Elise Patkotak: Home is where the heart is, even after a hurricane

By XxxxNovember 27, 2012 

Across from my sister's house sit two white trucks. Emblazoned on their sides is the sign, "Boos - Cleaning, Hauling and Demolition". Welcome to New Jersey post Sandy.

It's morning and the sun is shinning so brightly I've had to lower the blinds to see the computer screen. The weather is just about perfect. Sixty degrees. Cool breeze blowing off the bay. Birds from the preserve across the bay flying overhead. If it weren't for the constant sound of hammering, trucks and men at work, even on a Sunday, you'd be hard pressed to believe that Sandy roared through this island just a few weeks ago.

I wondered as I traveled here for the holiday what I would find. Interestingly, as you walk the streets of these quiet little beach communities, you'd never know that anything untoward had happened. From the outside most houses look intact. There's an occasional water line visible but not that often. Windows are where windows should be. Doors are where doors should be. The sand that overwhelmed the streets and sidewalks has mostly been returned to the beaches.

Look a little closer, though, and you see that most buildings have huge dumpsters in front of them filled with trash bags. Some have a whole life strewn on their front lawn, from beds to bureaus to children's toys and cribs. The water damage so invisible from outside is clearly present inside.

My sister's friend walks with me and discusses the fun of getting to know FEMA personally as she addresses the flooding of a low room in her house. She's already dealt with insurance over the two cars that were destroyed by the saltwater and sand that rose all over the island. But she's still one of the lucky ones. She's replacing one room, not an entire house. Her mementoes and memories sit safely atop her tables and in her drawers, not out on the street soggy and ruined.

Most of these low lying coastal communities first boomed as homes for city folk wanting to enjoy the beach in summer. There were few building regulations in place then. Enduring storms and the damage they could bring was a danger you accepted as the price for living so near the ocean; the price paid for getting out of the city in the hot sweltering summers; the reward of the American dream for working hard and not spending frivolously.

Over time those regulations changed. If you build or renovate now, you are required to build up and off the land. The open space under your house is there for many reasons but mostly to allow flooding to swirl around and through your piece of the shore without getting into your house.

Those homes that were built up survived Sandy with little water damage. Those planted solidly on the ground didn't.

Thanks to insurance and FEMA, most will be able to salvage their homes in one fashion or another and rebuild or renovate as needed. Which, of course, leads to the inevitable question of whether that should be done at all. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of rising ocean levels, would it not make more sense to relocate these homes a safer distance from the sea?

But relocation is a disruptive and discombobulating occurrence, even if it's only your summer home being moved. People get attached to their little piece of paradise. I once watched the North Slope Borough try to buy out some homeowners on the bluffs over the Chukchi Sea that were eroding at a rapid rate. Where once there had been enough land behind them for a road, now pilings hung in midair.

Yet despite the offer to move them to lots inland that would be twice the size of the land they had left, none of the homeowners would sell. This was their land. This was their lot. This was their home. They were not going anywhere unless their houses literally fell into the sea.

Given the economy generated by summer tourism and beachfront property, I'd have to guess that even Chris Christie, despite riding a wave of goodwill over his handling of the storm that has shot his favorability rating up almost 20 percent, is not going to be able to accomplish this. So as the debate continues over the wisdom of rebuilding, the work of rebuilding continues.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.

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