Groomed beaches, walkable boardwalks, sand-free streets and sidewalks, and open stores and restaurants.
Visitors to nearly every town along the New Jersey shore will find just that come Memorial Day weekend.
Depending on which town tourists visit, however, the breadth of attractions and open businesses — and even the condition of the beach — will depend on how painful a blow Hurricane Sandy dealt nearly seven months before Memorial Day weekend.
Business owners, along with state and local officials, want this message made clear: The Jersey Shore is open for business, and tourism dollars are critical to helping the region recover from the worst storm in state history.
“We have to try to get the word out to let (visitors) know we are here and are ready to go,” said Ron Mahan, owner of the Windswept Motel in Point Pleasant Beach.
Sandy made landfall Oct. 29 near Brigantine, which proved to be a dividing line between the shore regions that suffered moderate to major flooding damage and those that suffered catastrophic damage.
The southern fringes of the state, such as Wildwood and Cape May, were open within days of the storm. Business districts in Ocean City and Margate took a little longer, as owners needed several weeks to months to make repairs to flooded stores and restaurants. Atlantic City’s Tourism District saw no lasting effects from the storm, other than public perception.
But in communities north of Long Beach Island, such as Seaside Heights and Sea Bright, the damage to tourism areas was extreme, with boardwalks wrecked, most businesses flooded and some attractions destroyed. Beaches in the worst-hit towns may not be open to the public until later this summer.
“The story of the shore is really complex,” said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. “You have the southern shore that wasn’t really damaged, you have LBI that has been working hard to get ready, and then when you go north there is a lot more that needs to be addressed.”
A challenge for business
Some businesses did not survive the financial storm of recovery, deciding to close rather than spend thousands — or more — to replenish stock, replace damaged equipment or even find a new place to open because landlords were unable to make repairs quickly.
This can be seen along most of the New Jersey coast, from Sea Bright, where damage was nearly catastrophic, to Ocean City, where businesses away from the Boardwalk had up to 2 feet of water inside.
“For rent” signs are common in storefronts in Ocean City’s central business district, a sign that some business owners could not make it or chose not to reopen.
But in other areas, businesses have found creative ways to open as soon as they could. In Seaside Heights, where damage to the Boardwalk was extreme, some Boardwalk restaurants, T-shirt shops and games found ways to set up shop through back doors facing Ocean Terrace, even capitalizing on location to draw tourists to see the Boardwalk rebuilding and, hopefully, into their stores.
Ronny Yefet, owner of T-shirt shop Regent & Company in Seaside Heights, built a small wooden railing at the end of the ramp next to his Boardwalk store to allow disaster tourists a way to see the damage. But the hope, he said, was to draw those same visitors into his store, which is stocked with Restore the Shore shirts. Souvenirs referencing the storm have been hot sellers during the cold spring in a store that has no heat, he said.
“A lot of people grew up (coming) here, and for them to see the Boardwalk the way it was, it was devastating,” Yefet said. “Thank God we see the end, we see the light. We’re pumped. We’ll be ready.”
Margate Dairy Bar owner Chris Clayton is selling ice cream out of a rented a construction trailer, which he customized and set up on his property while the flood-damaged building is being renovated.
“I’m trying to make sure that Margate doesn’t lose an iconic landmark, but also to improve it for generations to come,” Clayton said.
A long journey
Toby Wolf remembers discovering all of the damage to Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach in the days following Sandy. The Boardwalk itself was rumpled and contorted in places from the waves and floodwaters. Sand was piled in the streets, and stores where boards and gates didn’t hold back the storm surge were filled with sand and water.
Wolf, the marketing director for Jenkinson’s, said the most bizarre thing was finding a bumper car from the company’s ride on Casino Pier in Seaside Heights — nine miles south — inside one of its Point Pleasant Beach stores. Cars from the ride even washed up on Long Beach Island, 17 miles south of the pier.
“People were very nice about letting us know where they were,” Wolf said.
Just weeks before Memorial Day, workers have all but finished repairs to the damaged Point Pleasant Beach stores, Wolf said. Jenkinson’s Boardwalk has been open for weeks to visitors, and Point Pleasant Beach was nearly fully open for tourists, though nearby residential areas are struggling to recover from the flood.
In Seaside Heights, work on Casino Pier is still under way as contracted workers for the borough finish rebuilding the Boardwalk. The storm all but destroyed the end of the pier, dropping a roller coaster and other rides into the ocean, leaving one of the most enduring images of the storm’s aftermath.
Jenkinson’s still is in the process of removing the Jet Star coaster from the ocean next to Casino Pier, as well as fishing out other cars and pieces of amusements from the water. But despite those challenges, Wolf said part of the pier will be open by early summer — with about half of the rides open for visitors.
In Sea Bright, where floodwaters and a record storm surge put the entire borough underwater, the recovery process is inching along. While the borough says beaches will be open by Memorial Day, at the end of April, roadside signs still warned of curfews on side streets between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Much of the central business district remains boarded up or vacant, with only a few restaurants open.
Sandy Hook, another popular destination for shore tourists, reopened to traffic May 1, marking more than six months of work to rebuild roads and clear debris. The storm destroyed power lines, water and sewer systems and buildings, said Daphne Yun, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which operates the park.
Work to restore beach buildings, which had to be dug out by hand, bike paths and other damaged areas will be ongoing through the summer. Bathrooms will be portable toilets while the sewer system is repaired, and food service will be limited, Yun said.
Staff Writers Lee Procida and Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.