The 'Neverending Story' of Superstorm Sandy

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- In theory, divorcing emotion from one's investment decisions is a sound approach. You do the research, consider the options, monitor fluctuations, assess the risk and let the empirical data guide you.

In practice, it's nearly impossible.

A year removed from Superstorm Sandy, homeowners and residents who spent much of the last year trying to piece together the lives they lived before the storm might be finding it a bit difficult to approach their recent bout of hardship armed only with logic. I'd lived in some of the New Jersey areas most affected by the storm for nearly 30 years. Though my wife and I had settled into our new home in Portland months before, my thoughts and as many minutes as my New Jersey family's waning cell phone batteries would allow were firmly in Jersey.

From the '80s through the early 2000s, my stepfather worked at a Fed Ex terminal in the Meadowlands marsh town Moonachie, N.J., as a courier before returning as a manager. The morning after Sandy hit, boats patrolled the streets of Moonachie looking for stranded residents.

My mother has been a teacher in Lyndhurst, N.J., for several years. The day after Sandy cleared out, her students who lived near the Passic River on one side of town and the Hackensack River and Meadowlands on the other had been evacuated and power to much of the town was lost.

For three generations, our family had spent our summers at Ocean Beach, a three-neighborhood collection of cottages along Barnegat Island on the Jersey Shore. Just south of Point Pleasant and just north of Seaside Heights, Ocean Beach was almost equidistant from the boardwalks that bore the brunt of the storm's damage. When images of the Jet-Star roller coaster in the waters just off its former home on Morey Pier in Seaside Heights made their way to across the country, it seemed imminent that bad news would arrive from Ocean Beach as well. Dispatches including pictures of construction equipment scraping mounds of sand off Route 35, boats washed far from their moorings into backyards and houses either hollowed out, carried off or toppled over confirmed the worst.

New Jersey would spend the last few months learning hard lessons about how Federal Emergency Management Agency funds are distributed, how flood insurance is worded, how flood waters are measured, how flood maps can jack up insurance rates and just how unkind the rest of the country can be to an area in need. Republican Sens. James Inhofe and Tom Coburn from Oklahoma voted against FEMA recovery funds for Sandy victims, calling that money a "slush fund." They did some impressive backpedaling in May, when an EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., and sent them begging for relief of their own, but their criticism echoed that heard by Lower Ninth Ward residents in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or in just about any section of Florida after a hurricane there: How didn't they know the risks? Why should I pay for their stupidity?

Though New Jersey remains divided in its opinion of Gov. Chris Christie, it seemed to agree that he's just the big, aggressive Jersey loudmouth you want holding the megaphone when the nation's ignoramuses are asking such questions. What Christie and his caked-on emergency-response fleece realized and what Mr. and Mrs. Igotmine from Wal-Mart Suburb, U.S.A., didn't was that not only did most of these folks not know the risk, but their entire lives had gone into securing what, until then, was the reward for their efforts.

Towns like Moonachie, Lyndhurst and others abutting the Passaic, Hackensack and Hudson rivers in Northern New Jersey are among the last within reach for middle-class families in that portion of the state. If you're looking to move your family out of its apartment or city, any of those towns can offer a yard, driveway, fireplace and maybe even three to four bedrooms for the price they'd pay for a condo elsewhere. It isn't as new as the Real Housewife build-outs to the north or as sprawling as the Tudor-strewn villages of Manhattan refugees to the west, but they're places where a factory worker, teacher, cop, firefighter, Turnpike administrator, courier, office manager, truck driver or clerk can get a home of their own without mortgaging themselves to the hilt.

Just maybe, if they're able to put enough money aside after they retire, they can still buy a little two-bedroom bungalow in a community down the shore. That was once the ubiquitous dream in not only that little corner of the world, but in Queens' Breezy Point, coastal Long Island and other areas since ravaged by Sandy. Whether that's all lost now depends largely on the value proposition, one that Sandy's $30 billion damage figure doesn't begin to cover.

Before this 100-year storm, the second in as many years if you count Hurricane Irene in 2011, residents could be forgiven for not believing that their North Jersey homes would ever be completely underwater or that their shore houses would be completely demolished by hurricanes that never blew in that strong in their or their parents' lifetimes. The risk seemed minimal then, but far more present now.

So do you have the restoration crew come in and fix up your place in Moonachie knowing what just happened, or do you sell the home you've raised or been raising your family in and take your chances elsewhere? Do you rebuild the shore house that was your life's dream and holds many of your family's most precious memories, or do you walk away knowing your little cabin just isn't the same if it's a story higher? Do you rebuild the pizza stands, custard shops, arcades, amusement piers, rides, games and boardwalk because those businesses have been handed down to your family through generations and have provided joy to generations of other families, or do you scrap it all and let condos and hotel finish what Sandy and a post-summer fire started?

Back in the '80s, the movie The Neverending Story explored what would happen to a dreamworld if the person who built it just stopped dreaming it. Though the film is remembered largely for its flying dog, if little else, its big takeaway was that all those dreams just crumble and die without the people behind them making them so.

Since Sandy, there's been a lot of reason to believe that in property-tax-riddled New Jersey, the middle-class dream of a decent home, a place by the ocean and an attainable price for all of it was swept away by the storm. To those who spent the last year fighting to repair what they've worked so hard for, they aren't just dreams -- they're a life's investment. It's hard not to get emotional when you've gone that long on something so dear.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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