Everyone has a hometown: a place where they were raised, where they went to school and where they learned to ride a bike. Everyone’s hometown means something different to him or her. Some never leave, some can’t wait to leave, but many always come back.
There’s a reason people sing about their hometowns, take their kids to visit their hometowns and write about their hometowns. It is because a hometown, unlike any other place you go on to live, is ingrained in who you are as a person. It helped form you into the person you are today, for better or for worse.
My hometown happens to be called Toms River, located in Ocean County, New Jersey, just minutes from the beach. It is a hometown, like many others, that was completed devastated by Hurricane -- sorry, Superstorm -- Sandy, two years ago.
Two years ago, everything went dark, literally. A storm I had never experienced before in my lifetime, raged through most of the Eastern Coast as if it were after vengeance.
It wasn’t until the power came back on (for some, a few hours later; for others, more than 10 days) that we were able to turn on our televisions and see the damaged that had been done.
My home is just minutes from where the now-infamous photograph of the rollercoaster sitting in the ocean was taken. That was the first rollercoaster I ever rode as a child.
I did what I always do when I am upset: I wrote. I wrote “An Open Letter to the Shore Kids” that has since gone viral over many news outlets. This letter did not speak about material loss, but the emotional toll losing what you once believed to be permanent takes on a person.
I talked about how I felt I had just watched my childhood get washed away in mere hours by rain and winds and, ironically, the one thing we loved the most: the ocean. My letter clearly stated whom it was meant for: “This letter goes out to exit 82. This letter goes out to the locals.”
I spoke about how we are resilient; how we, as a community, believe in the magic of our hometown, long after the summer tourists leave; how I trusted we would work together to get back on our feet.
I knew we would never be able to recreate the past, but I believed a new “Jersey Shore” would rise out of this storm.
I concluded the letter by stating, “Here’s to the future while remembering the past.”
So, here we are, two years later. And one storm and one terrible boardwalk fire later, we are plugging along. We're nowhere near the finish line, but never throwing up the white flag. The unsung heroes of all of this are the locals.
The same people who were displaced and homeless were the ones helping others any way they could the very next day, and that has made all the difference.
Yes, from the outside, we may seem like a bunch of ripped-jean misfits, but we have heart. Locals have been selfless the last two years because we all share one common bond: We desperately want to rebuild our hometown, or “restore the shore” as it has come to be known.
Yes, our detours have detours. The minute the summer season ends, lanes get shut down and traffic worsens. There are some roads we still can’t even drive on. Businesses haven’t been able to rebuild, and we still can’t tell someone where we are from without them asking if we were “affected by the storm.”
To answer this once and for all: Of course, we were affected by the storm. If someone didn’t directly lose his or her home, he or she knows someone who did. Family pictures and keepsakes were destroyed. We lost things not even all the money in the world can buy back.
And what wasn’t destroyed by the storm was burnt to ashes by a fire not even a year later. I would read comments online from others calling us “stupid” for living by the water. So why haven’t we moved?
Because we are locals, that’s why. And we can’t be locals anywhere else. We want there to be another generation of locals, riding bikes or celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, who love this place as much as we do.
The wooden planks we rode our bikes on aren’t the same wood we walk on today, but the feeling of home still remains. Having a beach town as your hometown is a very different experience. Locals quickly fall in love with a more relaxed version of life; they are used to sand in their sheets and being barefoot.
They find comfort in being able to sit by the ocean, even in the time of year when it isn’t nearly warm enough to swim. Locals know that even when they can’t fully immerse themselves in the ocean, the ocean fully engrosses them.
The rolling tide, the way the salty air gently matted their hair -- locals find find that all of this cleanses them, even momentarily, of their bad days.
Instead of thinking about how much longer we have to go, or how much Sandy unapologetically took from us that day, let’s remember how much we have accomplished in the last two years. Locals should be proud of the progress.
Brick by brick, we are bringing our hometown back from the dead. We are taking it back from the ocean, back from the ashes. I am proud of where I come from.
And whether I am driving through a rebuilt part of town, or sitting on Ortley Beach, which has since been dubbed Sandy’s “Ground Zero,” the feeling I experience in my heart is the same.
I love my salty-aired hometown.
And as long as there is sand I can dig my toes into and sunsets over the bay, I will never say otherwise.
Photo Courtesy: Chris Gachot