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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 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.

Get out

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."

Rising waters

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."

Vincent Pischettola February 14, 2013 at 09:25 PM
Please sign and share this petition against FEMA https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/reevaluate-new-fema-advisory-base-flood-elevation-maps-help-us-rebuild-not-shore-not-push-us-out/tZYxj3V5
KMurray February 14, 2013 at 10:33 PM
I am so sorry for your troubles, Stephanie. There are so many sad stories here in OG. Unfortunately I own one of the homes that were more than 50% damaged and I was informed by a contractor today that it is probably not a viable candidate for raising. According to the current laws it will be a total loss. Am I to be one of the unfortunate people who will have to "walk away" from my property? What will happen to this community and people like me if the current laws are upheld? Please sign the petition! Let's do what we can to make a change. Thanks to Vincent for posting.
Ocean Gate Crab February 15, 2013 at 12:07 AM
Mr. Mayor, Can you get the county to do something about the storm drain at the end of Asbury Ave. Sandy broke it off in the bay. The end now clogs with sand. Rain water can not drain from the streets into the bay. Asbury and Avalon flood with just a little rain and some homes are only inches from being flooded again. The county did attempt a repair but it did not last.
skizma February 15, 2013 at 11:10 AM
Paul Kennedy is a hero in this small small town. No one imagines how much time someone gives to keep the very things, everyone not only takes for granted but EXPEXCTS and this man does it. He knows how to do it and gets it done. Thank you so much for the article showing what he does for the town and our mayor and council do not get a penny, nothing, absolutely nothing for all this sacrifice. The other council members have families and homes that were damaged, yet they take care of the business of the town FIRST. We are, the most fortunate, for having this group here. If anyone has a complaint or problem Paul will help and be upfront about it. Thanks for this article, it is so important to let everyone know how MUCH is done and needs to be done. THANK YOU all for all you have done......be grateful for the folks like this. It could have gone in such a different direction without them.
M1313 February 15, 2013 at 04:38 PM
Reject M1313 11:33 am on Friday, February 15, 2013 This little town is the place I grew up in, walked down to the deli for ice cream, had dinner at the anchor, had my birthday parties at the beach each summer and saw the sunset for the first time with my husband while taking a walk on the boards! Now I share these memories with my kids. They sail at OGYC, can't wait for the town wide yard sale, run in the jay morales benefit, dance to the bands at the pier, love movie night on the beach, still LOVE walking to the deli for ice cream and always want to take a dip in the bay! Being close to the mayor, I know and respect his dedication and admiration for this town. He chooses to support the town and its people over his own family and life and does this without even thinking twice. that is a TRUE hero!!! The Wednesday after the storm I saw in his eyes despair, worry, as well as strength and hope. He was going to bring back mine as well as everyone else's memories. This town is lucky to have a leader and officials who support the community during a tradgedy and each and every other day. They give their sweat and hearts to the place so many call home. The mayor, council and other officials are the true defitinition of hope and love. Good luck OG you are truly blesses to have these people as your support. You are a strong community and together will make it through- OG will be together again!!

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