Toby Wolf of Seaside Heights’ Casino Pier was in shock when she picked up Time magazine shortly after Superstorm Sandy took a left hook into the New Jersey coast and saw the partially submerged Jet Star Roller Coaster splashed across its pages.
“My jaw dropped,” she recalled. “You can understand why: It’s a powerful image. But when it’s your park, it’s just kind of stunning.”
The coaster was merely backdrop for MTV’s “Jersey Shore” before the three-pronged monster with a cute name rumbled through on Oct. 29 and made the Jet Star a celebrity of its own. Now, the coaster has taken on the role of Sandy icon. The Shore, relatively unscathed by recent hurricanes, finally had its perfect storm, and the submerged carnival attraction epitomized its loss of innocence.
When all was said and done, Sandy damaged or destroyed some 346,000 homes and displaced 116,000 residents in New Jersey. It affected an estimated 185,000 businesses, resulting in about $11.7 billion in economic losses, according to a report from Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
But for many businesses along New Jersey’s 127-mile strip of coastline, Sandy was only half of the battle. The public is now convinced that the Shore -- at least as they knew it -- is gone.
The Jet Star is part of the problem. Sitting as it has in the Atlantic Ocean for over three months, it leaves the impression that little has changed. That the Shore is still damaged goods. It represents the past, and the kind of images that New Jersey tourism and hospitality officials are struggling to counteract.
Had they any relief money to bombard you with restoration pictures and a welcome back campaign, they would. But they don’t. Not yet.
The Jersey Shore is open, they say, or at least it will be by the time you can don a bathing suit and take a dip. But will people find out in time to save the summer season?
Show Me The Money
Marilou Halvorsen became president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association the same day Superstorm Sandy hit, and a few days after she left her job as the marketing director at Jenkinson’s, which owns Casino Pier. Some might say she stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“That was my roller-coaster in the ocean,” she said. “But it’s unfortunate that everyone still sees images of the Jet Star and not the restaurants opening up and the boardwalk renovations. We need to get the message out that we’ll be ready. We’ll be open.”
Tourism is a $38 billion industry in New Jersey, and the four coastal counties -- Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May -- account for half of the state’s annual tourism earnings. Moreover, tourism employs some 312,000 people directly, with another 486,000 in related industries. Together, that represents about one in 10 jobs in the state -- or many people without jobs this summer if the state can’t lure visitors back.
New Jersey officials believe their beloved Shore, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina, needs a new image, and they met with representatives from New Orleans at the Meadowlands Complex in East Rutherford in the first days after the storm hit to learn about grant processes, marketing strategies and how to counteract negative images.
Armed with an $8 million federal grant, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau unleashed a massive marketing campaign after Katrina hit in 2005 to dispel all myths with ads like “Soul is Waterproof,” or another featuring the aquarium that read, “To Be Clear, This Is The Only Part Of New Orleans Still Underwater.” Slowly but surely, the aggressive ad campaign worked, and the city saw 3 million more visitors in 2007 than it did in 2006.
But New Orleans had help. The Republican-controlled Congress approved two bills providing $62.3 billion in emergency funding in the 10 days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. It took New York and New Jersey over three months for a divided Congress to do the same. And, as Halvorsen points out, several Southern Republicans who voted for the Katrina bill, voted against the Sandy one.
Regardless, what any future campaign will look like remains to be seen as the N.J. Department of Travel and Tourism hasn’t released any statements since a week after the storm. Presumably, once the government allocates the assistance money, mum will no longer be the word. After all, you can rebuild the Shore all you want, but if nobody knows about it, they won’t come.
A Wave Of Misperception
Robert Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that it’s been over three months since Sandy and he hasn’t seen a dime to help with tourism efforts to lure visitors back.
“The best I can do is say that the images people see aren’t true,” he said -- and he’s doing that with an unfunded grass-roots campaign backed by the State Senate and local businesses that declares the Jersey Shore “Open For Business.”
“I don’t want to make light of the [ruined] homes and the people that lost everything, but some of the media have played up the destruction on the boardwalks and it’s just not true. I’m starting to hear ‘How dare the media do that.’ The images are skewed.”
Take Atlantic City, he said. Any photos you may have seen of the resort town’s “destroyed” boardwalk were actually of an old boardwalk that was condemned five years ago and slated for demolition.
Sure, it’s a small thing, but it’s hurt Atlantic City’s reputation. A survey conducted by the Atlantic City Alliance in November found that 41 percent of people truly believed the entire boardwalk was gone.
In reality, Atlantic City, like the majority of the southern Shore, escaped Sandy relatively unscathed. Its 12 casinos and attendant facilities -- which employ more than 40,000 workers and depend on a steady visitor base -- reopened when the power came back on about a week after the storm. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and, thus far, there has been little to counteract the ones most Americans have engrained in their heads.
Up north, it’s a slightly different story, but to say that the Shore has been destroyed or that it won’t be ready for summer 2013 is to underestimate its residents.
“Being in New Orleans and the 9th ward I can tell you that I think the level of destruction here is worse,” Hilton said. “But the recovery has been better.”
Beaches And Boardwalks
Many coastal communities in the northern Monmouth and Ocean counties have yet to rebuild because the State is still in the process of implementing new building codes. Indeed, just last week, Gov. Chris Christie adopted what some say are unreasonable guidelines that will force all homeowners in flood zones to raise their houses now or pay premiums of up to $31,000 a year for flood insurance.
Nevertheless, real estate brokers estimate roughly 75 percent of homeowners will return, with some houses back on the market by April. Local tourism chiefs like Hilton say this is incredibly important for perception.
Multimillion-dollar boardwalks, a major economic engine for shoreline communities, are also under repair in towns like Seaside Heights and Belmar. Spring Lake, meanwhile, has the misfortune of rebuilding it’s boardwalk for the second time in two years thanks to a double blow from Irene (2011) and Sandy.
But a boardwalk does not make a beach; sand does.
A study from Stockton College’s Coastal Research Center indicates that the beaches of the northern Jersey Shore are now 30 to 40 feet narrower than they were before the storm hit. Moreover, research from the Army Corps of Engineers indicates that Sandy removed about 10.5 million cubic yards of sand.
Though volunteers have used thousands of discarded Christmas trees to build up the battered dune system, securing money to bring in enough truckloads of new sand could prove to be a divisive issue, especially when roughly 65 percent of all beach nourishment projects completed by the Corps have come from federal tax dollars.
"Taxpayers are not surprised when they learn how Congress wastes billions of dollars on questionable programs and projects each year, but it may still shock taxpayers to know that Congress has literally dumped nearly $3 billion into beach projects that have washed out to sea," U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma wrote in his 2009 report “Washed Out To Sea.” Many like Coburn in the Republican Party do not want to see a dime of taxpayer money go toward beach restoration.
Then there is the issue of rock and concrete sea walls: Are they a necessary first line of defense, or do they provide a false sense of security and speed up beach erosion? The debate is ongoing.
A New Normal
Challenges aside, Gov. Christie said during one of his recent publicity stunts -- which have made him both the darling and devil of the Republican Party -- that “no one is conceding the summer of 2013 to Sandy.” And there are signs that some things have returned to how they used to be.
Further south, Seaside Heights lifted its post-storm curfew on Jan. 18, allowing fists to pump well past 10 p.m. at popular hangouts like Hemingway’s Cafe. Snooki favorite Club Karma, meanwhile, will host a grand reopening on March 9 to coincide with Seaside’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Belmar, too, will get into the St. Patrick’s Day spirit with its annual parade and party on March 3.
Even Casino Pier, symbol of all things destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, plans to reopen by Memorial Day. Construction workers just finished demolishing smaller buildings on the pier, and if you follow the company’s Facebook page, you can watch as they forklift each kitschy lizard and giraffe away to a storage facility.
“Are we going to be back to the level of 2012? No. But we’re moving forward and we’re going to continue to grow,” Wolf said.
After the 2013 season, Casino Pier will go into a rebuilding phase for 2014, though they’re not sure what the footprint will be. As for the Jet Star Roller Coaster, Wolf said they’re reviewing bids from salvage companies, but when they select one, the company will start removing the rides left in the ocean within 10 days. She’s optimistic about the whole process, and said it’s nice to receive so much support on Facebook and elsewhere.
“People know that the Jersey Shore sustained a ton of damage, but they should also realize how much work and dedication so many people are putting in to make sure we have a summer of 2013.”
It’s starting to feel like more like normal, she added, but it’s “a new normal.”