Jersey Shore Feels Summertime Blues After Sandy
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New Jersey and its many beach communities depend on summer tourism. Visitors pump billions of dollars into the state's economy. But this year, towns struggle to reopen after Hurricane Sandy. And as Labor Day weekend wraps up the season, communities are taking stock.
Janet Babin of member station WNYC reports that in parts of New Jersey, it's as if summer never really started.
JANET BABIN, BYLINE: Seaside Heights used to be known for funnel cake and infamous residents, like the cast of MTV's "Jersey Shore." But after Hurricane Sandy, it came to symbolize devastation. The storm reduced Seaside's boardwalk to a rickety pirate's plank. Its classic roller coaster ended up in the sea and sat for months, like a broken shrine to summer. But after this winter's $14 million rebuild, much of Seaside is heralded as back to normal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rock 'n' roll and doing it all on a nice Friday afternoon, right here, casino pier, yeah.
BABIN: But a few Fridays ago at a boardwalk amusement pier, crowds were thin.
ANGELA DICOSTANZO: No one's here. We went to the water park, it was empty.
SILVIA SHOIAB: Yeah.
DICOSTANZO: We got parking, no problem. She got parking. I was like, what's going on? It's really sad.
SHOIAB: Very sad. Very sad.
DICOSTANZO: Really sad. Yeah.
BABIN: Angela DiCostanzo and Silvia Shoiab brought their posse of six kids to see the new boardwalk. Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers says business was off 40 percent this summer, and he's still trying to figure out why.
MAYOR WILLIAM AKERS: I wish I had one simple answer. I just think it's so complicated.
BABIN: Akers says a key reason for the drop-off has to do with the lack of recovery in residential towns surrounding Seaside Heights, like Ortley Beach. Damage here was extensive, and rebuilding has been slow.
ILEANA INGRAM: I'll go out first, so you can see me how I do it.
BABIN: OK. I'll follow you.
BARRY INGRAM: Let me get the ladder a little closer.
BABIN: Like at Barry and Ileana Ingram's house a half block from the beach. I climb a ladder to the second floor. The first floor was flooded out and still isn't rebuilt. The couple is waiting for permits and insurance money. Barry Ingram says the neighborhood is deserted.
INGRAM: There's no homes for the people to stay in. This house used to house me and Ileana and another guest. This one here, they had 20 people here every day. There's nobody in it.
BABIN: Many of the homes here used to be rented out to tourists all summer long. And because these are often second homes, owners have only limited access to government grants, so they can't afford to rebuild.
Sandy made landfall just north of Atlantic City. And while points south suffered some flooding, they largely escaped Sandy's wind damage. Many expected that tourists displaced from their regular vacation spots would venture south, and bookings looked promising but...
DIANE WIELAND: We did not have the season that we expected.
BABIN: That's Diane Wieland, director of tourism in Cape May County. She says business here was off 20 percent due in part to poor weather.
WIELAND: We had a cold spring. We had a wet June. We had weird weather in July.
BABIN: And while New Jersey's economy, like the nation's, is on an upswing, Wieland says people still aren't spending like they used to.
WIELAND: Their spending habits have changed drastically. We're seeing more and more people wanting to pay down debt, so they're not taking vacations beyond what they can pay for.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
BABIN: Back on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, Silvia Shoiab says prices are higher than she remembers, and she could only afford to spend the day here.
SHOIAB: I'm far from cheap. Like, we just spent $200 at the water park, but a day out is a $500 day. So who can really - in this economy, who can really afford that?
BABIN: With the summer season pretty much awash, Seaside Height and other New Jersey towns are hoping the weather holds out, so tourists like Shoiab keep coming well into the fall, at least for the day. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ride the Jersey. Ride them Jersey. Oh, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.