This upcoming Memorial Day weekend, AAA estimates 36.1 million Americans will hit the roads and travel at least 50 miles or more.
One of many popular tourist areas that Americans will flock to is the coastline of New Jersey, a region where residents still have the memories of Superstorm Sandy imprinted in their minds. In fact, there are still displaced residents throughout the state.
Seaside Heights was one of the hardest-hit towns during the storm. Images of the popular Jet Star roller coaster sitting in the ocean were some of the most poignant of the post-Sandy destruction.
“We were right in the eye of Sandy,” said Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers. “It was quite devastating.”
Akers said after the storm, pretty much everything they have in the town was damaged in one form or another.
There are still some people and properties that have work to do in the wake of Sandy, Akers said; however, surrounding communities are hurting worse than Seaside Heights.
"I think people are still making adjustments, some people are fortunate enough to be back in their homes and other people are still finding their way,” Akers said.
Still, things have come a long way since October 2012. When it comes to the town’s outlook this Memorial Day weekend, there’s a stark contrast from this time last year when a massive rebuilding push was underway.
In 2013, the city was in full reconstruction mode during the spring and early summer, having to rebuild 15 blocks of the boardwalk, which was finished not long after the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
“We’re very optimistic about what this summer will do for us as compared to this time last year,” said Seaside Heights Director of Community Improvement Mike Loundy.
While Memorial Day weekend is the kickoff to the summer season locally, Loundy said, typically families don’t start arriving until school ends in mid- to late-June.
Last year, he said many families weren’t sure if they would be open or not when it came time to make summer plans.
This year, Loundy said they are fully operational and ready to go.
“Our boardwalk is beautiful and functional,” Loundy said. “Our beaches are also fully operational,” he said.
In fact, Seaside Heights has doubled the available amount of amusement rides on the boardwalk's Casino Pier, Loundy said. They have found that the amusements are really important for the visiting families who are looking for that boardwalk-type style of entertainment.
While there was also a dip in beach and parking revenues from in 2013 due to the uncertainty, Loundy said, there were encouraging signs that on the busiest days, the revenue was the same as prior years.
Like many coastal towns in the state, Seaside Heights is a community that relies significantly on tourism.
Akers said 65 percent of their budget dollars comes through tourism, while the rest comes from property taxes.
“We rely very heavily on tourism,” he said. “We’re hoping and praying for good weather so we can get the people [to come] into town.”
In addition to the 15 blocks of boardwalk that were rebuilt after Sandy, other part of the city’s infrastructure has been substantially rebuilt as part of recovery efforts from the storm. Electric light poles, rebuilt sewage systems and modified electric generators are just a few ways the city has improved.
“Every day that goes by, we are a little bit better than the day before,” Loundy said.
The community received a significant financial donation of $1 million after Sandy hit from a telethon organized by MTV and Viacom. Seaside Heights is the town where the popular reality show ‘Jersey Shore’ was filmed.
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Money from that telethon has helped local officials plan for the purchase of a state-of-the-art mobile events center, which will allow events such as large concerts to be hosted on the beaches and boardwalk which the city has never been able to do before.
Loundy said that while there’s still a lot of pain from homeowners and investors who had properties damaged by Sandy, there’s a lot optimism about where they are this year compared to last year.
“We truly feel that as we go forward, the world will see that we are back, we’re back newer and we can handle just about anything,” Loundy said.
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