Sea Bright mayor spearheads reconstruction

Mayor of Sea Bright Dina Long, J/MS 1996, stands in front of beach ruin left behind by Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Vanessa Pinto

By Amy Rowe—

Five days before Hurricane Sandy hit the small New Jersey beach town of Sea Bright, Mayor Dina Long issued an evacuation order for its 1,400 residents. Without a doubt, this evacuation order saved lives.

But months after the storm, Sea Bright in Ocean County faces an uncertain future, and the Class of 1996 Journalism and Media Studies alumna is doing what she can to pick up the pieces and help her community.

Long said the storm destroyed 100 percent of local businesses, and all of Sea Bright’s residents were displaced. As of this spring, 1,000 were still living away from their homes.

“People are still really struggling day by day,” said Long, who herself is living in a Sea Bright rental with her family after her own home on New Street filled with five feet of water. “I had somebody here a couple of days ago who was sleeping in a car.”

Most Sea Bright residents suffered similar or more severe damage to their homes. A few structures built in the last 15 years that adhere to more recent building codes survived the hurricane’s impact because they were properly elevated to avoid the storm surge, she said.

Her own house — home to her husband Robert, pastor at Sea Bright United Methodist Church, and their 9-year-old son Sam — will need to be elevated 6 feet to avoid a future risk of flooding from storms as powerful as Sandy.

“It’s an old house, and we’re not sure it’s going to be able to be sustained being elevated, so we might have to knock it down and start back over again,” Long said.

This reality for Sea Bright and other beach town residents largely goes unnoticed, she said, while the people of her town still wait for the checks promised by Congress Jan. 28 so they can afford to rebuild.

“People don’t realize it because life goes on everywhere else, and we’re like in this little bubble where everything is just wrecked,” she said. “We’re not getting help financially from insurance or the government. We’re helping ourselves right now. Volunteers, thank God, have been tremendous, and that’s what’s gotten us this far.”

Volunteers have come in to help clear debris and sand from the roads, but there is still much work to be done. Most houses have been gutted because flooding can lead to mold, and many homeowners have had to trash their belongings, Long said.

Over spring break, groups of students from Rutgers and other universities lent their hands to laying sheet rock for some Sea Bright homes, but Long said most of the town could not benefit from the volunteer force because homes are still missing proper wiring and insulation.

“We had to really scale back the volunteer effort for sheet rock,” she said. “There’s still so much cleaning to be done.”

About 300 college students volunteered to remove sand and debris from Sea Bright and plant seeds to “make Sea Bright look lively again,” Long said. “We’re a shore town — we rely on summer business to keep our economy going. Summer is 15 weeks away. We’ve really called on the resilience and strength of the New Jersey people to help us.”

Devastated businesses are on track to open for the summer, she emphasized, with six already up and running, Long said.

As for a long-term recovery plan, over the next 10 years Sea Bright will attempt to bring all building codes up to par.

“We never want this to happen again, so we’re really focused on rebuilding to mitigate future risk,” Long said. “It’s going to mean knocking down homes … it’s going to take a lot of investment both public and private to make this work.”

See Video: “VIDEO: Mayor of Sea Bright, N.J., a JMS grad, handles after effects of Hurricane Sandy”

Long’s job as mayor, usually a part-time position she holds on top of teaching English at Brookdale Community College, demands more from her now. As a result of the storm, the mayor has taken a more hands-on role, starting the day after Sandy hit.

“Right after the storm, there was no power, and we were in a real crisis situation,” she said. “There was sand six or seven feet high and broken houses, turned-upside-down cars … you couldn’t tell where roads were. Everywhere you went, there was gas leaking, and the gas companies couldn’t get to the lines to shut them off because they were buried under debris.”

The next day, with the town shut down, hundreds of Sea Brightians hoped to get across the central Rumson Bridge to assess damage to their homes. But there was no electricity for Long to communicate with them.

“All I had was my little iPhone, you know, and I had Twitter,” Long reported. “I used to laugh at it, but we used Twitter and Facebook to let people know what was going on. I’d take pictures and tweet them. I’m still using Facebook and Twitter every day to get information out.”

Long, a native of Neptune, moved to Sea Bright in 2002 with her husband, whom she met working for Gov. James Florio’s campaign. Long’s time at Rutgers was actually interrupted by that full-time job in 1993 after she interned with his office to plan a meeting of U.S. governors in New Jersey. Long left school and went on to work for other politicians, including Jon Corzine, when he was a U.S. senator. But she returned to Rutgers several years later and finished her J/MS degree. She later received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from the New School in New York.

Though she has never worked in media, Long said her degree has proved helpful for working and communicating with the public.

“We’ve certainly got a lot of media attention since the storm,” she said. “Having that background that I got at Rutgers has been a good prep for that. I wish now that I did more public speaking classes.”

Long said she gets nervous during interviews. She caused a buzz and some backlash in her own Democratic party in February for endorsing New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, up for re-election in November.

“He has really made it a priority that the Jersey shore is important.,” she said. “He’s been in my town four times and not just my town, up and down the coast. He’s been a great advocate for recovery.”

Long said she does not care about the reaction Democrats had to her endorsement.

“Any chance I ever had for running for higher office is destroyed, but I don’t mind because it’s not what I’m about,” she said. “I’m about my town.”