Ten years ago, Superstorm Sandy struck Normandy Beach on the New Jersey shore, wiping my entire life off the map. The storm took my home and all of my possessions. It even swept away the physical land. An inlet breached where my house once stood. I got out with my life and nothing else.
I was 38, and I lost every physical memory of my previous life: Mom’s notes of love and encouragement, the fishing rod Dad made for me. All of my fishing gear either burned up or was lost to high water. I had no Social Security card, passport or birth certificate to prove my identity. My Jeep sucked seawater into the transmission when I drove through the breach in Bay Head before authorities closed the bridges. The transmission seized a week later.
The next six months became a constant search for food, clothing and shelter, living in hotels, crashing at friends’ houses, sleeping in rental cars. I found hope through friends, family — and fishing. I started a logbook in the wake of Sandy, capturing moments on scraps of paper to document my experiences.
Editor’s note: Select logbook entries are in italic, some of which are followed by the author’s thoughts looking back at the events.
Oct. 30: Day One Post-Sandy
There’s a time when you realize the system is broken, and there is no law. We hit the apocalypse. Getting the first video and absolutely shocked. Camp Osborne was obliterated. Geysers of fires.
People tried to reach me, but phone service was nonexistent. I was one of the last to evacuate the barrier island, and I knew my family and friends were worried, wondering if I was alive or dead. The day after the storm made landfall I got through on a borrowed cellphone.
Oct. 31: Halloween
The weird thing about being awake all the time and in a constant state of shock is that you don’t know where the days begin and end. There is no time. There is no reality. Everything seems blurred. I hear buzzing all the time. The constant drone of siren turbines, total destruction at every turn completely numbs you. There is no time to think; you just react. You help others. You fight. You survive.
People sent me clothing and computer equipment and offered to loan me their cars, but strangely I felt naked because I didn’t have even one rod or reel to keep me grounded. I needed to get out fishing, but survival came first.
Nov. 2: Daytime
I try to sleep, have a few drinks, then wake up and the nightmare starts all over again. It’s zombieland. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no power, no clean clothes. Can’t get out of town, can’t get to my house, gas stations closed, food running out. Dee and Jamie Heckel (some of my best friends who put me up for a few nights) went to their in-laws, and I used their bathroom to take a shower. I looked into the mirror and broke down. Walked to Brennan Boat Co., people taking pictures. I feel sick to my stomach.
Nov. 2: Midnight
I was able to siphon gas and drove my Jeep to see my friend “BK,” Brian Keating, who lives in Island Heights over the Toms River bridge. He greeted me with an open hug. His dog Mundus gave me a few tail wags. BK took his boat to the island to see if his family’s home was still there. I plopped my backpack down on the dining room table and asked what he saw. I didn’t sit down. I knew it was bad.
“Dude, it wasn’t pretty. There was nothing left. I couldn’t see anything that resembled what was once there,” he said. “I docked the boat at my parents’ bulkhead. I walked down a few blocks. It’s not good, man.”
I kept asking if he saw my house, and all he could tell me was that he didn’t know. He couldn’t differentiate any landmark and had no semblance of where anything was previously. He saw 30-foot geysers spewing flames. Natural gas lines were still burning. Everything was smoldering or on fire.
Word spread as to my whereabouts, and I had BK’s address to have clothing shipped. But to be honest, what I really wanted was fishing tackle. To hold my own rod and reel would tether me to sanity. Fishing forms a brotherhood, but I never truly knew it until the cards were on the table. I received a shipment from friends at magazines I had written for. Dozens of rods, reels, lures and tackle. I now had an outlet to release my pain and feel joy again.
The first time I went fishing after Sandy was Nov. 16, 18 days after the storm. One of my best friends, Sean Reilly, took me out to fish for blackfish in Somers Point and, without question, took me in to live with him for two years. Even in the maelstrom of madness, he knew what I needed: the tug of a fish. Bouncing bucktails in Rainbow Channel, we caught a handful of tiny tautog, and for a moment, I thought about nothing but the pursuit of fish.
Togging with Seany on Low Tide, his 25-foot Parker. Water temperature 54 degrees in the backwaters. Hit Seaview Harbor, sunny skies but cold, about 30 degrees, water a bit off-color, still dirty. Seany landed two tautog on Tog Rock, both about 3½ pounds, the only two we caught. Fished everywhere in the back, even standing on bridge abutments. Tried drifting eels for bass through Great Egg Harbor Inlet, but current ripping at about 6 knots. Standing breakers, nasty stuff.
Those ethereal few hours on the water put a smile on my face as wide as the sunrise. Around this time, I was asked to talk about my experience on HLN News and the New York NBC affiliate. I sat there talking with the hosts on live TV, wearing a decent flannel shirt and jeans I had gotten from the Salvation Army. The clothes actually fit pretty good. The hosts asked me to empty my backpack to see what I was carrying, but I declined. My bag held the personal necessities of a man without a home: some clothes and toiletries, a few fishing lures and a six pack of Miller Lite. I found a way to laugh and smile on camera. I had a fishing trip planned.
Four weeks after Sandy, I fished with my buddies Andy Dubman and Capt. Dave “Deg” DeGennaro on the Hi Flier on Barnegat Bay. We live-lined spots to hook into 20-pound-class stripers while remnants of homes on the backside of Island Beach State Park smoldered into the sky. The Army and National Guard had shut down the island. As I held a fishing rod, I wondered if I could find any of my possessions in the bay. I longed to see something of mine floating to the surface, perhaps a photograph from my youth. Gripping a striper by the jaw and snapping a photo would have to do.
It was drizzling but not nearly as bad as was forecasted, so we ran out the inlet and trolled for an hour. One small bluefish later we decided to try live bait in the inlet. I wish we had live-baited earlier. Nonstop runoffs and hookups. In an hour and a half, we caught a dozen stripers, including four between 28 and 31 inches, in the clean, green Atlantic before the tide slacked. Water temperature was 47 degrees. The south tower at the inlet was destroyed and will probably make good tog structure wherever it landed.
In the months that followed, I kept putting fishing trips on the calendar, giving me something to look forward to. Some of my buddies couldn’t bring themselves to fish. The hurt was still too fresh to be reminded of a prior life on the island.
One of the turning moments came when one of my best fishing buddies, Mickey Melchiondo — better known by his stage name, Dean Ween, the guitarist from alt-rock bands Ween and Moistboyz — organized a fundraising concert at The Saint, a club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The room was at full capacity, with hundreds more outside. I was immersed fully and, without reservation, into the scene. Over the blaring music, I talked about fishing with friends, my brother Billy and total strangers. A random guy standing next to me said he was sorry to hear about my situation and gave me $200 out of his pocket. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, but I needed the money. He said his name was Dean. I didn’t know until later that it was Dean DeLeo, the guitarist from Stone Temple Pilots.
Ten years post-Sandy, I continue to fish every day I can. I still write about fishing for a living and have amassed a new catalog of photos from trips since the storm landed Oct. 29, 2012. Every time someone asks how I manage to smile in the face of tremendous loss, I say the same thing: “The ocean has always given back to me way more than it can ever take away.”