August 30, 2011
SPRING LAKE, N.J. — If you fix it, they will come.
That’s the mantra — and the desperate hope — of tourism-dependent towns along the East Coast as they deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, which hit just eight days before Labor Day.
Places that lost boardwalks, restaurants, roads and other fixtures in the storm are terrified the tourists will simply call it a season and stay away until next summer.
“The key is getting the word out,” said Celina Moose, the manager of a kite store in in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “The beaches are open. The restaurants are open. We need tourists to come back.”
But that can prove easier said than done. The Jersey shore, like North Carolina, had Irene make landfall on its sands. And while the land of Snooki and The Situation fared well as a whole, some places did not.
Spring Lake lost much of its beloved synthetic boardwalk, a 2-mile miracle of modern engineering that was hailed as a national model of environmental responsibility because it used recycled plastic instead of rain forest wood as many other boardwalks do. Joggers came from miles around to run along the softer boards, which they swear are much easier on the knees than real wood.
The storm surge from Irene wiped out about 1.5 miles of the boardwalk, sending planks into the sea, while twisting others into grotesque shapes. Clearly, this is damage that can’t be fixed in time for Labor Day.
So the town will have to make do with about half its beach, and very little of its boardwalk during one of the three biggest weekends of summer.
“It’s going to be nowhere near what we normally have open,” said Bryan Dempsey, Spring Lake’s borough administrator. “We’re trying everything we can, but we’re not going to put anyone in danger just to have a beach day.”
The beach will open on Tuesday, after officials took a helicopter to fly over the surf to make sure planks of damaged boardwalk were not floating in the waves, ready to injure swimmers.
Ocean City, N.J., is also reopening its beaches on Tuesday. Swimmers returned to the water on Monday, but without lifeguards, who had moved all their rescue equipment offshore in anticipation of the hurricane. The beach resort suffered hardly any damage at all aside from some beach erosion. Now all that remains is convincing people to come for one last summer weekend.
“We’re back in business, and looking to finish out what has been a really good summer,” said Frank Donato, the city’s emergency management coordinator.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a fit of pique over seeing people lounging on the beach in Asbury Park as the storm approached, and after he had declared a state of emergency that led to many mandatory evacuations.
“Get the hell off the beach!” he thundered at a news conference.
But now, Christie is singing a different tune: Please get the hell back on the beach.
At a news conference Monday night, he urged people to get in their cars and go to the Jersey shore for the Labor Day weekend, predicting there would be vacancies as a result of Irene.
“Be an opportunist,” he said. “You’ll probably get a good price.”
Elsewhere, it was much the same, as communities dug out from under the sand and looked ahead to the holiday weekend.
Judy Packer was walking her black Labrador retriever near the beach in Nags Head, N.C., part of a vacation she had planned for months. The beach house she was renting came through the storm with barely a scratch.
“If there had been substantial damage, we would have cancelled the family vacation,” said Packer, a 44-year-old accountant and mother of three from New York City.
Now she plans to do the usual: Spend most of her days at the beach and going to her favorite restaurants at night.
“I just want to spend the next week unwinding,” she said. “I’m just glad there wasn’t much storm damage. It’s good to be here.”
At the Comfort Inn on the beach at Nags Head, the hotel’s 105 rooms were booked solid for the week before the storm, said manager Kelly Smith. But over the last 24 hours they received 150 cancellations for the coming week. She estimated that the hotel will only be about two-thirds full over the traditionally busy Labor Day weekend, when rooms go for $160 a night.
Many of the cancellations are coming from northern states affected by Irene.
“They’re saying they’re cancelling because their power is off and don’t know when it’s coming on,” Smith said. “Or they’re saying their power is off, they had some damage and they don’t know if they can afford the vacation anymore.”
Some resorts away from the ocean actually benefited from Irene. The Smoky Mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, Tenn., reported an influx of tourists last weekend as the hurricane forecasts were issued. Some of them were coastal residents trying to escape the weather, said city spokesman Jim Davis.
Hotels on Block Island, R.I., are slashing prices and trying as hard as they can to get the word out that their area was not affected by the storm.
“Today is absolutely gorgeous,” said Kathy Szabo, executive director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce. “The ferries are running, and I sure hope that people come out. You wouldn’t even know that a storm went by.”