As Hank Bechler watched the water rise Monday night at the 20th Street beach in Ship Bottom, he said, he was thinking about the movie “The Perfect Storm.”
“When the moon came out, all I could think of was George Clooney saying, ‘It’s not going to let us out.’ And it didn’t,” Bechler said.
Thursday afternoon, Bechler was sifting through the remnants of his life at his bayfront Bayview Terrace home, a small cottage under a canopy of trees.
The outside is now on the inside of Bechler’s home — piles of damp pine needles, sea grass and brush. Mixed in with the debris were his DVDs, clothing, pictures, cleaning supplies and broken glass.
“Excuse the mess. I didn’t know you guys were coming,” he said and laughed as he climbed inside the home.
Bechler, 64, stood in what was his living room and looked out the broken mini blinds at the now calm bay.
Access to Long Beach Island remains restricted to essential personnel as workers continue to restore utilities to homes and road crews, and contractors are working to clear away sand that has rendered many of the roads impassable, according to the island’s joint offices of emergency management.
On Monday night, Bechler took his black pickup truck to the highest nearby point at the 20th Street beach at about 8:30 p.m.
“I wasn’t scared that night. It was humbling. When you’re a Vietnam vet, you realize things are out of your control. You take a piece of humble pie,” he said.
“But I couldn’t leave because I was scared to death that I wouldn’t get back on. Everything is here,” he said of the home he has lived in for the last 30 years.
His parents bought the home in 1958 and he remembers the 1962 storm that ravaged Long Beach Island.
Farther south in Beach Haven, Councilwoman Nancy Davis stood on the beach at Fairview Avenue and surveyed the oceanfront damage. Davis, a Second Street resident, rode out the storm and said it was like nothing she had ever experienced on LBI.
“The damage here is catastrophic. It will be millions in cleanup costs and rebuilding,” she said.
Luckily, Davis said, she had minimal damage and flooding at her Second Street home.
A new oceanfront view straight through the garages of many homes on the beach tells the story of what Long Beach Island is to so many.
Beach chairs, rafts and surfboards are still stacked in their place, ready for a new summer season as the ocean, pushes up along the now shortened beachfront, one not wide enough for a small crowd to stretch beach blankets across.
Homes, too many to count, along the beachfront are undermined, and wires and utility lines hang out of their bottoms. The sound of the ocean can still be heard, but it is coupled with the creaking of loose siding and doors.
But the hardest hit area of the island, which was obvious Thursday, was Long Beach Township’s southern tip section of Holgate.
Mayor Joseph Mancini maneuvered his Jeep Wrangler through mounds of sand and around heavy equipment doing their best to clear the street of what was about 6 feet of sand.
Bulldozers are pushing sand and building berms on the beach to battle the high tide and any additional flooding.
“In the back of your mind, you always know that this is going to happen sooner or later,” said Mancini, whose deck went through the front of his bayfront home on New Jersey Avenue in the township.
Homes, many of them worth millions, stand on piling like stilts. The usual salt air smell is now mixed with the smell of natural gas that is leaking from compromised lines.
“A home used to be here,” Mancini said quietly as he stood in front of an empty lot where the only thing left are splintered piling stumps.
It’s not clear where the home went — out to sea or across the street where some houses sit on top of one another.
Mancini vowed Thursday that the island will be up and running for next year’s summer season.
He also had some harsh words for oceanfront homeowners who refused to sign easements granting access to their properties for a beach replenishment project to be completed.
A project was completed earlier this year in the Brant Beach section of the township that Mancini said held up in the storm.
“Are the dunes there cut up? Absolutely. But did they do their job? Yes,” he said.
The township has been battling the homeowners — a portion of them in Holgate — to sign their easements for several years.
“They can sign their easements or they can pay for the damage themselves. We’re not fixing it, we’re not paying for anything if they haven’t signed,” he said.
Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck echoed Mancini’s hope for the island to be reopened in time for summer.
He too rode out the storm, but he lost a car and came home to 33 inches of water in his home.
He leaned forward as he recalled Monday night, standing outside the police station with Police Chief Paul Sharkey as the storm whirled closer.
“The moon and the stars came out and the wind dropped down. Fifteen minutes later, I noticed foam on the water coming, which usually means it’s churning up. Eerie clouds floated south to northwest and I realized we were in the eye of the storm,” Huelsenbeck said.
Another 15 minutes passed and the flag at the borough hall stood straight, and in about eight minutes, water started rushing down the street, he said.
Mark Temme said he also watched the ocean meet the bay after running from the 23rd Street beach when he saw the water rising to dangerous levels Monday night.
He got out before the water starting rushing down the street like a river.
“The waves cut away the dunes faster than anything I’ve ever seen. They surged in and they would swirl and then they would just sit there. The next thing I heard is crunching, and it was doors and windows blowing out behind me,” Temme said.
“I literally stood here and watched that dune wash away. The ocean just came up and washed over a 10-foot dune. I saw a wave with white foam and I knew it was coming over and I turned around and ran home,” Temme said.
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