Six weeks after the ravages of Superstorm Sandy, the goal for Seaside Heights is to be open for business by Memorial Day. But the barrier island borough is still uninhabitable, its famous boardwalk exists only in memory. The enormous reconstruction effort, now in its beginning stages, is being fast-tracked in hopes of being ready for tourists.

"We're pushing hard for May 1," stated Seaside Heights Mayor, William Akers at a borough council meeting Wednesday evening.

One part of that process involves restoring natural gas service. On Thursday, December 13, Seaside Heights will be closed for one day to all but emergency personnel as New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) representatives pressurize the system and check for any issues.

Focus on the boardwalk

A rapid recovery holds an even greater significance as Seaside Heights will celebrate it centennial year in 2013.

Much of the talk about rebuilding revolves around Seaside's boardwalk. The reason is a matter of economics, explained Akers. Seaside Heights brings in 75 percent of its revenue from tourism, which draws an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 visitors. Without a boardwalk, there is no financial security.

Bob Stewart, owner of the decimated Carousel Arcade on the boardwalk's Fun Town Pier said he is working hard to be open again by Memorial Day. "We have two speeds here, fast and faster," he said. Time is of the essence when it comes to bringing back business. "It's our only source of income," exclaimed Ronald Bernknopf, owner of the Colony Motel.

Others, like resident Jay Mazzei, who owns three rental properties in addition to his home, said the timeline is unrealistic. He said he expects reconstruction to take at least a year.  Because of the damage, Mazzei says September might be the earliest he can rent out his units.

Repopulation

Visitation is still limited to daytime hours for for Seaside's property owners. Akers said the hope is for residents to return for good sometime in January.

"The Governor has to sign off on any plan of repopulation. I really want that understood. Because until he says yes, it doesn't matter what I say. He's the Big Guy." Akers stated.

In the meantime, access to the town as been increased by two hours. With the exception of December 13, when entry will be off-limits, the new curfew for residents and contractors is now 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Next steps

Today, giant piles of rubbish line Seaside's curbs and Mack trucks carting debris cruise along its main drags. Utility workers, some from as far away as Louisiana, are working to restore electricity. State inspectors have assessed damages to every property and insurance adjusters are beginning to calculate the costs. Permit applications for repair work will be issued by the borough this week.

NJNG has estimated that all sections of the Seaside peninsula will be re-pressurized and have rebuilt meters by December 31.

The water supply has already been restored on the south end of town. Blocks to the north are also regaining service. Akers said he expects water and gas services will be fully restored by the end of the month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will issue an advisory on base flood elevation standards by mid-month. Those whose property is in the lower lying flood plane areas, like Hiering Avenue, may need to have their buildings raised.

If a property has sustained damages 50 percent or more of its value, owners will not be permitted to rebuild unless it meets the new elevation standards. Those properties with less damage won't have to comply with the recommendations, but owners will find it difficult to obtain flood insurance.

Seaside Heights Council is recommending, but not mandating, that owners get a certificate to prove that mold has been removed from the properties.

Phases of reconstruction

Akers said that the boardwalk reconstruction will come in two phases. Phase One began last week when Council began hearing bid proposals.

Phase two will be the actual rebuilding of the boardwalk, which will be the same length and cost around $13 million. "We're going to have it ready to go and start building the first week in January," Akers stated.

Multiple projects will go on at the same time to speed the process. Debris removal and sand sifting will need to occur before building can begin and Seaside's beach can be replenished. Akers says replenishment could amount to a million and a half cubic yards of sand.

Bringing back a protective barrier, whether it be sand dunes or sea wall, will definitely be part of the reconstruction's second phase, Akers promised. Phase Two will also see opportunity to make improvements to the boardwalk, such as more attractive lighting and benches.

Beach tags to remains $5

Recently, Belmar hiked its beach tag rates from $7 to $ 8 in order to defray costs involved in rebuilding its damaged boardwalk. Seaside has no intention to raise its beach rates, Akers assured residents.

Akers says he recognizes Seaside Heights is unique in its distinction as a working class beach town and wants to keep its daily beach rate affordable at $5. "I'm proud of it being a blue collar town," he asserted.

Councilman Anthony Vaz said selling memorial inscriptions on the boardwalk is one way the borough may raise funds.

Residents express appreciation

Seaside residents are quick to express heartfelt gratitude for the outpouring of aid received from organizations and individual donors.

John Bongiovanni and his wife, Carol returned Wednesday to their Fremont Arms condo for an insurance assessment. Bongiovanni said that applying for FEMA aid involves a lot of steps, but the response has been fast. "I'm pretty pleased," he commented. Not only is the couple and their pet dog displaced from their home, but Carol, who worked at the local A & P supermarket, is now out of a job. It's the first time she has ever had to apply for unemployment. Now staying in Absecon, they recently applied for a Small Business Administration disaster loan.

Mazzei, who is staying in Bayville, said he is deeply touched by the generosity of out-of-towners like a team of volunteers from North Carolina, who are helping with clean up, and the Taiwan-based Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. The organization recently handed out $600 Visa gift cards to those displaced by Sandy.

Folks from Seaside are also quick to praise each other. Diane and John Martinez were publicly thanked for providing daily hot meals through Our Lady of Perpetual Help's Quonset Hut.

Resident after resident came forward during Wednesday's meeting to personally express their thanks to Seaside's first responders, police, council members and the mayor for their tireless work during the storm and its aftermath.

'This town is our family'

Despite steel resolve and the stereotypical tough attitude so often attributed to New Jersey natives, emotions are tender. Councilwoman Arline Ottoson broke down in tears during her remarks. "Eighty-two years I've lived in this town. I'm so proud of the people in it." Folks in attendance struggled to keep their own eyes dry.

Akers said through good days and bad in the recovery process, the thing he is most thankful for is that Seaside Heights suffered no loss of life as a result of Sandy. "When we open up again, we'll all be here together. It doesn't get any better than that," he said. "This town is our family."