The Mystery Is Over; Confronting the Aftermath of Sandy

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The mystery is over. After a week of speculation as to the fate of our small cottage on Long Beach Island, we were at last able to return on Monday.

A trip that normally takes one and a half hours took three times that, as thousands of anxious homeowners made the same trek, all with similar concerns. Approaching the island, we immediately observed Sandy's wrath. Boats were everywhere, arranged and piled as if they had been the toys of a gigantic child.

The infamous "shack," a small fisherman's cottage that has been a landmark for many years, is gone. All that is left is the foundation. I suspect there are a lot of similar stories in a lot of places.

The truth is, we were not ready for a storm of this magnitude, and the aftermath is wreaking havoc on lots of people. Some are still without power, while others have lost their homes altogether and now lack even basic necessities. We hear about other floods and storms that have changed lives in other places, and we feel for the victims. Now many more of us have at a real taste of what they're like.

Surprisingly, while I rode down Long Beach Island's main drag, it did not look all that different than it does on a normal summer day. That's when the mind games kicked in -- again. "Maybe it's not that bad," I thought. I'd had that kind of false hope all during the week.

The satellite images showed our neighborhood intact, some debris, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

This is a place that is very special to many of us. Our grandparents came here, as did our parents. Now it's a huge part of our children's lives. The memories run deep. It's painful to see our little island bruised and battered and our homes along with it.

Floods, I've learned, can play tricks on you, sometimes leaving false impressions and little obvious evidence. Things might look fine from the outside, but it's a different story once you get inside. Our little 1949 cottage, which looks much the same today as the day it was built, took on 26 inches of water. Our front porch floated away, which is actually funny. But we got much in return; the back deck is covered with two feet of debris. I can't even imagine what we'll find in that pile once we get to it.

Most of the contents of the downstairs -- beds, mattresses, dressers, furniture, appliances -- were ruined. The smell was bad but bearable.

Interestingly, the fridge had been knocked over by the force of the water, which gives you an idea of the power of rising water. We spent our allotted time ripping out carpets and padding that were soaked with gallons of seawater.

We could stay only until 3 p.m., so there was no time to cut out drywall, which will be the next step.

Later, there will be much to clean, rebuild, and replace. The local merchants and contractors will be very busy in the coming months; I hope the business will help them to rebuild what they've lost, but it's not the type of "stimulus" package you'd ever hope for.

Despite the mess, we were lucky. Many lost their homes and all their possessions, and now have to find somewhere else to live. Our little island will recover. So will Ocean City, Staten Island, and the many other places that bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. It will take time.

This was another great reminder of just how fragile life really is. We go about our daily lives, getting used to "normal," whatever that is. Then the unexpected happens, and there is no "normal," at least for a while.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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