“My deck was here, and now it’s over here. My shed — look at it. It’s back there now,” Denise Olschewski, of Lawrence Township, Mercer County, said while standing outside her 12-foot trailer.
Olschewski’s decking that was connected to the trailer is balanced precariously on top of rubble. She pointed to her central air conditioner that was ripped off the trailer and thrown against the decking, as if it weighed nothing.
“It was my therapy here. I had a sign that said ‘summer therapy’ hanging outside. I didn’t even go to the beach. My place was here on the deck,” she said. “But I’ll be back. It’s the Jersey Shore. Cocktails, hors d’oeuvres on the deck, not this summer but the next summer.”
Muroff’s family bought the trailer park in 1953 and rebuilt it after the storm in 1962, when Muroff’s aunt and uncle were killed as they tried to evacuate, he said.
In a 2010 interview with The Press of Atlantic City, Muroff vowed he would never sell the land the trailers sit on. He said he stands firmly by that promise.
“We promised you we’d never sell you out, and we kept that promise. We’re trying to come back. We’re working around the clock to come back. We have all the green lights from the township,” Muroff, 73, said as he walked around the park, hugging residents and assuring them a strong return.
The park has held a few meetings since the storm to update owners about moving ahead, but it’s going to be a lot of work, Muroff said.
The problem with rebuilding the park is that there will be more stringent enforcement and rules to receive a certificate of occupancy, he said.
“The township has said that all units coming in have to be new, and if you can rebuild, the rules are going to be strict and rigid,” he said.
Mayor Joseph Mancini said he wants to see the park return stronger that ever.
“This is something that I want to have in the township, and we will work with them. It just wouldn’t be the same without it here,” Mancini said.
Arthur and Carol Ahr parked on West Harding Avenue and prepared to see their trailer for the first time since the storm. Arthur Ahr, a corrections officer at Trenton State Prison, has been working nonstop and finally was able to make it down after working a double shift.
The couple has owned their trailer on Marlin Road for 23 years.
“This was the storm like no other,” said the Ahrs’ neighbor, Rich Baigis, as he stood talking to the couple at the edge of Marlin Road.
“We got 3 feet of water inside,” Baigis said, pointing to his trailer behind him.
“I don’t even know what we got. Probably the same,” Arthur Ahr said before he started the short walk to his trailer.
Carol Ahr carried a bucket with cleaning supplies.
“So many memories, so many memories. What did I do to prepare today? I prayed. Since I’ve retired, I’ve been here at least every other weekend,” Carol Ahr said.
The trailer door remained closed as Arthur Ahr and Baigis started working on a pile of debris thrown at the end of the small lot. The Ahrs’ shed was completely toppled, and the men pulled pieces out of the rubble — a cooler, beach cart, propane tank, lawn furniture, fishing reels and rods.
Carol Ahr climbed on a piece of decking that tilted when she moved across its slanted surface as she approached the trailer door.
“Honey, should we open the door?” she asked her husband as she moved toward the door with her key.
Carol Ahr traced her finger along the 4.5-foot water line on the trailer window that had seeped through to the inside and marked the window blinds.
Arthur Ahr went to his wife’s side as she opened the door slowly. Mud and sea grass were pasted to the screen door.
The wet carpet was caked with mud. A glass bowl filled with seashells, starfish and candles landed unbroken at the front door. Seashore-style furniture left in its place at the end of the summer was toppled.
“The beds are upside-down in the back,” Arthur Ahr said to his wife.
“But we’ll be back,” he said.
“Yes, we’ll be back,” she said.
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