Seaside Heights, New Jersey
By Steve Nesius
Hurricane Sandy hit the coast of New Jersey on a Monday. I shot many photos over the next week, but one image stands out. I saw the Seaside Heights roller coaster in the ocean during a helicopter ride. It was an odd scene, but only one small moment in miles of damage I photographed from the air. The following day, I photographed the roller coaster from beach level. I’ve since received calls and emails from strangers who have seen the published photo telling me how much the roller coaster was a part of their lives and why that scene is an iconic image of the damage to the Jersey shore. It’s a very surreal image to me as well, and not one I’ll soon forget.
I’ve lived by the ocean or Gulf most of my adult life, experiencing many hurricanes, always facing the dilemma of evacuating or riding it out. Fortunately, I’ve never dealt with the damage I saw from Sandy on the New Jersey coast. My heart goes out to all those affected by this super storm. I’m already back home but this story is far from over. Our colleagues continue to take incredible images and report compelling stories in communities still coping weeks after Sandy made landfall.
I began to pay closer attention to the track of Hurricane Sandy as it moved through the Bahamas. Storm surf was already pounding south Florida. My upcoming weekend assignment was to photograph the effects of Sandy along the Florida coast from Daytona Beach northward on Friday, then cover the Florida Georgia NCAA football game Saturday in Jacksonville.
My travel plans soon evolved. On Thursday afternoon, Mike Christie, Miami-based General Manager, asked me to rent a van, load it with logistics support supplies we maintain at a storage unit in Florida and be on stand-by during my weekend assignment.
I made several images of people Friday morning on the Ponce Inlet jetty getting sprayed by huge storm surf and blasted by blowing sand. That evening, Sandy became a “super storm.” My new plans were to continue northward to position myself where I could provide logistical support and photograph the storm aftermath.
At dawn Saturday morning, I checked out St. Augustine Beach before driving to Jacksonville for the 3:00 p.m. football game. It was overcast and windy. I was happy there was no rain during the game, but the Georgia victory over Florida made the hurricane-darkened skies even gloomier.
I hit the road early Sunday morning and was deep into Georgia as the sun rose. It was very windy, but there was lots of blue sky. By the time I made it to North Carolina it was getting cold and cloudy. I put on long pants for the first time in weeks and stopped to make some photos of utility trucks staging below the Virginia state line. I continued driving and made it to Washington DC, where I spent the night.
Weather conditions deteriorated Monday morning – raining sideways at times with strong gusting winds. The highways were empty. I reached my Trenton, N.J., hotel by mid-afternoon, requesting a first-floor room expecting to lose power at some point during the night. I found a service station still open and topped off my van. Just before dark the power went out. The storm was coming ashore about 60 miles to my southeast. It was a loud night, with rain pounding on the windows and strong winds. It was very dark.
At first light Tuesday morning, I drove east toward Point Pleasant Beach. As I got closer to the coast, trees and wires were down, roads were impassable, and traffic lights were out. The few cars out soon clogged the open roads. People who had evacuated were trying to return home.
Boats, which had been stored ashore for the winter and those secured to docks, were strewn about the land, lifted by the storm surge. Communications with my editors were difficult. Texting worked much better than cellular communications. Toronto based photo editor Mike Fiala suggested I should head to Toms River and Seaside Heights where reports were coming in of much greater devastation. My GPS said I was only 15 miles away but it took hours to drive that short distance. I was becoming frustrated stalled in traffic. I hadn’t made any good pictures since the morning. It was getting dark and I soon headed west back to a hotel in Mount Holly.
Fiala made arrangements for me to take aerial photos by helicopter Wednesday morning along the Jersey coast. I arrived early at the Lakewood Airport for the flight. Two snags soon developed. Firstly, the helicopter hangar had lost power. They were unable to open the heavy doors and were trying hard to find another copter for the flight. Secondly, President Obama was coming to Atlantic City and planned to fly over the same coastline. That meant the air space would soon be restricted.
By the time a helicopter arrived, the president was already in Atlantic City and the air space closed just south of Seaside Heights. I was still able to fly northward along the coast toward Monmouth Beach. I was in awe. No dunes remained, seaside towns were covered in sand, boardwalks were in tatters, houses were flattened or washed away. A roller coaster was in the ocean, houses were smoldering from natural gas fires and the end of the Mantoloking Bridge was washed away. Debris was everywhere. Boats were piled up like toys. I felt the images I shot would have a strong impact.
The plan for Thursday was to gain access to the barrier islands, The chopper ride the day before made me realize how difficult it would be to get out there. I met New York reporter Joey Ax in the morning at a marina in Brick, NJ, with hopes to rent a boat. No luck there, we were forced to change plans and drove to the Highway 37 Bridge in Toms River. With power still down, police blocked most intersections with patrol cars and school buses. No left turns were allowed and many back roads were still blocked by fallen trees.
A police barricade at the bridge denied all access to the barrier islands, except for law enforcement and emergency vehicles. A small media contingent was gathering. The Seaside Heights police chief agreed to bring us over for a 30-minute excursion.
Reporters and photographers crammed into a mini-bus. We were driven to locations on the beach. We had limited access and were not allowed to wander far from our escorts. I photographed piles of debris and destruction, as well as police officers looking in disbelief at their storm-damaged town.
It was cold and quiet, a gray day with brief moments of sunshine. The waves were gentle and the wind just an offshore breeze. Most of the noise came from the media as we scurried about trying to document as much as possible in the short time we had.
I moved down the buckled boardwalk to isolate the roller coaster from the damaged pier, shooting tight frames of it standing in the ocean, but I also composed the frame to include the beach in the foreground. I timed a few shots for a set of breaking waves. There were a few seagulls, the glisten of newly uncovered seashells and the roller coaster standing upright in the surf – an unusual scene, on what might have appeared to be a typical autumn day at the beach. Our 30 minutes were up and we soon returned to the mainland.
Conditions were bad and getting worse for most of the people in the impact zones. It was cold. There was still little to no electricity in most areas. Gas stations lacked the power to pump fuel. Outrageously long lines were forming at the stations that could open. Water-damaged beds, furniture, and appliances were piling up on streets outside houses, followed by piles of wet drywall and insulation. It was hard to find a hotel. Each night I was a little farther away from the coastline. Lines were now forming for gasoline in much of central New Jersey.
Friday became a day for logistical support. Reuters reporters, photographers and TV crews covering the storm in New York City were finding it increasingly difficult to find fuel. I filled up my empty gas containers in Jersey and drove 40 gallons of gasoline north, meeting colleagues to fill their tanks in a parking lot across the river from Manhattan.
On Saturday I hooked up with Sam and Shari Rabinowitz, the parents of Logistics Coordinator Mitch Rabionwitz, in Cherry Hill, NJ. My van smelled like gas after the fuel run to NYC. I unloaded all the supplies from the van at their home and traded it for another rental van in Philadelphia. While I was on my errand to Philly, Shari washed and dried my laundry, and Sam went online to find a closer hotel for my last two nights in Jersey. I can’t thank them enough.
With new wheels and fresh air, I returned for one last trip to the Jersey shore on Sunday. The barrier island still remained off limits. I drove back into neighborhoods along the bay between Toms River and Brick. Police blocked non-local traffic into these areas. The National Guard was on patrol.
Everyone had a story to tell. Some were emotional, choking up as they told me how they had lost everything. One week after the storm, new challenges were rising. I began to see signs warning away looters, and other signs warning anyone who was not a local to stay out. The vibe was changing to higher levels of frustration.
Despite these hardships residents were crowding into the county administration building in Toms River to vote by absentee ballots. I photographed voters waiting patiently in long lines before driving back to Point Pleasant Beach. Life was slowly returning to areas that had been blocked or underwater just days before. Sections of towns now had power and traffic lights were working.
Monday morning found me in line for gasoline at 4:30 a.m with a dozen cars in front of me. I didn’t mind waiting though. After 10 days, the logistics part of this assignment was ending. There was no longer a need for the generators and hurricane supplies in the back of the van. It was time to head back home. My GPS said if I drove all day I could be home before midnight. A tempting thought, but after 12 hours on the road, I settled for a Hampton Inn in Brunswick, Georgia.
Tuesday morning I was in Florida, the temperatures were back to their November normal (the mid-seventies) and I had my shorts back on and my feet were warm. Another call as I crossed the Florida state line “Before you go home can you cover an election night event for us in Stuart?” “Sure,” I said, just another day on the road.