BRIGANTINE, N.J. - After nearly 80 years, Superstorm Sandy may have finally brought last call to the Rod & Reel.
A working man's tavern in this quiet island just north of Atlantic City, The Rod opened soon after the repeal of Prohibition - the original liquor license dates to 1936. It has survived countless hurricanes as well as gentrification and a down economy.
But Sandy's flooding, which brought 2 feet of water into the old brick building early Tuesday, may have been too much for old place, whose ancient wiring and construction will almost certainly keep it shuttered until the building's owner rebuilds. He may have to raze the structure to save it.
"It looks like there's no amount of cleaning and minor repairs that's going to get anything done," said Tom Devine, 50, whose home next door also flooded, as did many in this bedroom community. "It's suffered a few storms, but this may be the one that's the end."
Up and down New Jersey's storied shore, the scene of summer fun for generations of Easterners is now a tangle of wet, splintered wood, seawater, sand and debris. It's a region that claims rocker Bruce Springsteen as a native son - and of more recent fame, "Snooki" and the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore.
New Jersey's blunt-speaking Republican Gov. Chris Christie says as much as he loves it, the iconic Jersey Shore of his own childhood may be a thing of the past. Christie looked over the damage with President Obama on Wednesday, a day after he had looked without success for a Seaside Heights sandwich-and-lemonade stand he has known for decades.
"Gone," he concluded, noting his own disappointment will be widely shared by residents and regulars.
"There's a certain pride the citizens here have about not only each other, but about these places in our state," Christie said. "They love the idea of walking on the boardwalk in Wildwood or Ocean City or Seaside Heights or Point Pleasant with their children, the way their parents walked with them."
Although Christie and many other New Jersey veterans spoke of rebuilding, the decision will not be a simple one for many people who have seen their nest eggs or livelihoods swept away. Some said they will be back; others weren't sure.
Farther north of Atlantic City at Seaside Heights, where recovery workers in rubber boots checked storm-battered houses for residents, bodies and structural damage, those calculations were being made, building by building.
Billy Major, who owns and built the FunTown Pier, an amusement park at the water's edge that is now in ruins, was wrestling with whether to try to restore his investment.
Major's eyes were red Wednesday, 10 minutes after he arrived for his first look at damage to the 40 rides he built since buying the property in 1980. The Ferris wheel is still standing, but on sand instead of concrete pilings. Other rides lay in a crumpled wreck, partially covered by waves.
John Hughes, 52, who lived in Ocean Beach, hitched a ride off Long Beach Island on a utility truck. Hughes lost his Jeep, a work van and his tools.
"There's not a more beautiful place you can live," he said. "Unfortunately, you get this."
Natalia John, 34, who until last weekend was running for City Council in Seaside Heights, was of a different mind as she walked through the devastation. Asked if she'll come back, John said, "I don't think so."
With Seaside Heights' beaches and dunes washed away, the town is now an unprotected flood plain, she said.
Real estate agent Anthony Conselice said real estate sales were up this year and he "absolutely" expects to be in business come spring.
After riding out the storm in their second-story apartment with their dogs, Wayne Bell and Vaughn Hancock said they're done living at the beach. "Vegas here we come," Hancock said with a chuckle.
Seaside Heights Police Chief Tom Boyd pointed at the foundation of a house that had been partially washed away. The house appeared intact and straight, but the masonry foundation tilted into the void.
"The house needs to be torn down and a new foundation put in," he said.
This particular house was the one that Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, one of the stars of the Fox reality show Jersey Shore stayed in after she got pregnant during the show, said Seaside Heights Capt. Kevin Shouldis.
At least 10 other homes have been similarly damaged, he said as he drove through streets that were nearly consumed by new dunes.
Undulating sand rose 3 or 4 feet high in some roadways and were overtopped with homes that had been ripped from their foundations. One house on the main drag was toppled on its side and broken in two.
Boyd pointed at a pile of splintered wood that stretched from what's left of the boardwalk to the sea next the Fun Land Pier amusement park. "This is devastation from other towns and boardwalks that was brought here from other beaches," Boyd said.
At the southern end of the state, just below where Sandy made landfall Monday, Sea Isle City barrier island was littered with debris and its streets deserted as police blocked gawkers from driving in.
A handful of families who weathered the storm were wearily beginning to dig their way out.
"I don't know how long this is going to take," says Monica Huntley, 50, sleepless and exhausted from hefting belongings out of the ground-floor apartment she and her husband share. They moved much of it before the storm to higher floors and are now cleaning the soggy detritus. "Wish it never happened," she said.
Back at Brigantine, where Obama visted Wednesday, Devine said he had been looking forward to an 80th birthday party for the bar.
"It would have been a good party too," he said.
But with the bar his only source of income and the place wrecked, Devine said he won't be able to make mortgage payments. "I'm immediately in default, from Day One."
Entering the building by applying a screwdriver to the swollen door and frame, Devine was hit by the smell of mud, water and mold.
At first blush, the damage didn't seem so bad - in spite of the mud and the smell, the structure stood, the bar looks untouched and even the metal chairs at each of the tables stayed put. But Devine said mold growing in the walls "could just be the end of this place."
Once the power comes back on, he said, health and building inspectors will give it a once-over. He's not sure it'd pass. "All the electrical work runs under the building," he said. "The day the power comes back on - who knows?"
Standing at the bar, he admitted he didn't really know what's next. But the tavern, which he bought a decade ago, represents his retirement plan. "Basically my net worth is, like, underneath me."
Losing The Rod would be devastating, neighbors said.
"You can't replace it," said Stephen Mankus, a retired longshoreman who lives down the block. "It's an institution - it's an institution. People from all over, they come down here, they go to The Rod. They know of The Rod."
Once the water recedes and the insurance claims are in, Mankus said, he'd be surprised if neighbors didn't fight to revitalize The Rod.
"This is a tight community," he said. "This is a tight island."
Dorell reported from Seaside Heights. Contributing: Gregg Zoroya, William M. Welch; Jenna Portnoy, NJ.com.
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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