MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Homeowners in many Cape May County coastal communities have lawn signs advertising the contractor handling their property's clean-up work.
The signs outside homes in Reeds Beach advertise demolition companies.
Hurricane Sandy's floodwaters overwhelmed this and many other villages along the Delaware Bay just as they did barrier island resorts, but there has been less of a spotlight on the bay than the high-priced shoreline, despite the intense damage.
Both locals and conservationists hope the same cannot be said about the restoration effort.
"We're just a small community, but we had more devastation than a lot of other communities by the ocean," said resident Maureen McCormick.
Several of the homes on Beach Avenue, the only road in Reeds Beach, completely lost their back walls to powerful waves. From the street, the water is visible through their front windows.
But the harm to the bay's ecosystem is equally alarming to environmentalists.
Today, researchers with the New Jersey Audubon Society and the Department of Environmental Protection plan to conduct an aerial survey of the Delaware Bay's coastline to see what sensitive natural areas were wrecked by Sandy.
"When you look at New Jersey and what makes it ecologically significant, the Delaware Bay is our Serengeti," said Eric Stiles, president of the New Jersey Audubon Society.
The shore here is imperative habitat for migratory shore birds, horseshoe crabs and other wildlife. The storm might have lasting effects for populations that are already reduced by pollution, development and harvesting.
Some believe that means humans need to intercede and protect species that are weakened and no longer naturally resilient to natural events like a powerful storm.
"We are stewarding this for the world," said Stiles. "It's a global responsibility, and as part of the cleanup efforts we need to make sure that the Delaware Bay is not forgotten."
Stiles also noted that even the weather itself is arguably human-influenced when it comes to the issue of global warming and sea level rise, both of which are predicted to create more powerful storms like Sandy in the future.
Clearly, that's also dangerous for people, too, and McCormick said many in Reeds Beach are scared about what the next storm could bring now that the area has even less protection than before.
"The waves coming in here were 20 feet high," she said.
That water carried sand and debris over the sliver of developed land and into the marshes behind it. Sand is still piled up higher than trucks and covering asphalt and driveways.
"If we don't get more sand on our beaches, then these houses are doomed," said Ron Hoguet, a second homeowner who said he actually spends more time here than he does back in Cherry Hill.
McCormick said she has spoken with conservationists and representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers about plans for beach replenishment, and she is hopeful a project will be approved for the spring.
Residents will also have to help themselves by getting together and rebuilding bulkheads that were washed away.
Still others are in the process of demolishing their homes that are now teetering on the edge of the water, and they may not rebuild or return.
There were barely 100 buildings in this part of Middle Township to begin with, meaning almost 10 percent of those are now uninhabitable.
Even the houses that made it suffered looting. A sign remains on one front door that reads, "This house is occupied and secured. Looters and trespassers will be shot on sight. Keep out."
Reeds Beach has lost homes before. Hoguet said structures crumbled into the bay in both the March of 1962 Storm and Hurricane Gloria in 1985. He said Sandy was the most powerful he remembers in terms of how it moved such immense amounts of sand.
"I would say we lost about three or four feet of sand depth," he said.
George "Smokey" Swickla, a resident and owner of Smokey's Marina at the northern end of Beach Avenue, said he lost a dock at his business and sustained a hole in his home because of the storm.
Relatively, he fared well, but he said he thought Sandy was the worst storm to hit his house since his family built it in 1946. He didn't have flood insurance on that property because he said it does not usually see significant damage.
"This is probably a once in a lifetime thing," he said.
Nevertheless, he said he was getting flood insurance just in case. He's worried he won't make it if the next storm's any worse.
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