I came to terms with losing our Jersey Shore house within hours of Hurricane Sandy's brutal landfall last week. Our house is just one mile away from that steel roller coaster, now bobbing in the Atlantic.
If Sandy is the Mid Atlantic's equivalent of Katrina, then our area -- from Bay Head through Seaside Park -- is the Lower Ninth Ward. The Surf Club, the Casino Pier, Barnacle Bill's: All these beloved Jersey Shore fixtures are just devastated. Countless homes just washed away. I was not hopeful after seeing those early pictures.
Our home, nicknamed The Grey Lady, had already withstood a century of storms. It made it through the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 with its torrential rain and ravaging surf. It survived the devastating '62 nor'easter when the ocean met the bay.
But there's been a lot of development -- too much development -- along the waterfront since then.
And this is the age of the Super Storm that happened to hit during a full moon and high tide. The Grey Lady already needed a lot of work: windows, roof, siding, bathrooms and kitchens. Sandy was going to peel our house open like a can of sardines.
But then we saw an aerial image. The Grey Lady was still standing. Standing on top of its foundation and without cars, trees or other homes piled upon it.
We saw a lot of other images too, and a pattern started to emerge. Some of the worst hit areas had almost no protection from the sea. What kind of defense is an amusement pier or a beach club or a parking lot built right up to the beach?
In Seaside Park we have big dunes. They weren't so popular before Sandy because they blocked the view of some of the homes behind. Dunes are nature's defense against storms. And in a barrier island like ours, there are always going to be storms.
Earlier this week folks with proof of residence in Seaside Park were finally allowed in to see their homes for themselves. My brothers got the necessary permit and reported back. I was unprepared for what they told me: The Grey Lady sustained no damage. None. All the houses on our street are still standing.
And so are those precious dunes.
I often bicycle down the road to a 10-mile oasis called Island Beach State Park. Its scrub and dunes, home to foxes and osprey, absorbed the wind and rain and surf. That is what barrier islands are supposed to do. In an era of that scary new phenomenon known as the Super Storm, it's more important than ever to protect these areas.
Every year more trucks dump replacement sand along New Jersey's 127-mile coastline to defend against the rapidly eroding beaches. There are efforts to restore dunes, the last defense for the bungalows and McMansions right behind. This is clearly not enough.
And now post Sandy, there will be another surge, likely to set a high-water mark of its own: the billions of dollars in government aid to help rebuild the homes and small businesses that are so essential to the Jersey Shore. As with the Ninth Ward, it's a legitimate question to ask: Should federal money be used to rebuild such a precarious area?
The answer is yes, but it has to be done right. And because the damage is so catastrophic, the rebuilding can be a template for other environmentally sensitive areas. Let's expand those dunes and natural vegetation, impose tough building setbacks from the sea and purchase land to keep it open. Trust me, after Sandy's rampage, there will be more open land.
During the hurricane, I told my sister-in-law that the Grey Lady was weeping. It's where three generations of my family gather every summer. It's been a privilege and a joy. But ownership should come with more responsibilities -- and a commitment to protect this ravaged natural treasure.