While the results of the presidential election have dominated the attention of much of the country, coastal communities like New Jersey’s Seaside Heights are in a world devoid of politics, still reeling from superstorm Sandy.
On Nov. 2, ABC News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi, along with “20/20″ producer Denise Ramundo-Martinez and I, accompanied a camera crew for an exclusive first look at what was left of what was one of the Jersey Shore’s most commercial and recognizable hubs.
We were driven into Seaside Heights by a small contingent of police officers led by Seaside Heights’ chief of police, Thomas Boyd. Boyd and his officers had ridden out the storm and, along with members of the fire department, have been credited with saving 36 people during the height of the storm.
Boyd’s voice was hoarse as he told us we were going to see an extent of the damage nobody in the media had seen. He and his team were all business, but they had a look in their eyes that told us more than they ever would admit about what they had been enduring. It was a distance, a combination of adrenaline-pumped exhaustion, sadness and shock.
As we went over the bridge from Toms River into Seaside Heights, we could see why.
What thousands of vacationers, fans of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and residents know as a raucous, bustling community was a ghost town – like a disaster movie set after a day of shooting. The empty road was choked by windblown piles of sand, downed trees, garbage and wood shrapnel. The homes, themselves, the ones that were intact, slumped empty and lifeless after a full 10 rounds of pounding from Sandy’s wind and storm surge.
The full brunt of the storm was on the boardwalk, home to Casino Pier and FunTown Pier. The once-glittering amusement park rides, carnival games, food vendors, music, noise and, most importantly, generations of families making memories, were now a quiet graveyard.
At Casino Pier, we stepped over sand- and water-soaked toys, cartoon statues beaten and broken, and a child’s backpack. The rides were in pieces, and where the pier had broken into the ocean we gazed down at the crumpled heap of metal that was the Star Jet Roller Coaster, half submerged in the ocean.
Next, Boyd took us to what was left of FunTown Pier. There were nothing but pieces of brightly painted carnival rides, twisted and buried under piles of wood. Ancient video games from the arcade hung out of a torn-away wall.
All that stood intact was the giant Ferris wheel, its massive steel legs now planted in the sand, its cars, emblazoned with the FunTown logo, swinging idly in the ocean breeze. If you looked up at the cars and the clear blue sky behind them, you could almost forget what was on the ground and imagine they were waiting for the sunset and lines to begin forming before starting their lazy circle.
The economy of Seaside Heights and much of the Jersey Shore depends on a bustling boardwalk filled with vacationers and cotton candy sales. It was hard to imagine it ever coming back, a sobering thought that Boyd must be wrestling with every minute. He’s a lifetime member of the Seaside Heights community, growing up on the boardwalk he now picked his way through as an umbrella boy and lifeguard before taking the reins as the town’s police chief.
He assured us it would come back, adding the hope that our showing the world the full extent of the damage would speed rebuilding. More than his words, his eyes led me to believe him. Behind the exhaustion and sorrow there was a steely glint burning with a belief that Seaside Heights would come back – that it had to.