In emergency management, after the response to a major disaster or catastrophic event is concluded, attention is fully focused on recovery. There is a fairly widely held notion amongst the general public that recovery means that folks will get back to “normal”. But there is no “normal” after experiencing such an event; instead, there is a “new normal” - a re-definition of what is and what was. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey shore as a Category 1 hurricane many folks lost their “normal” and found themselves trying to imagine how and when they would get back to it. But those who experience such events never go back to what they were before the event, even if their property and lives are restored to precisely what they were before the event. The experience alters one’s appreciation of risk, vulnerability, and humanity. It leaves a demarcation point in folks’ lives that remains and is referenced as a time stamp of sorts. Life references begin being classified as before or after the disaster.
Mike’s parents took us on a driving tour of the Jersey shoreline yesterday. We covered about 15 miles of shoreline near their community that had been heavily impacted. According to Mike’s mom, their community lost approximately 25% of its taxable real estate. Of course, not all houses took on water, some suffered from high winds and the compounding effects of a Nor’easter that rolled in behind Sandy. All of this damage happened in late October – early November, but the evidence of disrupted lives still remain.
The most startling evidence of the impact sits in the many now vacant beach lots on streets that used to be wall-to-wall homes and cottages (many of which were quite expensive, multi-million dollar homes). These lots are peppered with real estate signs in neighborhoods saturated with heavy equipment and construction companies who are repairing, lifting, or rebuilding the myriad of affected properties. Of note, some homes took direct hits and were completely destroyed while others suffered lesser damage. It is not uncommon to pass a home that looks moderately damaged and another next door that has been completely destroyed. The neighborhoods that were will never look exactly the same again. Hurricane Sandy reshaped the composition of those communities in ways that have changed their identity. The collective history with neighbors and local shops is compromised as folks move out and move on. Which begs the question - what does recovery even mean?
Is it just having your home back to status quo, your roads cleared, and a prosperous tourist season? Or is it something more? Or perhaps recovery is not even the right term – perhaps the term should be moving forward. In the same way we move forward from other traumatic life events such as loss of loved ones, catastropic injuries, etc. – we move on, but these are things stay with us and leave an imprint that we do not recover from.
The Jersey shoreline is moving forward…living in their new normal. It won’t be the same shoreline it was before Hurricane Sandy, but it will move into a new identity with the familiar time demarcation of the Jersey shoreline after Hurricane Sandy. It will likely take years for the recovery phase to be completed according to emergency management operational frameworks, but the reshaping of the Jersey shoreline by Sandy is done. Now we wait to see what the new face of the shoreline will ultimately look like, but make no mistake – it will never be the same.