Belmar Mayor: What We’ve Learned … Five Years After Superstorm Sandy

"There was no playbook for dealing with a Sandy-type event." — Belmar Mayor Matthew Doherty.

Editor’s Note: Belmar Mayor Matthew Doherty takes a look at the borough’s response and recovery — and lessons learned — five years after Superstorm Sandy left a path of unprecedented destruction along the Jersey Shore.

BELMAR, NJ Sandy struck the Jersey Shore on October 29, 2012, with an unprecedented impact that continues to linger even today, five years later. As the Mayor of Belmar before, during and after the storm, I was able to be a part of, and witness to, government’s response to a natural disaster and its effects on residents.

Leading up to Sandy, we took direction from Gov. Chris Christie and his administration, along with the National Weather Service. We prepared as best we could, in that I mean we declared a state of emergency and mandatory evacuation. Other preparations were taken, but ultimately deemed fruitless against the storm surge produced by Sandy at about 8 p.m. that night.

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Belmar first responders and our water rescue team were heroes that night and for days after as they saved over 140 families from front porches and roof tops. The fact that there was no loss of life or even serious injury is a testament to their bravery and professionalism.

Gov. Christie came to survey the damage in Belmar the next day. His helicopter landed and he walked right up to me a said, “Matt, if there is anything you need, please just let me know.” Of course we did have a list of requests from National Guard troops to firewood. We were desperate and needed assistance quickly and in a large volume, and I was not too proud to ask for help.

There was no playbook for dealing with a Sandy-type event. I spent most of my time in the daylight visiting residents, hugging them and letting them know that we would all get through this disaster together.

I regularly asked what emergent issues the town could help them with, mostly it was the basics — food and water. In the evening, our team met and went over what we could improve upon for the next day. It seemed like we took it hour by hour during the daytime and day by day at nighttime.

Days turned into weeks, and we were able to stabilize Belmar and our cleanup progressed aggressively. People cared about each other and helped neighbors who needed it inside our community, while outside of Belmar, Americans were very generous with financial assistance and supplies we needed.

Weeks turned to months and residents started rebuilding their homes and Belmar rebuilt its iconic boardwalk. Members of the U.S. Senate and Congress called and visited our community, and worked in a bipartisan manner in Washington, D.C., to fight for the financial resources necessary for our recovery.

Months have now turned into years, and Belmar is better now than ever before. Everyone is back home, home values have increased as property taxes have decreased, we have more small business now than before Sandy, our boardwalk and rebuilt pavilions are being enjoyed again, and we have increased our defenses against a future storm surge. 

I have visited other small towns like Belmar that have been impacted by hurricanes, including Pass Christian, Miss., which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Rockport, Texas, which was hammered by Hurricane Harvey this past August. I have met with their mayors, residents and small business owners. What we all have in common is the desire to rebuild and the need for financial assistance towards that end.

Here at the Jersey Shore, five years after Sandy, we have learned that Sandy victims are extremely resilient, Americans are very generous, times of natural disaster call for bipartisan leadership of elected officials at all levels of government, and government need to be effective and efficient to ensure a full recovery.

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