Demolition Crews Finish the Job Sandy Started

Residents of Union Beach watch as parts of their town are reduced to rubble a second time

In the four-and-a-half months since Sandy destroyed Jakeabob’s Bay restaurant and flooded thousands of homes in the working-class community of Union Beach, New Jersey, Jakeabob’s owner Gigi Liaguno-Dorr has seen the neighborhood around her business slowly disappear.

Each day, construction crews demolish between four and eight damaged buildings and cart away the rubble, leaving only vacant lots in large sections of town. Last week, it was finally Gigi’s turn, as the restaurant was scheduled to be torn down.

Prior to Sandy, Jakeabob’s Bay was a Union Beach institution, serving up to 400 people on a crowded night. Diners from near and far came to enjoy the burgers and seafood and grab a few drinks after work, as the sun went down and the skyline of New York lit up in the distance. But the storm sent powerful waves that collapsed its roof and swept its dock out to sea. The restaurant was damaged beyond repair, with just its façade and front awning as a memory of how things once were.

It was a blisteringly cold, overcast morning last Thursday, when Gigi came to get a final glimpse of her business, where she’d spent the past fourteen years of her life. As she waited for the demolition to begin, a police officer pulled up.

“Do you really want to be here?” he asked.

“It’s gotta come down,” she replied. “I’ve got no choice!”

Credit: Scott Gurian
The remains of the original Jakeabob's restaurant, which suffered severe damage from Sandy.

The officer turned on his flashing light and drove to the corner to block off the street. Meanwhile, Gigi watched as her fiancé Wally Van Orden unscrewed the Jakeabob’s sign that Sandy had spared from the front of the building and dug through the rubble one last time, looking for whatever recognizable items he could salvage: a piece of plywood… a set of lights… a broken chair. “He’s very emotional right now,” explained Gigi, “So he’s just doing whatever he can do. Even if it doesn’t make any sense.”

A few minutes later, the tractor arrived and began its work. As it reached over for the first time and tore a chunk from what was left of the building’s trademark, teal-colored roof, splintering it into a thousand pieces, Gigi closed her eyes and covered her face. She had been up all night thinking about this very moment. “What I’m losing, obviously, is the building,” she sobbed. “You’ll always have your memories. It’s just the physical part of it. There’s a lot of sweat and tears in there.”

Gigi purposely didn’t tell a lot of people that Jakeabob’s would be demolished this day. She says she didn’t want to spread bad news and didn’t want people to grieve just for her. Still, the word got out to a couple dozen friends, longtime patrons and former employees, who showed up wearing matching Jakeabob’s sweatshirts and gathered across the street to witness what they knew would be a difficult event to watch.

Karen Stokes worked at the restaurant for five years, off and on, though she said she considered herself more of a customer than an employee. She said her house had been taken down just the day before, so she knew how hard it was for Gigi.

Hostess Manager Mary Jean Riccardi said she’d promised herself she would stay strong, but the sight in front of her was just too much to bear. “It’s our old friend,” she cried, “And to see it destroyed like this, it breaks my heart!” She said it was understandable that a restaurant perched right on the water could be affected by storms, but Sandy’s wrath was still surprising, given that the building had been there for several decades. “Even after the storm,” she added, “If I would come down to Union Beach, I’d go this way so I can go past Jakeabob’s. And I go past, and I say, ‘Hey… How ya doing? You still hangin’ in there…’”

After an hour and a half, all that was left of Jakeabob’s was a giant pile of bricks, cinderblocks and lumber, but Gigi said watching the demolition gave her a sense of closure. She’s about to open a smaller restaurant at a temporary location elsewhere in town, but the fate of the original site remains uncertain. She’s gotten a check for some of her losses from her flood insurance, but she’s still waiting on two other claims, as well as a loan from the Small Business Administration. So the question of when or even if she’ll be able to rebuild on the bay has yet to be determined