Sea Bright reinventing itself post-Sandy
When Superstorm Sandy came ashore last October, the tiny beach community of Sea Bright, New Jersey, was devastated. The downtown was severely flooded, close to 1,000 homes and a 100 businesses were damaged, and the streets were filled with mountains of sand and debris.
Ten months later, while many residents are still struggling to repair their losses, they're also casting an eye toward the future, using the storm as an opportunity to plan needed changes around town and make it more livable, sustainable and resilient.
"If we spend all this money rebuilding our homes, and there's no town to back it up, what's the point?" said one speaker at a recent borough meeting.
Residents are in the midst of formulating ideas about restoring the waterfront, the downtown and the local economy. Those ideas will be finalized over the next few weeks, and then the town will apply for grants to turn them into reality.
As a narrow strip of land, just south of Sandy Hook and bordered by water on both sides, Sea Bright's battles with Mother Nature are certainly nothing new. Frank Lawrence was born in town, and spent the first few years of his childhood growing up there, in the early 1950s.
"We lived right on the river. I think we were evacuated about five times. And at that point my mother said, 'That's enough!' and we moved across the river, " remembered Lawrence. "So, it's interesting that a flooding actually brought me back to the town."
Lawrence isn't a planner or engineer. In fact, most of the folks at the meeting he attended were simply residents and people connected to the town and concerned about its future. They came to channel Sandy's impact into an effort to make changes to Sea Bright, both to address long-standing challenges and to create the community they've always dreamed of having.
"You have to take this disaster and say, 'All right, we lost all that, but... here's an opportunity now where we can do something positive for the long term future of the town,'" said Lawrence.
Residents milled around the room, posting on boards their suggestions about what kinds of amenities and entertainment they'd like and how they want to restore Sea Bright's waterfront. Barbara Nadler wants it to maintain its funky vibe for artists and other creative people.
"Open up the restaurants so they have tables outside, and people would come to that. You know, we have those properties in front of the seawall that are individually owned. You could put tables up there, you know, where people would play chess . . . like in Europe where they have those tables and people come? You need to have something that is special to Sea Bright! "
The key, Nadler says, is to sort through all these suggestions from residents like herself to come up with a clear vision of what steps the town should take in the months ahead.
It's not that people haven't had these types of discussions in the past, but Sandy has effectively wiped the slate clean and created an environment where they're rethinking things from scratch. And it's brought with it the possibility of securing funding to finally turn some of those pie-in-the-sky ideas into action.
"Change has already happened. And it happened to us in one fateful night. And so we're now learning to embrace that," says Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long. "We're really committed to a grassroots recovery, meaning that our plans are going to come from the ground up, not the top down."
Long says it will continue over the next few months, with resident-led committees identifying their priorities and then applying for grants to put those ideas into practice.
Sea Bright is one of a handful of coastal towns taking this approach, with the assistance of several community-based organizations, and they've hired project managers to help get the work done. The goal is to make the Jersey Shore more resilient, one town at a time. But according to Carlos Rodrigues of the Rutgers' Bloustein school, that doesn't just mean making them better able to withstand storms.
"It's that it's more sustainable, more self-sufficient," says Rodrigues. "So, what do you do to diversify this local economy and attract activities that will generate employment, generate wealth, revenue, attract people to come here that would otherwise not be attracted."
The effort extends beyond individual towns. Another aim of the project in Sea Bright and a similar one in nearby Highlands is to get towns to collaborate with their neighbors, to form more of a regional approach to the Sandy recovery.
Planning advocacy groups say that if these trial partnerships are successful, they could spread and set a model for future recovery efforts up and down the coast.