When the Ocean Met the Bay: 10 Years Later, an Oral History of Superstorm Sandy

Beaches decimated. Homes, businesses and lives destroyed. Boardwalks reduced to splinters — and a roller coaster plunged into the sea. A decade after Sandy made furious landfall at the Jersey Shore, the region is still feeling her effects. The story, and the legacy, in the words of the people who lived through it.

the aftermath of superstorm sandy

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy at Long Branch on November 8, 2012 / Photograph by Allison Joyce/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Two weeks before it became the costliest, most destructive storm ever to hit the northeastern coast of the United States, Sandy was just a nameless wisp of air cruising high in the atmosphere to the left of equatorial Africa. Meteorologists call this a tropical wave, a north-south snake of thunderstorms and low pressure sidewinding across the Atlantic. Not especially concerning, but something to keep an eye on.

By the time it reached the Caribbean, however, the system had combined with another “tropical disturbance” and rose to the level of a tropical depression. Sandy earned her name on October 22, 2012, when she leveled up to tropical-storm status, having increased in size and intensity as she made an abrupt turn northeastward. She was a category one hurricane by the time she crossed Jamaica, and a cat three by the time she roared over Cuba 24 hours later.

You can only get so much data from satellites, so NOAA sent hurricane hunters into the storm. Florida meteorologist Brooks Garner was aboard one of these flights, crisscrossing the hurricane in a star pattern for hours.

“It felt like a real roller coaster, where we’re going way up and then we get pushed way down. But the surprising thing is, we’re getting this horizontal turbulence as we started getting closer to the center of the storm,” Garner recalls. “It was almost like being in a car accident where you feel your internal organs hitting your ribs.”

He remembers the plane traveling straight ahead even as the pilot pushed the control all the way to the right as they punched through the violent eye-wall: “Then all of a sudden, we’re in the eye, and it just kind of looks like a half-overcast day.” He remembers looking down and seeing a building on fire in the Bahamas: “We were low enough where you can see there’s nobody on scene. There were no fire trucks or anything like that.” It was a disturbing sensation, something he figures drone pilots must feel: “You’re observing somebody else’s tragedy, but you’re safely removed.”

The plane, a WP-3D Orion, was a four-engine turboprop beast originally built to drop torpedoes on submarines. Hurricane hunters use them to release GPS dropwindsondes, sensors that look like thermoses with little parachutes and relay information back to the plane.

Once the data was uploaded to the various computer models, NOAA saw the storm was likely to make a left hook into New Jersey and New York. “At that point,” says Garner, “we knew that even though this was a category two hurricane, it was going to be a historic one, because it was going to hit a part of the U.S. that hadn’t seen a hurricane like that in decades.”

I. Before the Storm

Sandy would never reach a category four, and in fact, it was mostly a cat one when it marched northward off the coast of the United States. But the sheer size of it — satellite images revealed a continent-sized swirl of clouds and a quivering, unblinking eye — put it on a collision course with the jet stream. Computer models started projecting an increase in intensity — and that sudden left hook.

Brooks Garner, meteorologist, Tampa: As it approached to the northeast, that introduction of dry air was actually the first sign that it was transitioning from a fully tropical hurricane into what was later known as the superstorm.

Gary Szatkowski, then chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly: We beat our previous record by I think a couple days in terms of issuing a [storm-warning] briefing package before a weather event. I think previously we’d done a winter storm [package] maybe three days in advance. With Sandy, we did the first package about five and a half days before landfall. The first 20-plus years of my career, you wouldn’t dare to do anything like that — the science just wasn’t that good. Four days out, we were doing briefings left, right and center. 

William McDonnell, Region 2 deputy director, FEMA: If there’s a major event coming and they anticipate that it’s probably going to be a major disaster, the state can ask for a pre-disaster declaration. It allows the state and FEMA to start moving personnel and resources and put them in place.

Jim Simpson, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Transportation, 2010-’14: I remember saying look, we’ve got all this heavy [road construction] equipment on the Jersey Turnpike. If the storm hits the shore, we should have that equipment moved and ready, because we may not be able to get it moved if we have a lot of telephone wires down and roads that are washed out. They said it’s going to cost us about $10 million just to move the equipment near the barrier islands. I said, “Well, I’d rather spend the $10 million and be safe than get criticized and get caught flat-footed.”

Ellen Korpar, then a disaster response specialist, Red Cross: We watch 72 hours out, and we might try to pre-position things. Then 48 hours out, that’s when we want to make sure we have everything in place. Because after that, the weather might start going downhill. So you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got your volunteers and all your materials and the shelters set up, ready to go. 

Gary Szatkowski, NWS: We tell the decision-makers what to expect, when will the heaviest rain arrive, when will the highest winds arrive. And then it’s their call, as local and state officials, to decide on evacuation.

Tony Deutsch, tech company owner, editor/photographer of Watchthetramcarplease.com, Wildwood: I thought: If we get hit with this, 90 percent of these houses are going to be gone. They’re all particleboard condos.

Joe Butler, realtor, volunteer firefighter, Avalon: I was kind of hesitant about that Irene storm [in 2011]. And sure enough, I evacuated and nothing happened. I mean, it was nothing. So when Sandy came around, I’m like, I’m not doing that again. I’m not uprooting, moving to Philadelphia for a couple of days. I sell real estate here. I could always check houses after the storm passed.

Dina Long, mayor of Sea Bright, 2012-’19: I remember putting stuff on the kitchen counter and saying, “Well, if the water is this high, then the whole place is trashed.” Most prophetic words I spoke.

a home decimated by superstorm sandy

A home decimated by Superstorm Sandy in Union Beach on November 8, 2012 / Photograph by Ken Cedeno/Corbis News/Getty Images

Pam Womble, then a restaurateur, Ocean City: We were very mindful of getting out of town as directed. And we had a neighbor, Maxine Sacks, who has since passed away. Miss Maxine was very independent and very stubborn. I said, “So, Maxine, is Julie picking you up?” — that was her daughter, who lived in New Hope. And Maxine said, “I’m not going. The last time they had a hurricane, nothing happened.” So I call Julie, and she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” She had a dear friend of hers — I’ve only known him as Buzzy, he has a summer home here — Julie sent Buzzy over to talk to her mother, and he said, “Maxine, you’ve been like a mother to me my whole life. Pack a bag. I’ll be here tomorrow morning at 9:30 to pick you up. And if you don’t get in my truck, I will put you in my truck.” She said, “Okay.” [laughs] 

Lorenzo Langford, mayor of Atlantic City, 2008–’14: Two things happened with Irene. Its bark turned out to be worse than its bite, as bad as it was. And those folk who were forced to flee the city were treated almost in an inhumane kind of manner by police. And so that caused them to say, “The next time something like this happens, I’m not leaving.”

Collins Days, minister, Second Baptist Church, Atlantic City: My family and I decided we’re not going to leave the city. I pastor in Atlantic City, and I knew that many people were not going to leave, especially with what happened the last time we had an evacuation order from Atlantic City.

Bill Akers, mayor of Seaside Heights, 2012-’15: We’d asked for people to leave, to evacuate. But you know, for whatever reason, a lot of times, it’s because people don’t have anywhere else to go. That’s home.

Donna Vanzant, then a marina owner in Brigantine: I actually stayed, which we were told not to, but I did anyway. I don’t know. I think I thought I’d be able to go down there and lie on the docks and save them. 

Gary Szatkowski, NWS: Irene the year before had been mainly a heavy rainfall event. It was kind of mild — minor to moderate. And we found that people were expecting Sandy to be sort of Irene round two. But the track is different, so the intensity is going to be different. The size of the storm is different. And all of that factors into things like storm surge.

Brooks Garner, meteorologist: Right as it was making its approach to land, they dropped all the hurricane warnings. Even though the winds were still well in excess of hurricane force, they decided it no longer had the pure characteristics of a warm-core tropical system, so they couldn’t classify it as a hurricane. And that created perception among the public that maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad. After Sandy, they changed their policy, where even if it loses characteristics of a tropical system, if the impacts on land will be much the same, they’re just gonna keep the hurricane warnings going, so that the public doesn’t get confused.

Lorenzo Langford, Atlantic City: We had two press conferences, I think, the Saturday before the storm actually hit, admonishing people with all deliberate haste to vacate the city.

Gary Szatkowski, NWS: In the Sunday briefing package that we put out, I incorporated a personal plea where I stepped out from behind the curtain and spoke directly. I basically said, “This is going to be devastating, and you need to take this seriously in a way that you’ve never taken anything as serious as this. You’d have to go back to, like, the 1962 nor’easter, the Ash Wednesday storm.” That got a lot of traction. It was a little late in the game, so people couldn’t course-correct as much as I would have liked, but some people took it more seriously.

Collins Days, Atlantic City: I stood on my front porch, and I saw the water rising and coming down the street from both ends of the street. I said, “Uh-oh. I think we made a mistake.”

II. Landfall

Sandy officially made landfall at Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 29th. As damaging as the waves and high winds appeared to be, it was the storm surge that did the most damage, sometimes flooding Shore towns worse on the bay side than the ocean side. They say “The ocean met the bay” during the great Ash Wednesday nor’easter in 1962, meaning peninsulas and barrier islands were deluged on both sides. The same thing happened with Sandy, along with 12-to-24-foot waves and 90-mile-per-hour winds in the dead of night.

 Gary Szatkowski, NWS: Sandy was sort of like the worst-case scenario come true. And one of the worst-case scenarios for flooding is flooding at night. It’s harder for people to judge just how deep water is and see it coming if it’s dark.

Bill Akers, Seaside Heights: Once the bay started coming in, there was nowhere for it to go.

Lorenzo Langford, Atlantic City: It was scary. You didn’t know if there would be any loss of life; you didn’t know how much property damage there would be; you didn’t know how high that water was going to rise. 

Joe Butler, Avalon: I rode the storm out at a friend’s house on the bay. The area is called the Fingers of Avalon. It’s where the mega-mansions are. That was all man-made years back, and it’s higher elevation than other points of the island.

Lorenzo Langford, Atlantic City: It reminded me of the storm of ’62. I think I was seven years old. I remember seeing … I guess they were Army boats rolling down the streets.

Justin Louis, then a DJ at 92.7 WOBM, Bayville: My joke always is that once or twice a year in radio, you do something really important. So when the storms come, we don’t evacuate; we stay. There were one or two air mattresses in one studio and one or two in another. You tag one person out, and the other person would go crash for a little bit. We were there for probably 36 hours.

Leo Cervantes, chef/owner, Chilangos restaurant, Highlands: My friend Ken, he’s into videos and pictures; he loves cameras. So Ken and I went outside the night of the storm. We spotted this woman who walked out of her house because she was afraid, and she’s into the woods, and there’s no light and there’s the wind. So we took her into the car and to the shelter. The winds and the darkness and the water — it was like a movie.

Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: I remember it was like nine, 10 o’clock. I was out with the captain of the state police in a Tahoe with four-wheel drive. We were trying to get back to the command center. And literally, trees were falling down on all the roads in front of us. We had multiple explosions from the electrical lines. The transformers were shorting out and exploding. 

Justin Louis, Bayville: We were one of the few radio stations in New Jersey that didn’t lose power, because we did have a pretty good backup generator. And people were calling, and it turned into a talk show, really. Some people were just asking what’s going on; other people were telling us what it’s like where they are — you know, if they’ve got power or not, if they’re safe, if they need any help.

Cindy Zipf, executive director, Clean Ocean Action, then in Sandy Hook, now in Long Branch: I don’t think anyone expected a 13-foot storm surge. Sandy Hook pretty much went entirely underwater. 

Bill Akers, Seaside Heights: There was a family that was trapped. One of the lieutenants, Rob Farley, wanted to go back out. He said, “Listen, we got this family, they’re trapped.” And the chief said, “No, you can’t continue to go.” I said, “Chief, if he’s willing to go, he knows his body. Would you let him?” The chief is concerned for his men and then also for the public. It’s a hard position to be in. And Farley went out, and they got the family. Water was coming up on them. There were a lot of stories like that.

Collins Days, Atlantic City: By the time the water had gotten up to the windowsill, my wife said, “Okay, let’s go upstairs and go to bed. We can’t see a thing; the lights are all out in the city.” I said, “If we wake up in the morning and we put our feet on the floor and we hit water, then we know we’ve got to go into the attic. But there’s no need to stay up and think about things again.” My daughter and her kids and her husband, we all stayed in the same house. We went upstairs, went to bed, slept the rest of the night.

Justin Louis, Bayville: We hunkered down. We were on the air through the whole thing, taking phone calls.

Bill Akers, Seaside Heights: All the emergency responders, you look and the training’s kicking in. They were going throughout the night, in and out and in and out. You see the physical exhaustion, yet the spirit of the people was really amazing. We started filling up the old council chamber, that was the biggest room, with people that were being rescued that night. 

Ellen Korpar, Red Cross: It was a lot worse than Irene, so there were a lot of people on the coast who didn’t evacuate, and they had to be rescued, which put the first responders at risk. I hope after Sandy that when people are told to evacuate, they get out.

Lorenzo Langford, Atlantic City: Once they realized the peril they were in, they would call the city and others for help. So we set up a shelter of last resort. Of course, [Chris] Christie tells a different story. And part of my frustration is that when we proved that he lied, the media didn’t seem interested. We knew we were not going to get 100 percent of the people to vacate the city. Of all the shore communities in the entire state of New Jersey, Atlantic City had the highest evacuation rate. [Governor Chris Christie claimed Atlantic City didn’t adequately attempt evacuation and that by establishing shelters, it was encouraging residents to stay. Says Politico: “The National Guard later evacuated those in the imperiled shelters, and there were no casualties associated with Langford’s management of the storm.”]

Gary Szatkowski, NWS: Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex counties in New Jersey up into New York City harbor, Newark Bay — those areas all just got creamed with record-setting storm surge.

Erik Panichi, resident, Ocean City: My parents have owned property on the beach in Ocean City since 1973. When Hurricane Sandy hit, obviously, we weren’t there. But I went down the next morning, because CNN showed a video of basically a wave coming over the bulkhead and going into the street. I said, “Holy crap, we have a problem.” This was about 12 hours before the peak of the tide and the storm.

Tony Deutsch, Wildwood: The water comes up on Central Avenue about three feet. Most I’ve ever seen, and I’ve lived there a long time. Amphibious vehicles are coming down the street. People are trying to walk down the street. It’s very eerie, quiet. There are people trying to loot stuff. There are houses catching on fire because the water came up above their electric and they never shut their electric off before they left.

superstorm sandy damage at Union Beach

A view of Superstorm Sandy damage at Union Beach on November 16, 2012 / Photograph by Debra L. Rothenberg/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

III. The Aftermath

According to the Star-Ledger, 40 New Jersey residents died due to Superstorm Sandy — several as a result of falling trees during and after the storm. Some had heart attacks. A few were listed as drownings. Some 346,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. In New York City, the subway stations flooded, and parts of Manhattan were plunged into darkness for five days. In some parts of New Jersey, it took weeks for the power to come back on, especially down the Shore, where the devastation was most pronounced. In Seaside Heights, the Jet Star roller coaster ended up in the ocean — the most iconic image of the storm — while the town’s entire boardwalk was reduced to splinters. 

 Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: That whole area from Seaside pretty much to Bay Head was like a post-apocalyptic kind of thing. There were fires burning because the gas lines blew and exploded.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: The entire beach had been displaced to Route 36, which is our main street — full of sand, with upside-down cars and smashed-up building debris and just, like, people’s stuff everywhere. And it smelled horribly of rotten eggs, so we knew natural gas was leaking everywhere.

Ellen Korpar, Red Cross: I lived over at the Red Cross building [in Tinton Falls] for like a month straight. I only live two miles from the Red Cross, but I so needed to be there that I just slept on a cot. We had generators there, so we never lost power. You had to be there 24 hours in case something came up in the middle of the night.

Pam Womble, Ocean City: Downtown was destroyed. I mean, water got into everybody’s stores. By the time I got back, stores had put their goods that had been water-damaged out in the street. It’s like, how are people going to get back from this?

Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: All we heard was this eerie quietness except for the chirping of alarms, fire alarms and burglar alarms. They were going off, you know, because they were battery-operated. And we had a hard time landing a helicopter, because we couldn’t even find Route 35, which had been split in half.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: We could see bubbling puddles, so we knew there was a broken gas lateral under there somewhere. That was the primary reason the entire town was forced to evacuate the next day. Even the people that stayed were forced to leave. I think they wanted to. 

Ellen Korpar, Red Cross: One of my associates and I, we were just out trying to find some place to get diesel, and we drove down to Belmar, and the streets were just covered with sand, and houses had washed off the foundations. The two of us just sat in the middle of the street and cried.

Leo Cervantes, Highlands: I remember seeing Mayor Nolan, and he says to me, “Leo, are you okay?” I said, “Yes I am.” I said, “Frank, I have food. I have a propane grill.” He said, “Leo, that’s very nice of you. Maybe you should go to the shelter — we have a kitchen with a generator.” I said, “That’s even better.” My crew and I, we went in and started cooking.

Lorenzo Langford, Atlantic City: I remember going up to the inlet section with Al Roker and looking at the devastation that the storm had left. Then I came home and realized that I’d had a foot of water in my home. I could tell by the water line in the debris.

a roller coaster in Seaside Heights months after Superstorm Sandy hit

The Jet Star roller coaster in Seaside Heights months after Superstorm Sandy hit, in February 2013 / Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Bill Akers, Seaside Heights: The Jet Star — we even had some knuckleheads climbing up it. You know, people actually wanted to buy parts of it as a memento! But if that did not happen, Seaside Heights would never have got the coverage that it got and the help that it received. That was news from here to Australia.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: I had a kind of disaster mentor — Tommy Longo, the mayor of Waveland, Mississippi, which was ground zero for Katrina. He spent many hours with me on the telephone, explaining how they dealt with the government. He was a rock for me. Mayor Tommy has since passed away. I remember being on the phone with him a couple of days after the storm, complaining because every time I saw the news talking about Sandy, they were showing pictures of Seaside’s boardwalk roller coaster. I remember saying, “I’m sorry that your boardwalk got wrecked, but our entire town got wrecked.” And Mayor Tommy said, “So here’s what you’re gonna do. Tomorrow, you’re gonna get a clean set of clothes, and you’re gonna call those reporters, and you’re gonna bring them into your city.” And we got Sea Bright on the news. 

Justin Louis, Bayville: The pictures of the roller coaster in the ocean were all over the place, but at the same time, people really couldn’t get here. The country was paying attention, but we also kind of felt cut off.

Erik Panichi, Ocean City: The dunes were displaced, and basically all of the sand ended up in homes, in garages, in the street. We had about two feet of sand around and inside our entire property. And that’s when the cleanup efforts started. It took us about 10 days to make that part of the island look normal again. 

Photos laid out to dry in Seaside Heights on November 25th in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy / Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Cindy Zipf, Clean Ocean Action: We established a system by which we could organize community cleanups and volunteers based on the scope and scale of the need. If there were personal items — photographs, jewelry, things that were very personal — we would separate those things out so we could try to find the owners. 

Donna Vanzant, Brigantine: In my crawl space, that’s where all my personal belongings were from my parents, my children — you know, trips that we have been on, pictures, the christening outfits. All that kind of stuff got destroyed. My son is in the Navy, and he was stationed in Guam. They actually gave him two weeks’ leave to come home and help us. 

Joe Butler, Avalon: Within three days in some locations, you couldn’t even tell there was a storm. They had all the debris cleared. The street-washing truck had already come by to clean the streets; all the trash was picked up by the borough’s Public Works. I mean, it was incredible. And then a week after, it was like nothing had happened at all.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: The town was entirely unlivable for a period of weeks, at least a month, before it was safe for people to move back. And then most of us, when we did come back, had to deal with homes that were gutted and had to be razed or knocked down and rebuilt.

Pam Womble, Ocean City: Downtown Ocean City reminded me of commercials that you see for the Red Cross after some devastation. The buildings were still erect, but to know that so many businesses would have to figure out a way to start over — that was the killer. That was what really kind of wrecked me.

Leo Cervantes, Highlands: Shrimp, lobsters, steaks. We’re cooking because we don’t want the food to go bad. Within a couple of days, we have all the restaurants and people donating food, and people started saying, “Oh my God, this is the high-end shelter.” We were cooking lobster bisque, paella, fajitas.

Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: We had 2.7 million households without power. We had to work with evacuating people — 116,000 people were evacuated from their homes. This was not just the DOT, but the state Regional Operations and Intelligence Center. One hundred twenty-seven shelters were opened up. We had to help people move pets and get people into shelters. All the transit was shut down. Then you had 60 percent of the gas stations closed; they couldn’t pump fuel, because the power was down.

Joe Butler, Avalon: Oh my God, the debris, the pictures I have of reed grass and stuff piled up. Boats — I had a boat wash up into my front yard. People’s floating docks that were behind their houses were now on the street side.

Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: It wasn’t just flooded roads. We had sinkholes all over the place; cars are getting swallowed up. It’s a mess. We found boats on the highways; we had boats on the rail bridge. The priority was to get the gas lines closed and then to get a road open from Seabright to Seaside, which is Routes 35 and 36. We had six to 10 feet of sand.

Ellen Korpar, Red Cross: A snowstorm hit, like, three or four days after Sandy, so that made things even worse, because then the roads became even more inaccessible for utilities to get the power back or even for the emergency managers to do assessments of the damage.

Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: If you don’t have clean roads and highways and bridges and access, you can’t move your emergency equipment; you can’t get your firefighters, your police, your ambulances. So the roadways become the circulatory system of the emergency, so to speak.

Collins Days, Atlantic City: We were the most impacted city in the state. But you didn’t see Atlantic City on the news. You saw people in, like, Beach Haven and other places who had mansions, and they only live there in the summer. Then Governor Christie and our mayor didn’t get along. Christie wouldn’t even bring Obama to Atlantic City. They flew over Atlantic City in a helicopter; they went to Brigantine.

[Sandy hit days before the 2012 presidential election. President Obama visited Brigantine after the storm cleared and put his arm around Donna Vanzant as he spoke about the Jersey Shore’s resilience and road to recovery.]

Then-president Barack Obama comforts Brigantine’s Donna Vanzant on October 31, 2012. / Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Donna Vanzant, Brigantine: I didn’t know until we actually got to the marina that morning that he was coming. It was a very emotional time for me, because it was when I first saw the devastation. I don’t remember all the details. He was talking to the people while he had his arm around me. But it was all political. I mean, everyone in the world knows that. It was nothing but political, for the voting the next week.

Collins Days, Atlantic City: Many people suffered through Superstorm Sandy, and it did not have a color barrier. It impacted Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians. But with people who were the most marginalized — they mostly were overlooked, financially and politically. 

Donna Vanzant, Brigantine: The picture went viral. I got a lot of social media backlash from it, and it was very painful. It’s not a story I like, because it was a lot of false hope. 

IV. The Long Road Back

Superstorm Sandy led to changes in many New Jersey coastal towns: Dunes, once flattened to improve sight lines on beachfront property, have been restored and bolstered by grasses and other plantings. The implementation of flood maps has led to new building standards, and many old houses have been raised by “house-lifters’’ to accommodate the updated risk assessment. Many residents and business owners complained that checks from insurance companies and relief agencies were too small, came too late, and weren’t fairly distributed. In some towns, Sandy led to booms in new construction; in others, some damaged houses remain empty 10 years later.

Leo Cervantes, Highlands: Another week goes by, and another month, and the insurance money wasn’t coming. And I started having panic attacks: What am I gonna do? I tried to basically brainwash myself: Okay, this is gonna be okay. I’m a positive guy.

Pam Womble, Ocean City: It goes through two or three rounds of vetting before you actually get any kind of grant money, but I think for me, having to revisit that over and over and over just kind of kept it fresh in my mind. But then you’d see some businesses never came back.

Leo Cervantes, Highlands: So finally they released my money. I was able to do a lot of the work with my friends. It was more of a community, people helping out. The way we did to others, others did to us.

Collins Days, Atlantic City: The older persons who didn’t know all the stuff they could take advantage of are the ones we really went after, to make sure that they were taken care of. We really worked that route. It was a Herculean task for almost two and a half years. We had over 10,000 homes that were damaged from the flood. That’s when we decided to put together a long-term recovery group. Most of our money went toward repairing homes, and 95 percent of our labor was volunteer. We redid 129 homes, I think it was, plus another 30 replacements of all of the appliances and heating. We assisted over 5,000 families in Atlantic City. 

Donna Vanzant, Brigantine: After Sandy, I had to keep on taking loans to keep the business going. I was worried more about the employees than the fact that I was going further and further in debt. So we survived, mostly because of friends and family. My insurance company gave me a little over $10,000 for three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of damage, because they said it was an act of God. FEMA did nothing for us. Former President Obama had told them to give us help immediately. And we went over to the Convention Center where they were staged. And sure enough, they said — they actually laughed — “Our president doesn’t know we don’t help businesses.” So that was that. We had to figure it all out on our own.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: Governor Christie came soon after the storm and spent time in Sea Bright. I had this legal pad, a list of the things that we needed in Sea Bright. So it’s like, okay, Governor, you know, thanks so much for coming. This is a list of what I need. I tried to hand it to him, and he put his hand up. He was like, no, I’m not taking your paper. And I was like, What? Instead, he calls all these people over, and we dealt with my list. Every single item on my list. It was amazing. 

Jim Simpson, NJ DOT: The barrier island was cut in half. We got a temporary road put in in, like, four days, which is historic. There’s an article called “The Miracle on Route 35.” [Governor Christie commended the Miracle on Route 35, and Simpson specifically, as an example of “the never-quit attitude of this Administration and our citizens” in his January 2013 State of the State speech.] That was probably the highlight of my career — getting a standing ovation from the state legislature. Especially in today’s world, when everybody’s looking to beat up on people.

Then-governor Chris Christie at a town-hall meeting for families affected by Superstorm Sandy in February 2014 in Middletown / Photograph by Kena Betancur/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Collins Days, Atlantic City: We’d ask 600 or 700 people to come volunteer and have 8,000, 9,000 people showing up. Every nationality and race came to help out. And that was enough. When it comes to our community, we always do more with less.

Donna Vanzant, Brigantine: I have since gone out of business. Sandy was the beginning of my end, and then the pandemic just put the icing on the cake. But I’m just grateful that I’m out of debt.

Pam Womble, Ocean City: Some dear friends I had known since I was a child couldn’t live in their house while it was being repaired. So my husband went down there and helped pull out stinky wet drywall and carpets. We would take them out to dinner, or he would cook because it was off-season; we weren’t opening our restaurant. They were older, and they were eating takeout in the motel room that was provided for them. It’s like, “You’ve got to stop eating this takeout. You need some vegetables!” [laughs] My husband — food is his prayer. He’s committed to feeding the world.

Lorenzo Langford, Atlantic City: I think FEMA was very satisfactory. And I will say this, too: President Obama, I thought, was very responsive and made sure that the city of Atlantic City, and I’m sure other Shore areas, too, had FEMA and all of its representation at our disposal. 

Joe Butler, Avalon: There was a little bit of pullback from people who were concerned about buying a house. It didn’t last long. It didn’t affect our values. If anything, it strengthened ours, because we could say, “Look at the towns up north, and look at Avalon.” Avalon’s got one of the best flood ratings in the country. The houses have to be built a certain height up in the air, and they have pumping stations.

Tony Deutsch, Wildwood: Years later, they were still razing houses in Wildwood, West Wildwood, different places. Years later.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: It’s funny to look at pictures now. Sea Bright was very aggressive after Sandy. Right from the get-go, we said if you wanted to rebuild your home, you had to elevate it. We didn’t let people put it back the way it was. So really, the landscape of the entire town has changed, because all the homes are now 10 to 15 feet up in the air on a concrete foundation or pilings.

William McDonnell, FEMA: One major lesson of Sandy was having communities adopt higher building standards and building codes. So they weren’t just building to minimum standards; they were requiring contractors and homeowners to build to a higher standard.

Cindy Zipf, Clean Ocean Action: I think there has been this wake-up call about sustainable shorelines and living shorelines — rather than putting walls and rocks on shorelines, allowing for natural systems to be established. We’ve been working on that, to make sure any beach replenishment is done with clean material. 

Gary Szatkowski, NWS: One criticism of the Weather Service was a lack of storm-surge inundation maps. We didn’t have those with Sandy. It wasn’t a technology issue; it was a funding issue. It was known after Katrina that we needed these maps. It took another seven years and another disaster. After Sandy, there was a huge funding push, and now, maps that show you where places will flood and how deep the water will be are very commonplace with land-falling hurricanes.

Superstorm Sandy aftermath: a sand-filled Point Pleasant living room on November 14th / Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ellen Korpar, Red Cross: Places that might not have been in flood zones previously are now considered flood zones. We have friends who live in Rumson who had no damage from Sandy, but with the new flood maps, they have to get flood insurance. They were just informed a few months ago.

Dina Long, Sea Bright: I took office in January of 2012, and 10 months later, Sandy happened. So my entire time as mayor was pretty much consumed by the storm and the aftermath. I feel like Sandy is a dividing line in my life. 

Justin Louis, Bayville: I give people credit for rebuilding beach houses and all that, but it is in the back of your mind that it did happen once; it can happen again.

Leo Cervantes, Highlands: I’ve been in survival mode ever since I was five. I come from the outskirts of Mexico City. A rough town, garbage dump across the street, ripped shoes, toes sticking out. I don’t like to say poverty, because according to my mother, you’re poor in your mind and your heart. So I come from rough survival. And Sandy, Irene, earthquakes in Mexico — they make you a stronger person. So to me, it was a beautiful experience of community.

​Cindy Zipf, Clean Action Ocean: With the climate-change crisis, if we really made a commitment, we could make a huge difference. Unfortunately, we always wait till the crisis is so extreme. And it’s at that level now; it happens in pockets around the world, with these fires and droughts and storms. But I will say that situations like Superstorm Sandy prove time and time again: When people work together, they can make miracles happen.

Ellen Korpar, Red Cross: You have to respect nature.

Published as “When the Ocean Met the Bay: An Oral History of Superstorm Sandy” in the November 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.