After Sandy and fire, Seaside Heights looks to rise again

Holly Bailey

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J.—Steve Whalen’s family has owned Lucky Leo’s arcade along the boardwalk here for 60 years. Back then, his father, Leo, would temporarily close when police officers were looking to crack down on games of chance.

But Leo was lucky and never got caught, partly inspiring the arcade's name. Since then, three generations of the Whalen family have worked to keep it going, but they've never faced anything as challenging as last year.

Superstorm Sandy made a direct hit on this tiny oceanfront town last October, destroying dozens of businesses and famously sending a roller coaster into the sea — an image that quickly became a symbol of the wrath of the storm.

 And last month, the city was devastated again when a freak fire, likely caused by electrical wiring compromised by Sandy’s storm surge, burned down several blocks of buildings along the newly rebuilt boardwalk.

It was a huge blow to the famed Jersey shore enclave, which had moved quickly after Sandy to rebuild as much as it could before the summer tourism season. But the summer season stayed slow nonetheless, as visitors stayed away and vacation homes are still washed from their slabs as their owners await insurance payments.

 Lucky Leo’s fared better than most businesses during Sandy, but the storm surge still breached the arcade's steel doors, flooding water and sand onto the main floor. It was largely minor damage and the arcade was able to partially reopen in December, months before many other local businesses.

The Whalens were grateful they had been spared the worst. But on Sept. 12, Steve Whalen wondered if his family’s luck had finally run out.

That Thursday afternoon, a friend called and told him a fire had broken out a few blocks away. By the time Whalen had jumped in his car and rushed to see the blaze, it had already spread to other buildings and was moving quickly down the boardwalk, fueled by ferocious wind gusts in excess of 30 mph.

Whalen, who owned two other buildings in the path of the fire, immediately raced back to the arcade, where he began grabbing everything important that he could.

“Unlike the hurricane, we had no time,” Whalen recalled. “It was grab your money and grab your insurance file. Again.”

By then, the fire had begun to drop embers the size of mortars onto the arcade’s roof, which Whalen had replaced after Sandy. He and others climbed up and began stamping out tiny fires and watering the roof down with a garden hose, even as the wall of flames grew closer and more intense.

“I felt pretty helpless, pretty insignificant,” Whalen said. “I don’t know if I was praying to God or what, but I was begging, ‘Wind switch, wind switch, wind switch.’”

The blaze got within a block and a half of Lucky Leo’s, devouring parts of the boardwalk that had been rebuilt only months before, and destroying dozens of businesses that had barely reopened. But then the wind slightly shifted, blowing embers away from the buildings and toward the ocean. Lucky Leo’s had been lucky again.

But around Seaside Heights, residents wearily ask what more the city can take after a year in which disaster followed disaster.

“The mood had been on the up and up, every day was getting better, but then we took a gut shot with the fire,” said Mike Loundy, a local real estate agent who also serves as head of Seaside Heights’ community improvement. “You did have to stop and question, ‘Why is this happening to us? Why is this happening here?’ But all you can do is move forward.”

Local officials estimate between 50 and 60 percent of the city’s year-round population is back or close to coming back after being dislocated by Sandy. But many families forced to relocate have stayed away.

Last month, the city’s lone, storm-damaged elementary school reopened for the first time since the storm. It welcomed back about 200 students — 75 fewer than last year.

In the fire's wake, the city is rebuilding again — and one upside is that city officials have been through this before and now have a better grasp on how to do it. The city began demolishing buildings within the fire zone last week, and their goal is to have that section of the boardwalk rebuilt by next summer.

The Jet Star roller coaster, dumped into the ocean by Sandy, had been the city’s biggest unofficial tourist attraction until it was removed from the water in mid-May. But now that attention has  been diverted to the fire-damaged boardwalk, where dozens of people stood last week watching bulldozers tear down scorched buildings.

Marie Eleoukili, whose family owns Jimmy’s Breakfast, watched from the deck of her restaurant. Her business has been spared twice buildings across the street blocked Sandy’s storm surge, and last month's fire burned down the entire block across the street but spared Jimmy's.

“We are incredibly blessed,” Eleoukili said. “You look into the eyes of these people who lost everything, and it’s just hard... . We have friends who lost everything in Sandy lost their house, lost their business. They opened up this year and got destroyed again [by the fire].”

“It’s just very hard to see this,” she added. “But I think it’s pulling us closer. We are all family now.”

Down the block, Whalen is preparing to replace part of the roof at Lucky Leo’s, where embers from the fire burned 400 different holes — including some big enough to step through. But he knows it could have been worse.

The last year, he said, had taught him “what’s really important.”

“By the way,” Whalen added, “what a great year we have had. How was business? Eh, but it was a great being in business. It was great being here.”