Ocean Gate Turned 'Upside Down' By Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Says
Small town on the Toms River still struggling to recover more than three months after the storm
Fatigue is etched into Ocean Gate Mayor Paul J. Kennedy's face. He is here in the municipal building on his day off, making plans to move a Superstorm Sandy recovery seminar from Borough Hall to the Ocean Gate Elementary School.
His office and cell phones ring steadily during an interview with Patch. He describes what Sandy has down to his town, a little town on the Toms River in Ocean County that doesn't get much attention.
"The best words I can use - it's turned this town upside down since Oct. 29," Kennedy said. "It's turned it into almost a ghost town."
The borough's boardwalk that curves along the Toms River and Barnegat Bay is 65 percent gone. That'a a problem that will eventually be fixed. But it's not Kennedy's main concern.
There are people in his town living in houses with no heat. This tiny borough has 2,200 residents and 1,100 homes. Kennedy estimates that between 25 and 50 homes had more than 50 percent damage. Up to 500 homes - almost half of the houses in the borough - had storm damage.
Kennedy - now in his seventh year as mayor - didn't waste any time when the dire predictions about what Sandy could do were forecast. He issued a mandatory evacuation order for the entire town. Everybody out.
"I got my wife and daughter out of here," he said. "My wife said, 'When am I going to see you?' I said 'Whenever I get home.' "
He didn't see her again for three days. Kennedy slept on a cot in a hallway at the municipal building for the first three nights. He shared space with about 50 other residents and their pets.
"We had dogs and cats in the council meeting room and the hallways," he said. "It was something I never could imagine I would witness or be part of as an elected official."
Unfortunately, not all heeded his evacuation order. Some stayed. When they realized they were in trouble, the frantic calls for rescue began.
Kennedy had urged one older man on oxygen to evacuate before the storm began. The man refused. He called during the height of the storm for help.
"The water started coming and he wanted to leave," Kennedy said. "An hour later and we wouldn't have been able to get him out of there."
October 29, 2012. The day the river started to rise and the winds began to roar started off with a fire. The Ocean Gate Market - one of the town's few ratables - was destroyed. Only the masonry is still intact. The owners plan to rebuild.
It was all downhill from there.
Kennedy spent the day riding around town with Police Chief Reece J. Fisher, borough emergency management officials and volunteers, urging people to leave and shoring up what they could. They returned to the municipal building around 11:15 p.m.
The frantic calls for help began coming at 11:30, when the water started to rise.
"The water came and it just kept coming," Kennedy said. "It was over two feet already. People were stranded in their cars."
Kennedy estimates he had four feet of water in the backyard of his home at the height of the storm surge.
There were other problems too. With no power, he needed an emergency generator to keep the borough's sewer pumping station working. He was able to get an aging, balky borough-owned generator going eventually.
"I had to come out every night and refuel it at midnight," said Kennedy, who also serves as the borough's public works director. "I didn't want raw sewage in the streets."
Kennedy and Borough Council members take no salary as elected officials, a rarity in Ocean County. He does receive a $20,000 stipend for serving as acting administrator.
Three months later
The remnants of Sandy are still visible in Ocean Gate, although Oct. 29 seems like a long time ago.
Dumpsters sit outside houses, packed with discarded hardwood flooring, pieces of Sheetrock and construction debris. Contractor trucks are parked on many streets. The streets near the water are still lined with a mahogany-colored muck, streets that flood often since Sandy.
"I've got people living in here with no heat," Kennedy said. "They live on the second floor. They are doing what they can little by little. People would rather be home."
So he, other township officials and borough Chief Financial Officer Paulette Konopka soldier on. Kennedy has grabbed whatever volunteer help he can and applied for any kind of federal and state financial aid he can get.
"FEMA has been very good," he said. "The problem with FEMA is you meet with FEMA on different days and don't get the same answers to the same questions."
Most of the buildings on the main street are vacant, up for sale or available to rent. Ocean Gate has few ratables - the Ocean Gate Market, Linda's Pizza, the Anchor Inn, Ocean Gate Auto Body and Yolanda's River House, which was also swamped by the storm.
Revenue is "all based on tax dollars here" and money the borough receives from renting space on the water tower to cellular companies, Kennedy said.
"if we didn't have that, we would be in trouble," he said.
It turns out Kennedy's decision to move the Superstorm Sandy recovery seminar from borough hall to the school was a wise one. More than 425 residents showed up.
Kennedy and his wife took a brief break recently and went to the boat show in Atlantic City. He was stunned at how many Ocean Gate and Bayville residents were there.
"They were looking to escape," he said. "They weren't there to buy a boat. They wanted to get their minds off what they have to deal with for a few hours."