Katie Worsham, sunglasses in place and lounge chair in hand, had to walk by a “No Trespassing” sign and an abandoned condominium to reach Ortley Beach, a slice of New Jersey coast devastated in October by Hurricane Sandy.
On May 29, a day after Governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama toured two Jersey shore towns, Ortley’s lone entry point was hard to find amid a skeletal boardwalk, fenced-off houses and contractor storage pods. The square-mile community is north of Seaside Heights, where the NBC News show “Today” broadcast images on May 24 of Christie and his family urging visitors to return to its rebuilt boardwalk.
As the Christie administration spends $25 million of federal money to advertise the Jersey shore as a tourist destination, a handful of beach towns remain more construction zone than resort. Ortley Beach, where Sandy damage kept residents out for more than three months, wasn’t part of the fanfare leading to the start of the vacation season.
“They got the tourist spots up and running,” Worsham, a 24-year-old waitress from Toms River, said in Ortley’s Third Avenue parking lot. “But what about our little boardwalk? They’re saying the beach is back. Clearly, it’s not.”
Christie, a 50-year-old Republican seeking re-election in November, has traveled the state’s 127-mile (200-kilometer) coastline over the past few weeks urging people to visit and vacation. The tourist industry is New Jersey’s third-largest nongovernment employer, accounting for 10 percent of all state jobs. It generated $37.7 billion in sales in 2012, according to a study by Wayne, Pennsylvania-based Tourism Economics. Most of that came in Atlantic County, home to Atlantic City casinos, and Cape May and Ocean counties, famed for their beaches.
The governor has welcomed the U.K.’s Prince Harry to the shore in Mantoloking and Seaside, dedicated boardwalks in Belmar and Lavallette, cut a 5.5-mile ribbon in Seaside Heights and joined Obama on May 28 for a look at rebuilding efforts in Asbury Park and Point Pleasant.
“Everybody is ready to welcome America back to the Jersey shore this summer and so am I,” Christie said in Asbury Park.
Sandy destroyed or damaged 365,000 homes in New Jersey, including all 2,000 in Ortley Beach, and Christie has said it will cost $36.9 billion for repairs and prevention of devastation from future storms.
Some shore towns, including Wildwood, escaped Sandy virtually unscathed. Others weren’t so lucky. In Mantoloking, surging tides and waves cut a channel between Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and destroyed or damaged all 521 homes.
Christie has said the state’s recovery from Sandy’s ravages will determine whether he wins re-election. His response earned him record approval ratings of more than 70 percent in polls taken in the months following the storm.
The governor never promised that the Jersey shore, birthplace of Bruce Springsteen’s fame and a reality series about hard-partying singles on cable television’s MTV channel, would be fully recovered by the summer tourist season.
“We still have so much more to do,” he said last week in Asbury Park. “Still so many -- so many -- of our citizens who just want their lives to go back to normal.”
Still, 19-year-old Sarah Wegrzynski and two friends from Bridgewater, New Jersey, weren’t prepared for portable toilets and boardwalk patches of plywood and duct tape when they visited Seaside Park and adjacent Seaside Heights on May 29.
“I expected this to be cleaner,” Wegrzynski said as she turned from the wreckage of Seaside Park’s Funtown Pier, whose attractions included the 225-foot (70-meter) Tower of Fear, once billed as the Jersey shore’s highest amusement ride.
Seaside Heights is a community of 3,100 year-round residents that typically expands to more than 30,000 from June to September. Its boardwalk reopened last month, though work continues at Casino Pier, home of the Jet Star roller coaster that was ripped from its base and left half-submerged. Casino Pier expects to open later in the season with fewer rides.
Gerry Konn, operating the Clown Toss booth on the Seaside Park boardwalk, had few takers on May 29 for $5 chances to win a stuffed animal or George Foreman grill. Christie’s heart was in the right place when he visited to boost the shore, Konn said, and the media exposure can only help the governor politically.
“It’s an opportunity” for Christie, said Konn, 63, from Bayonne. “He’s going to be running for president. He was down here with Obama and Prince Harry. You have the TV cameras. You always shine a spotlight on yourself.”
In every town on the 20-mile-long Barnegat Peninsula, heavy equipment was at work, demolishing homes that had been knocked from foundations, delivering cement, scouring the inner bay.
“Safety, peace of mind are issues that people are concerned with this year,” said Tim O’Shea, 55, manager of Birchler Real Estate’s Ortley Beach office. About a third of the company’s 350 rental listings were in Ortley, he said, and business there is “almost completely off.”
“Is the beach itself going to be safe? We’d like to think it is but we can’t be certain,” O’Shea said by phone. “Noise and construction and porta potties and air quality, indoor mold -- those things are hard to answer.”
Ortley Beach, a section of the Township of Toms River, is waiving badge fees for beachgoers until June 22, after which the entry tags will cost $35 for the season, same as last year. Officials are warning visitors to wear water shoes for protection in the ocean, and a councilman told the local taxpayers association he’ll work on a schedule for street sweeping, to pick up nails and debris left from demolition work.
Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher said he is tired of Ortley Beach residents complaining about the pace of recovery.
“I am so annoyed with people over there,” he said by telephone. “We still have a couple of hundred houses we have to knock down. We had three feet of sand in every street.”
Ortley Beach is so far behind other shore communities, Kelaher said, because residents couldn’t return until 400 sinkholes were filled and all utilities restored.
“The reason the governor is doing everything is to get people to come back to the shore, which is only going to help businesses and real-estate people,” he said.
In Bay Head, Marge Geraghty wanted $20,000 for the July rental of her family’s vacation home, six houses from the ocean. Some beach entrances there are closed because they lack stairs from the bluff and the main road, Route 35, is subject to lane closures as restoration work continues.
Geraghty’s July price was $3,500 more than last year, before almost a foot of water left inside by Sandy forced her to replace the kitchen, refinish the hardwood floors, buy new furniture and paint the walls. It remained available on May 31.
“The beaches are going to be tough down here,” Geraghty, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, said by telephone. “The street was totally ripped up and the sewer lines broke. Our whole street has to be redone.”
Downtown, the Jolly Tar gift shop’s windows were covered in plywood and a notice promising to reopen, though its Facebook page has no target date. The 100-year-old Mueller’s Bakery served only coffee and crumb buns during the Memorial Day holiday weekend. A construction permit remains on its door and its website says, “We hope to be open full-time soon.”