"I rode the storm out here and watched our town go down the tubes before my eyes," said Mike Columbo, a Jersey original and owner of Right Coast Surf Shop in Seaside Park. "The destruction was incredible -- hard to believe."
Horrors rose from the sea. Inland waterways swallowed neighborhoods. Homes were torn from foundations. Gas mains broke and fires raged. Beach towns that were the fabric of millions of childhood memories were destroyed. By daybreak, Superstorm Sandy, the second worst natural disaster in U.S. history, had left some towns a ragged collection of pilings. Others didn't seem so disrupted, but baywater had flooded hundreds of thousands of homes.
Columbo re-opened Right Coast in April. Like most surf shops, it's a small mom-and-pop -- or sometimes just a pop. And so many retailers anywhere near the beach took a beating from Sandy.
Maybe it's because surfers have such a close relationship with storms. Maybe it's the ideal of a worldwide tribe. But the surf community has been at the forefront of the rebuilding process in New York and New Jersey. And from boardwalks turned battering rams to 10-foot storm surges and MIA insurance claims, they've overcome insane hurdles to open for summer. In some cases, the surf shop has been a rallying point for the larger community.
There's no doubt that the most effective player in all of this has been Waves for Water. W4W director Jon Rose, a former tour pro, was in New York before the streets were dry. He set up his small team in both states and immediately started equipping surfers and community leaders who stepped up with resources to help their flooded towns.
South Jersey was generally on the backside of Sandy when she made landfall, but no coastal town escaped her wrath. All three Heritage Surf and Sports had some degree of damage. Brian Heritage's Sea Isle was first to reopen with a brand-new boardroom. Heritage Ocean City had three feet of water, but much of the product inside was salvageable. They popped open the unscathed boardwalk location while the West Ave. shop was open by Black Friday without waiting for insurance money.
"The Margate location has had the most challenging run of all the Heritage stores," says manager Kevin Morris. "It was originally in the plan to redo the shop at some point, but Sandy forced our hand early and unprepared. The fact that there was a massive amount of damaged inventory and nowhere to put salvaged inventory made for an interesting winter. The owner partially demoed and repaired a third of the store to get reopen at limited capacity. The remaining two thirds were completely stripped until variances and permits for work were approved. The new floor plan with a lofted space for hard goods will be open for Memorial Day weekend."
Directly after the storm, Heritage worked with its vendors to channel clothing and supplies to area schools and missions. In addition to getting behind W4W fundraisers, Heritage spearheaded "Restore the Core" with Rip Curl to benefit Jersey shops like Heritage, Farias and Ocean Hut with a limited capsule line available only through these retailers.
Colin Devine, manager of 7th Street Surf Shop in Ocean City, reported that while the two boardwalk locations fared pretty well, the two downtown stores had over a foot of water.
"We did our best to raise the product off the ground and waterpoof the shop. That worked to our benefit, considering there was four feet of water on the outside of the building," he said after he got 7th Street open in 28 days.
"We had 20-plus people in here, seven days a week -- a lot of local surfers who came down to see how we were doing and just wound up jumping in. We had volunteers come in from out of town and we actually pushed them up to Long Beach Island, where those towns still needed assistance," explained Devine. "Places like Heritage Surf, they're our competition, but we were happy to see them get open too. We're all in the same boat and the stronger this town comes back, the better it is for everyone."
On Long Beach Island, Michael Lisiewski owns Brighton Beach and the four feet of water that was in it. With every local contractor already slammed, Lisiewski took on the task himself. Fortunately, none of the collectables that his shop is famous for were damaged. Brighton Beach has been open while he's redoing the interior and is now back to a regular schedule.
Farias Surf and Sport has four buildings on LBI. Three got flooded. Just for good measure, the fourth caught on fire in January. But Brian Farias, who recently took the reins, rented a huge former bookstore on the mainland adjacent to LBI to save his Christmas season. The new shop also became a hub of rebuilding. The flagship store in Ship Bottom will be open next week. The Beach Haven and Surf City locations are shooting for Memorial Day weekend. Meanwhile, the Manahawkin store will close for the summer and reopen next fall.
They also teamed up with Jetty, the Long Beach Island apparel company that has raised over $250,000 with their "Unite-Rebuild" tees and sweatshirts since the storm. Working with W4W, Jeremy DeFilippis and Cory Higgins have been part of a movement to communicate that LBI will be ready for summer and physically getting people back into homes and businesses. Surf Unlimited in Ship Bottom gave them a whole section of the store going into summer. Governor Chris Christie even sent them a flag that had flown over the World Trade Center on 9/11 to show the appreciation for everything they've done.
Mike Columbo in Seaside Park was all but ruined by Sandy: His shop and home were destroyed and his car washed away. His shop and home have been rebuilt and car replaced.
"Waves for Water were incredible to me and others in our area. They came right away, saw all the damage, and I think I was the first grant recipient. I was able to start rebuilding instantly, even before the insurance came through on the house. The shop policy doesn't supply flood, and they wormed their way around all the other avenues. But Jon Rose and Catherine Murphy lifted me up from a very bad state of mind. I am eternally grateful," he said on his way out the door to paint at the house of a friend who'd also recently rebuilt thanks to the organization.
Ocean Hut Surf Shop in Lavallette was in a similar state. Tony Giordano, known affectionately as "Tony G," surfed the burgeoning IPS Tour in the '70s and opened Ocean Hut in 1975. At 58 years old, he has worked his whole life to build this classic shop. Ocean Hut took a good deal of flooding from the breached ocean on the south end of town and the bay. A day after the storm, one of his employees checked on the shop via Jet Ski and found it ruthlessly looted.
"The windows were busted and the door was broken in. They really trashed the place and took all the expensive stuff. We boarded it up and took a moment to accept what had happened," Giordano remembers.
All the holiday inventory was ruined, there was a thick muck through the whole shop and the authorities were too overwhelmed to really investigate the robbery. Despite the fact that Lavallette and Ortley are still disaster areas, the O Hut crew forged forward to open in March, working for months straight with no heat, light or running water. And today he's newly loaded with all the trunks, slaps and bikinis you might need this summer.
But what kind of season can a shop have when so many of the homes are destroyed? Even if boardwalks are rebuilt and beaches are open, how will shop traffic be? Glide Surf Company would have been able to rebuild pretty easily, but with Normandy Beach so battered, who's coming through the door? They are looking for a new location now.
The town of Bay Head was one of the hardest hit, but somehow the Beach House Classic Board Shop was just above the flood, according to manager Derek McKenna. Feeling very fortunate, owner Eric Beyer ran surf movie nights at the Bay Head Fire Department and donated over $5,000 to the police and fire squads.
Brave New World's Point Pleasant, Toms River and Little Silver stores all came through pretty well. They're stocked with tons of Jetty Unite/Rebuild and Ergo Restore the Shore gear. Inlet Outlet was fortunate compared to Manasquan's waterfront. They became a drop-off depot for relief supplies and are ready for business as usual.
"We never thought that our effort would be so impactful to this many families in our surf community," says Pete Dispirito, co-owner of Ergo, who made the original Restore the Shore T-shirts and stickers. "Forming a partnership with Waves for Water has been a very humbling experience, and we will continue to raise funds and awareness as long as we have to. It's also humbling to see shops like Brave step [up to] sell our goods and drive our message to the local community, which allows continued supplying [of] tangible relief efforts."
In Belmar, the ocean took the boardwalk right across Ocean Avenue and through the front door of Eastern Lines Surf Shop, which Don Tarrant had opened 32 years ago.
"We had three feet of sand about half the length of our store. The force of the water and sand knocked over most of the clothes racks and splashed water and sand on the clothes lining the walls," said Tarrant.
Though the landlord had insurance for the structure, insurance has yet to pay a dime for carpet, tile, paint and fixtures. Tarrant lost a whole floor worth of apparel. Eastern Lines got a grant from W4W but Tarrant had to front and borrow money himself. On top of all that, this stretch of Ocean Ave. was closed since October, so he missed out on six months of business.
In Sea Bright, Derf McTighe had Island Style Surf in the same location for 36 years. But he will not be reopening. It's not that this veteran of the industry can't pick himself up; his landlord isn't going to rebuild and now renting anything in Sea Bright is just too expensive for a surf shop.
"I went back and forth, but rent would be crazy and there's no way to get insurance at this point. Waves for Water helped me to get free and clear. I don't owe anyone any money," he says with a sigh.
McTigh is selling his remaining inventory out of his home.
The New Jersey Shore's tourism industry creates about $40 billion in annual revenue, of which most surfers are a part. While waveriders can get back on their feet, nothing is certain for these coasts in general. The worst is not over for some of these shops, which make the majority of their coin between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
With increased media attention and tourism, the Rockaways went from a local secret to bonafide surf destination in the last decade. Part of the success is NYC being a subway ride away from surfable waves, but what fueled the Rockaway renaissance was the community and local businesses. The massive growth led many to believe that summer 2013 would again set record numbers at "The Hipster Hamptons" via the L train. Optimism was something the area hadn't experienced in decades and threatened to disappear after Sandy ripped away the boardwalk, destroyed homes and led to violence that local Reid van Renesse described as "a scene from 'Mad Max.'" But the Rockaway Surf Club quickly became the relief hub in town.
Most surf shops in Manhattan, experiencing minimal damage, including the popular Saturdays, directed efforts to rebuilding the Rockaways. With Memorial Day approaching and progress going slowly, fundraisers are being ramped up. Saturdays sponsored a W4W benefit on May 8.
St. James Clothing owner and lifelong New York surfer Jimmy Dowd witnessed the destruction from his sixth-floor beachfront condo. Dowd's involvement in the rebuilding has been nonstop. He dispels animosity between the lifers and the influx of newbies, saying, "The hipsters and new people who had been coming out and learning to surf were some of the first people who came here to volunteer."
With few places in Rockaway unaffected, it was just a matter of how much damage each got. Boarders, opened in 2004 by Steve Stathis and his son Christian, were hit the hardest. They prepared for four feet of water and took on six. The senior Stathis detailed the damage as he stood by the watermarks, inches away from his head.
"I've been here 63 years and the shop is entering its 10th year. The most frustrating thing has been the financial aspect. As a small-business owner, you're always on a tight budget; this is a major setback. Fortunately, customers are loyal. Some of the people here now are part of a group that stripped the shop."
Stathis worked overtime to get open for the expected Memorial Day rush, mostly funding the rebuilding out of pocket, but was able to get help from W4W.
"Sandy hit us after being open for two months, which was worst-case scenario for any beach business," said Nigel Louis, partner of Breakwater Surf Co. in Rockaway. "We sustained less damage than a lot of the businesses in the area with only three feet. We had some product loss, panel and electrical damage. The real damage, however, was probably the money lost from not being open for three months."
As Memorial Day approaches, crews continue to work to build new concrete areas for concessions, bathrooms and changing stations.
Out in Long Beach, Dave Juan and Mike Nelson saw not only Unsound Surf get crushed, but also their Quiksilver store in Oceanside as well as both of their houses and four cars between their families. After some additional structural repairs to the building, they are again open with a new, improved floor plan.
"As it stands now, business is slowly starting to pick back up," said Louis. "I think people will come out to support the Rockaways, but my biggest concern now is whether or not the subway will be running this summer. Not having the subway running is definitely hurting business."
All the locals were united in their optimism for the upcoming summer, but there's still trepidation due to things these small-business owners can't control. Supporting your local shop is always important, but this summer, it's a very big deal.