New Jersey was the bulls-eye for Sandy's landfall, and the state's barrier islands experienced some of the storm's most powerful flooding and wave action. Five weeks later, life is changed radically for residents of the barrier island towns, and for the contractors who work there.

Union Beach, NJ, 12/3/12 -- Pamela Vazquez looks out over the destruction that was once her home and her town, before Hurricane Sandy hit.
Liz Roll/FEMA Union Beach, NJ, 12/3/12 -- Pamela Vazquez looks out over the destruction that was once her home and her town, before Hurricane Sandy hit.

Coastal Connection spoke last week with custom builder Eric Borden. Borden has been working long days on the islands, and working late into the night estimating jobs. "People don't just hire you and say, 'Put my house back and tell me what it's worth,'" he says. "They all want to know what it's going to cost. A month worth of tearout on houses, and doing eight or nine months' worth of estimating in three weeks is killing me. I'm tired."

As a custom builder, Borden has little experience with insurance work. "I'm trying to give myself a crash course on Xactimate and Simsol," he says. "I bought the programs and I'm playing around with them trying to figure it out. But I don't have time to dedicate a full day to taking some training on it. To take me out of commission for a day would be devastating."

A month into the recovery phase, Borden has only just gotten access to some of the worst-hit areas. "I spent most of the last week in the Ortley Beach area of Toms River. It's just blown apart. It's like somebody called in an air strike." There's no electricity or gas, he says: "We're allowed to go in there, we're allowed to winterize and strip and demolish, but we're not allowed to put anything back in. So it's basically strip and remediate and let it sit."

Access is still limited. "Our barrier islands are essentially off limits," says Borden. They've been declared uninhabitable by the state. Nobody can spend the night. Access is between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. They don't open the bridge until 8. So you have to get in line. By the time you get over there, it's 9:30 or 10. You go to work, and you gotta pack up by 2:30 because you gotta be leaving town by three."

The town has been divided into three sections, Borden goes on - and access to each section is granted only every third day. "So the house that I started gutting yesterday, Wednesday, we were there five or six hours. But now we can't go back until Saturday. So then we can work there on Saturday, and we can't go back until the following Tuesday," he explains.

After sitting for five weeks, he says, homes are in worse shape. "A month ago, we would strip out insulation and the house would dry out in a day or two. Now, I strip out the insulation and I have white mold growing on the back of the sheathing. I understand why they didn't let us in. But now it's a more expensive proposition to remediate."

Towns need the intervening days, says Borden, just to clear debris from the curbs. "When every single house has to be gutted from a minimum of four foot down, and belongings cleared out - it's just a tremendous amount of garbage." Meanwhile, utility companies are working to restore electric and gas service. "And they have to go through every water main and every sewer main and make sure there are no breaks."

A resident of Ortley Beach, N.J., cleans up around his damaged home. Access is limited to every third day (daytime only), to give crews time for hauling away the mess and restoring utility service.
Patsy Lynch/FEM A resident of Ortley Beach, N.J., cleans up around his damaged home. Access is limited to every third day (daytime only), to give crews time for hauling away the mess and restoring utility service.

Borden sees no end to the work in sight. "You know how there are five stages of grief? Well, there are at least five stages of hurricane recovery," he says. "You got your immediate rip it out phase, which lasted a couple weeks. And now we're into the second phase, which is, the areas that we couldn't get into, we can now get into. And we're seeing more troubles in those areas, because the houses have sat for a month. Next is the 'wait and see what we're getting from the insurance company' period - the 'adjustment phase,' as we call it. And then there'll be the reconstruction phase, and that will be prioritized. The first priority is the people that live in the homes full time, and the ones that we don't have to do any structural repairs on. Then that will lead into the phase where we have to do structural repairs. Some of those owners may want to do renovations, or elevate the house, so that will be the second phase; and then there will be the people that want to redo their houses with additions and upgrades. And then finally there will be the ones we have to completely rebuild."

Full rebuilds won't start for a year or two, Borden guesses. "The people want to get moving, but those have to be designed by the architects, and they have to be approved by the town, and before that we have to find out what the new zoning laws are after the storm. Are we going to have a new elevations? How is it going to affect setback of the oceanfront houses? Where's the dune line now? Are they going to push that back? Those are questions we still don't know the answers to."

Along with everything else, Borden is getting inquiries from a whole new population of clients. "There are a bunch of people stepping forward," he says. "Some of my existing clients have money and they hired me right away to get things ripped out. But now we're seeing people who just didn't know who to call, didn't have an existing relationship with a contractor. People who know I've done work on their street, friends or relatives of clients, and some people are just walking up to us: 'Can you do this? Can you do that?' ... and frankly, we're just turning some people away. We just can't do it."

At night, the islands are dark. "My house looks out over Seaside Heights, New Jersey," says Borden. "I look out my window and I can see Seaside Park and Seaside Heights. I'm used to the lights of Seaside every night, looking out to the east - homes lit up and everything else. Now I look out now, and it's dark, except for the flashing lights of the cop car driving up and down the streets. They literally don't have the power on."

Meanwhile, a short distance inland, life has returned to normal. "Drive a mile or two, and people are back to their lives. Talking about sports, getting ready for the prom, whatever it is. But a quarter mile away, kids are going to school in a trailer in a different town, because they can't live in their town. They're not allowed in their town. People are living it and breathing it, and a quarter mile away, people don't even think about it. It's another world."