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Profile: State’s Top Building Inspector Hard at Work in His ‘Retirement’

Group honors official for his work helping Keyport and Union Beach residents deal with the sometimes overwhelming aftermath of Sandy

bobby burlew
Bob Burlew

Who he is: Bob Burlew is the construction official for Union Beach and Keyport, two municipalities that were hit hard by Sandy and are still struggling to recover.

Age: 60.

Hometown: Keyport.

Why you should know about him: Burlew has spent the past two-and-a-half years working tirelessly to help residents rebuild and prepare for future storms. In his role in both communities, he oversees floodplain management and zoning compliance, does inspections, and issues construction permits. He’s also led classes to walk storm victims through the process of fixing their homes.

The New Jersey Building Officials Association recently recognized his efforts by voting unanimously to name him state “Inspector of the Year.” In a letter to Union Beach’s mayor, the group’s head, Robert LaCosta, cited the “Herculean effort” Burlew had made to help the town get back on its feet.

“In my opinion, as well as the opinion of others, including his peers,” LaCosta wrote, “he is more than worthy of this very prestigious award.”

On the role of building inspectors after an event like Sandy: When your home is destroyed, it can be difficult and confusing navigating the myriad of state and federal regulations to know where to even start. Burlew says his office has served as a one-stop shop, assisting people in understanding the latest FEMA flood maps, offering advice on how to build to get the lowest insurance rates, and making sure they comply with height requirements in flood-prone areas.

“It’s common to have a $3,000-a-year policy from the National Flood Insurance Program,” he explained, “and once the house is raised up above the base flood elevation, their insurance goes down to $300 or $400. So it becomes more affordable, it’s more durable, and they can sell their home. If they were still down below the base flood elevation, there aren’t too many banks or lending institutions that would give a mortgage for anyone to purchase these homes or for them to fix their home up after a storm.”

Furthermore, he said that more modern houses built to current construction standards fared much better during Sandy.

How Sandy changed things: Both Union Beach and Keyport are smaller than 2 square miles, so neither had a large enough building department to handle the post-storm work. In Union Beach, for example, the office was only open a few hours a week prior to Sandy. Now -- with the help of the NJ Department of Community Affairs -- it’s staffed fulltime, with plumbing, electrical, fire, and building inspectors, as well as five technical assistants to run the office’s day-to-day operations.

“We do at least 100 inspections a day in this one town. It’s a real big operation,” Burlew said. “I guess it’ll go on for the next four or five years, and then we should be some kind of a normal town after that I hope.”

Assessing the progress: By the end of this year, Burlew expects a total of close to 500 new homes to go up in Union Beach, but there are an equal number that haven’t even started being rebuilt yet. Another 112 are awaiting state or federal aid so they can be demolished, and hundreds more are in the process of being lifted.

“We’re a little bit more than a third of the way done, and if it took 2-and-a-half years to do that, we’re thinking it will take around seven or eight years to be completed if the dollars keep on coming in and there’s no other storms that would slow down the process,” he said.

Burlew’s background: While working his day job in the pharmaceutical industry many years ago, Burlew started moonlighting as a construction official for several Bayshore towns.

“I always liked seeing things built and how the components got put together,” he said. Then at the age of 52, he left to become a fulltime building inspector.

“I had my years of service, and I wanted to do something a little bit more adventurous,” he said, noting that he’s gotten more than his share of adventure in the aftermath of Sandy. On the challenges of his job: What started off as a part-time gig Burlew planned to do a few hours a week in his retirement morphed after Sandy into something much more overwhelming: 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“It’s too much at once,” he said. “And just when you think you’ve turned the corner because you see some houses going up and people possibly getting back, there’s always something that’s in the way. It’s usually the dollar amount of how much they’re getting or how they’re supposed to spend it and who’s supposed to be doing the work. We didn’t go to school for that part. We just figured the cavalry was going to come in and everything was going to be run and we were just going to assist. I didn’t know that we were going to have to be the one doing all the assisting. It’s just an uphill battle.”

Taking a physical and emotional toll: Amid the nonstop work after Sandy, Burlew said he and his colleagues lost track of weeks and months, days and nights.

For about eight to 10 months, he was irritable, had insomnia and even stopped seeing colors at one point. He went to a doctor and realized that he had worn himself out due to lack of sleep, lack of food, work-related stress, and depression. So he took a vacation, which he said helped him a lot.

“We feel that we see progress now, after two-and-a-half years, and we’re feeling good about that,” he said, “but as far as getting over it, I don’t know. I still dream about the lines of people waiting to get to my office to sit down and go over the paperwork that needs to be done.”

Hanging in there: Despite the challenges and his desire for an easier retirement, Burlew says he’s not ready to throw in the towel.

“I’m exhausted, but it seems like I’ve been exhausted all my life,” he said. “Every time I do a job, I like to do it 100 percent. And I didn’t want to lay down on this one. This was the most vulnerable time. I don’t like to walk away from anything. You just put your boots on and do it.”

Personal life: In the rare times he’s not working, Burlew likes to watch his grandkids play baseball. While attending a work-related conference in Georgia later this week, he’s also hoping to visit his daughter, who’s stationed there in the military.

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