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After a few days on generator power in Galloway, I was able to get back to Brigantine, my home for 40 years, to see how our family and friends made out in the great storm that ravaged the town so badly it came to serve as a TV stage for a love fest between Chris Christie and Barack Obama.
Every town on the Jersey coast has its favorite breakfast café, where locals start their day with hot coffee and the latest news, and Brigantine is no exception. On the island it’s the Pirate’s Den, a 50-seat, three-room affair far up on the North End a few dozen yards from the ocean. To get there you come in over the only bridge, drive straight up Brigantine Avenue to the end, park your car at the bulkhead, and follow the scent of sizzling bacon and eggs.
The drive along Brigantine Avenue showed little major damage, being a block or more back from the ocean on one side and the bay on the other and a bit higher in the center. But toward the North End, where the island narrows, storm-driven sand covered the once-smooth avenue, and the piles of wet couches and mattresses out by the curb grew in size and complexity.
The Pirate’s Den sits where in years gone by the ocean frequently broke through the island and met the bay coming in from the cove. Old aerial photographs from the ’30s and ’40s show the breach. A few years back, a concrete and metal bulkhead was erected there, protected on the ocean side by “rip-rap,” a jagged collection of rocks designed to break up the incoming surf. A wide beach was nourished there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and served to delight breakfast patrons on sunny summer days with the sight of happy bathers and the occasional bikini.
That beach is gone now, as is – former Mayor John Rogge interrupts his breakfast to tell me – his bayfront dock at the other end of Brigantine. So, too, is the home of our waitress’s mother out in the golf course area, once a separate little island but long since joined to the main island by developers anxious to create more building lots, however low. Samantha, one of the waitresses, told of sitting on the porch of her home near one of the golf course’s water traps and watching the waves break at her feet. Breaking waves in a water trap. Tells you something about that storm, doesn’t it?
Rip Reynolds, owner of the Laguna Grille in the 85-year-old Brigantine Hotel, says there is sand all over his beachfront restaurant. That is at least the fifth time that beach-level floor has been flooded since I was a lifeguard on that beach 50 years ago. Rip says he is waiting for the insurance company to confirm his claim, and expects to reopen by the end of the month.
The Pirate’s Den is filled with energetic buzz this morning, stories of damage endured and plans to rebuild. Brigantine is a town full of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, roofers and carpet-layers who glory in their trades, know how to get things done, and have their own tools and pickup trucks. At least most have their tools, although my brother Guy, the retired police chief, lost most of his when his garage flooded. He, too, is waiting impatiently for the insurance company, after which he will go on a tool-buying spree. Unless he is hunting or fishing, he is not comfortable unless he has an active project under way.
The first step for most of my friends was to rid themselves of the flood-wet furniture from their rec rooms and dens. A few blocks away from the Pirate’s Den, Bob and Maxine Smith make their way across their furniture-strewn lawn to say hello while they, too, wait for the insurance guy. As we drive out the North Shore, where new bulkheading has prevented much but not all damage, the vestiges of high water are everywhere. Throughout the low-lying golf course area, piles of debris line the front yards and streets with sofas and chairs and mattresses and toys and stuff that makes the place look like the devil’s own yard sale.
There are echoes of what I saw in New Orleans after Katrina: refrigerators junked, huge temporary dumps where the city piles up stuff until it can be hauled off the island, and homemade signs, including one that promises, “You loot and I shoot!”
Given the high percentage of hunters in Brigantine, that may not be an empty threat.