09/04/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Return to Fantasy Island

My three-year-old grandson, barely able to put together full sentences, somehow understood when I told him we were returning this summer to the New Jersey Shore for a week-long visit to Long Beach Island. What caught his attention was the notion that we would go to an amusement park called Fantasy Island and ride the bumper cars together. "I am excited, poppa," he told me.

Two things worried me, however. First, would the house we were to rent even be ready? Located in Brant Beach, in the middle of the 18-mile long barrier island, only four houses from the Atlantic Ocean, the five-bedroom Cape Cod had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy last October. Ironically, a 25-foot berm at the edge of the beach had held back the Atlantic.

But Barnegat Bay, separating the island from the mainland, had risen up and flooded the popular island which is a central vacation spot mostly for families from New York City and Philadelphia. Houses not raised on stilts - which are law for new construction -- were flooded up and down the island. Businesses located on the island's central commercial boulevard were virtually under water. Many did not survive.

As Sandy battered the eastern shores, 268 people were killed. With $68 billion in property lost, Sandy was the second costliest hurricane in American history,

All of which made my second concern seem almost trivial; had the amusement park survived the wrath of the hurricane? Had the bumper cars floated out to sea? For the three-year-old -- unable to fathom Mother Nature's wrath and having no sense that the seas are rising every year and that storms are worsening -- only the bumper cars mattered.

Our first day on the island, as we drove the long causeway from Manahawkin, N.J. to the island, we wondered how bad it would look. We had seen TV images of sand piled up on streets with bulldozers clearing paths. Houses had tumbled on their sides. The iconic ferris wheel of Seaside Heights had tumbled into the ocean. People's lives, homes and summer dreams had been tossed aside.

The first casualty we saw was Stutz's candy store, long an island staple; shuttered. Then the little supermarket, the family-run DeFiglio's, where we did our shopping each year, was boarded up. Their web site still exists but not the place where hundreds of people bought their sandwiches and groceries. "They were already on the edge," one store owner told me. "They did not have a chance to recover from Sandy."

But as we approached 36th street, our boulevard of dreams, two things encouraged us. Ferrara's Bakery, which boasts the best doughnuts in the world, was open for business, and Dom's, a little cinderblock-shack of an ice cream-hot-dog parlor, had its neon sign glowing. Rolls, wieners, and ice cream -- life seemed to be proceeding normally for some.

We inspected our two-story house and saw how much it had changed. The flooded first floor had been wrecked and, now, it had a new open-air kitchen, new appliances and all new furniture. The Atlantic had ruined everything but our landlord, an old family friend, had worked for weeks to restore the vintage 1950s knotty pine walls and stone fireplace' Everything else was new, covered by insurance.

And that raised a third question in my mind: did I subsidize the insurance payments that likely helped everyone come back from the hurricane? The next morning, when I walked to Ferrara's bakery, the owner almost proudly showed me the water line in the store, where three-feet of briney ocean had covered the area where scones and bagels and sticky buns were now piled high, with patrons ten deep and sometimes flowing out his front door. His old oven was gone, he said, but insurance covered it all, and I walked away salivating for donuts but wondering if people from Iowa had somehow subsidized the revival of a bakery, and dozens of stores like it.

The answer more than likely was that taxpayer dollars were not tapped all that much for direct private insurance claims. However, a $50.5 billion disaster relief package to help Hurricane Sandy victims had gone through Congress, rightly so for many people whose lives - not summer homes - were wrecked.

But the beach - which was after all why my family had trekked 140 miles from the mid-Hudson Valley --- was a far different story and raised much more troubling questions. At the end of our street, where the beach began, New Jersey had constructed a berm to hold back the ocean. Despite lawsuits by some homeowners who were upset that the berm blocked their first-floor view, the massive sand construction had worked. It saved the island from devastation.

But the cost was steep. Since 1970 the Army Corps of Engineers has nourished beaches, mostly on the East Coast, 469 times, placing more than 379 million cubic yards of sand on them, at a cost $3.7 billion in today's money.

And this was before Sandy hit.

The storm was estimated to have removed 37 million cubic yards of sand from the beaches of New York and New Jersey. New Jersey might require 22 million cubic yards for 40 shore communities.

In essence, we continue to refill beaches that cannot survive without massive help from the government. Barrier islands like Long Bach Island are particularly problematic. Without man's tinkering, the sands would shift and the contours of the island would dramatically alter over time. There would be no Ferrara's Bakery, and maybe no island at all since it is estimated that the ocean will rise between 7 and 16 inches by 2050 and maybe two feet by the next century.

My grandson would have no amusement park to ponder without massive federal intervention. After Sandy, the U.S. Congress gave the Army Corps of Engineers $5.4 billion for hurricane-related expenses, and the island's infrastructure - from cleaned streets to a new seawall on the bay - was impressively repaired.

The tractors were in motion as we visited the beaches, dumping huge piles of sand that was taken from more than mile off shore. In one location, a long lake had formed on the beach where water from the ocean had broken through, then receded. The lake was four- feet deep and, of course, the children loved the new pond. Lifeguards had to move their chairs from the ocean to the new bathing spot. It was a Sandy bonus for the kids.

But it spoke to the fragility of the shoreline.. How can we keep remaking our coast as Global Warming keeps relentlessly coming at us? And how can we ask people who live in the heartlands of the nation, and even on the West coast, which does not have the same erosion or storm problem, to keep paying for New Yorkers and Philadelphians to visit their favorite summer vacation spot?

The question did not seem to be on anyone's mind as I visited various stores and queried the storeowners. At Shell Liquors, an Indian couple waited on a long line of customers. The wife seemed eager to talk when I asked her how bad was the damage. Three feet, she said. "We lost the first two shelves of liquor and all the beer. We put in a new floor and some new electricity and we are back," she said, triumphantly. But next door a deli was shuttered.

And while business seemed good at many stores, a few owners told me that customer traffic was way off, despite a $25 million public relations campaign by New Jersey to convince people that the Jersey Shore was back. Well, of course, that was only partly true. Much of the shore had been lost, but with a $38-billion summer economy at stake, Gov. Chris Christie and Co. need to convince people to come back to the beach, for business and for Presidential dreams.

My grandson needed little convincing, of course. He wanted those bumper cars.

On our second night we trekked the few miles south on Long Beach Boulevard to Fantasy Island. The parking lot adjacent to a huge water slide was packed. My grandson was letting out squeals, literally jumping off the ground as we approached the amusement park. We hurried over to the corner spot where the bumper cars were grinding out their crashes.

We ran up the ramp, tickets in hand, but the gatekeeper stopped us. My grandson was too small to go on the cars. I pleaded my case. The boy waited months for this, but the ticket-taker apologized; he could not break the rule. We turned headed back to the rest of the rides. The boy was barely dismayed, kind of like what I was seeing on the rest of the island. It was just a bump in the road; let's move on.

He went on a train ride, a fire engine, a ferris wheel, and he wet his pants from excitement. Summer memories were made that night. How long we can afford to protect those memories -- and refill the 127 miles of New Jersey's coast -- is an open question. I want to keep going to LBI, assuming it still exists and we can afford to keep fixing it up. Perhaps if America had not spent $993,832 billion on the Pentagon last year, a perennial fix might be possible. But the words of a former New Jersey environmental official keep ringing in my ears: "The problem is you nourish and then people have the feeling of security and come right back, the beach erodes, and then you have another storm."

We have already booked our house for next summer. But it will cost a lot of money in the future for a bumper car ride.