Toms River and Union Beach assess recovery, 3 years post-Sandy
Three years after Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, the mayors of two of the hardest hit Jersey Shore communities are assessing what remains in the ongoing recovery.
Toms River Mayor Thomas F. Kelaher and Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith Junior discussed the challenges that remain from Sandy during an appearance Wednesday on "Townsquare Tonight" on WOBM News Talk Radio 1160 & 1310 AM with host Tom Mongelli.
Mayor Kelaher said he has spent the past three years consumed with Sandy-related issues, including working on getting people back into their homes, beach restoration, compliance with federal regulations and trying to close the budget gap.
Kelaher pointed out the total loss of revenues as a result of Sandy was $4 billion along the entire Jersey coast.
"$2 billion of that was in Toms River, and so, right off the bat we had like an $18 million gap in our budget, and if it wasn't for the Governor and HUD and those other folks, we did get an $18 million grant for the first year's budget after the storm to help close that gap, otherwise we would have had to raise the taxes throughout the Township," said Kelaher.
Kelaher noted Toms River couldn't do anything to save money while trying to continue operating the Township's 18 schools and maintaining its 160-member police force, which was working 12-hour shifts around the clock and needed help with security from troopers from other states to prevent looting.
In 2014, Toms River received $11 million in Sandy aid because ratables had started to increase, and this year the Township received just over $7 million, according to Kelaher.
Kelaher is optimistic rebuilding efforts taking place, especially on the barrier island, will help close the remainder of the budget gap.
"Recent figures from our Accessor are that we're about 65 percent restored," Kelaher said.
Union Beach also suffered a tremendous loss in ratables, according to Smith, who also noted having to deal with the Super storm made him stronger and gave him patience from the realization things weren't going to change overnight.
"Union Beach is, compared to Toms River, is a very small community with 2,200 homes," said Smith, who pointed out 52 homes were lost during Sandy.
"We've had 303 homes taken down since. We still have 112 more to go. Our total new construction since Sandy is $101 million. There's 218 homes raised and more coming," Smith said. He added a number of residents have yet to return, noting Union Beach's 8th grade graduating class this year only had 56 children instead of about 100.
Since Sandy, Toms River approved 1,847 demolition permits and has completed 1,685 of them on houses so badly destroyed that they couldn't be repaired, according to Kelaher.
"So, that's a 91 percent completion on the demolition permits," said Kelaher. He noted before the Township talked even discussed demolition debris, over 300,000 tons of household debris had been removed, prompting concern the Ocean County landfill would be used to capacity. He joked that fortunately, the landfill still has 20 plus years before that happens.
Toms River also issued 1,551 new home permits. 955 of those have been completed for a 61 percent accomplishment, according to Kelaher. 788 elevation permits were approved and 287 were completed.
"Part of that problem is that there's only a few really good contractors that are capable of doing that," said Kelaher.
4,000 Toms River homes were classified as substancially damaged, and Kelaher said 2,339 have been restored. He pointed out 10,000 homes in the Township were damaged.
Kelaher said his mission is to see the fruition of the Army Corps of Engineers' dune protection project, slated for the entire Jersey coast and still stalled by lawsuits and oceanfront homeowners not wanting to give up part of their property to the state. He recalled touring the Mantoloking Bridge where Sandy breached the bay and learning first-hand from an Army Corps official that had the dunes had been in place, the breach would not have occurred.
After Toms River secured all of the necessary easements needed for the Army Corps project, specific legal language the Army Corps requires has forced the process to be done a second time, according to Kelaher. He said the State Department of Environmental Protection is working to complete the easements.
Union Beach does not have shore protection and had been working with the Army Corps since 1995 to get a project done, according to Smith. A project Congress approved in 2007 was slated to begin in 2015, he said, until the Army Corps determined they needed to do another revaluation to see if it was viable, which it turned out to be. Smith said Governor Chris Christie announced the project will begin next year and will be done in five phases, and include levies, pump stations and dunes.
"Two projects to the east of us, Keansburg and Middletown, are 100 percent federally funded," said Smith. He said New Jersey's Congressional and Senate delegation are working to get Union Beach's project completely paid for as well.