A few feet past the welcome sign, the boardwalk, what’s left of it, is still cordoned off. In the opposite direction, in front of the rows of shops with their metal gates pulled down and locked, shielding the view of damaged insides, heavy machines rumbled along, redistributing sand along the beach.
Things are moving in the right direction.
They’ve got a responsibility, said Toby Wolf, Jenkinson's marketing director, standing in front of a shark tank at Jenkison’s Aquarium. Wolf said that as New Jersey’s shore towns make their recovery following Hurricane Sandy, the business community needs to be there to welcome the community back, let them know that, despite the destruction caused by the storm, the businesses are not going anywhere.
On Friday, Jenkinson’s Boardwalk reopened several of its Point Pleasant Beach businesses, including its gift shop, arcade, and the aquarium. The recovery process is still ongoing, damaged equipment still needs to be replaced, and repairs made, but it’s time, she said, to reintroduce the shore.
“One of the things that’s important is getting reopened,” Wolf said. “Being one of the larger business entities in the area, we have the chance to show the rest of the business community, the rest of New Jersey, the rest of the world, that the shore hasn’t been completely devastated. We can send that message by opening back up.”
The aquarium opened its doors at 9:30 a.m., the first time it’s been open to the public since the town was evacuated prior to Sandy. Families, having read about the reopening through social media and online news sites, trickled in throughout the morning and early afternoon, stepping inside for a reprieve from the boardwalk chill to revisit the sharks and snakes some weren’t too sure would still be there.
Betty and Dean Shonts brought their grandchildren on the first day of the aquarium’s reopening. The Neptune couple had only been to the place once before, a quick summertime diversion from the beach and boardwalk cotton candy. Dean said he and his wife were curious to see how the place had fared.
“We live right along Shark River, and we saw the kind of devastation (caused by Sandy) in our neighborhood,” he said. “My wife and I were worried about what might have happened here.”
The aquarium did not suffer any structural damage, though it did not escape the storm unscathed. The building was designed to allow ocean water to breach its basement and be carried through to the other side - a design specifically aimed at promoting flood mitigation - aquarium Director Cindy Claus said.
However, the basement flooding destroyed all of the equipment and supplies tucked away there, including the aquarium’s holding tanks, life support equipment, and the facility’s entire veterinarian operation.
But, Claus reflected, they were lucky considering Sandy's devastation.
Claus was one of eight aquarium employees who stayed at the facility, even as the town was ordered to evacuate. With the front windows boarded up and no clear indication of what was going on outside, they waited for the ocean to come, hearing only the jagged win blow through and over vents in the roof.
It was dangerous, she said, but, in the end, it was the right decision. The aquarium’s roughly 1,800 animals all survived.
“We did stay. We didn’t think it was safe to leave the animals. We didn’t know how long the storm would go on for, or how long it would take to get back here once it was over,” she said. “We didn’t know what was coming. At one point we stepped outside and ocean foam was raining down on us.”
Though the image of the ocean water breaching the basement wall was frightening, Claus was excited to tell the tale of getting back up and open, from securing emergency generators, turning the critical aeration and filtration systems back on, and being on hand to keep the aquarium’s animals alive when outside access to Point Pleasant Beach was prohibited for days following Sandy’s arrival.
There’s still a ways to go, Claus said. Negotiations with insurance companies are ongoing, specialty tanks that take weeks to produce still need to arrive, and equipment still needs to be replaced, but re-opening is a big step towards recovery, one she believes will be complete ahead of the summer.
It means something greater than just selling tickets, however.
“Our mission, yes, we strive to take good care of the animals, but we’re here to educate and entertain,” she said, noting that she and her staff have received thank you notes from school children for staying behind to help ensure the aquarium’s animals survived.
“We get the public, but we also have kids from schools come in, kids from urban areas. Some have never seen animals like these before, some have never even seen the ocean before," Claus said.
It’s clear walking along the boardwalk that Point Pleasant Beach isn’t close to returning to its pre-Sandy form. But it’s getting there, slowly and surely with an eye towards this summer as a completion date. Jenkinson’s is a part of that recovery, and getting its businesses open is a key step.
“No words can describe how excited we are,” Wolf said. “I am not a morning person, but knowing we could come in today, knowing that the parking lot was no longer blocked off, that we would be able to welcome our guests back, this is how it should be.”
Point Pleasant Beach will be fully open for business this summer, according to municipal officials and the Chamber of Commerce. Downtown businesses have been open for months, the commercial center of the boardwalk is expected to be fully operational by Easter weekend, Jenkinson's is expecting to have its 2-for-1 ride ticket sales during the three-day Easter weekend, which is March 29 through 31, and the full length of the boardwalk should be intact by Memorial Day weekend, according to municipal and business officials.