Profile: Weathering the Storm — Sea Bright and Its Volunteer Mayor

Scott Gurian | September 17, 2014 | Profiles
With her home destroyed by the storm, Dina Long knows firsthand the heartache and hard work involved in recovering from Hurricane Sandy

Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long.

Name: Dina Long

Who she is: Mayor of Sea Bright and assistant English professor at Brookdale Community College

Age: 45

Hometown: Originally from Neptune, Long moved to Sea Bright over a decade ago when her husband was assigned to be pastor of a local church.

Why you should know about her: As the mayor of the northernmost town along the Jersey Shore, Long has been a visible public figure in the Sandy recovery. She’s had to handle the difficult task of repairing her borough — which sustained massive damage — while also dealing with personal challenges, since her family’s home was destroyed in the storm.

How she got involved in politics: Back when she was an undergraduate studying journalism at Rutgers, Long worked on Gov. Jim Florio’s reelection campaign and later went on to work for Sen. Bill Bradley and Gov. Jim McGreevey. She planned on leaving politics for good, but after living in Sea Bright for a few months, a departing borough council member drafted her into office to fill the vacancy. She won several elections to keep her seat, and in 2011, she ran for and was elected mayor. Ten months later, Sandy came ashore, devastating the community.

How Sandy affected her personally: Like most other Sea Bright residents, Long and her family evacuated prior to the storm. Their house was submerged under five feet of water, and they’ve only recently been able to start the process of rebuilding. In the meantime, they’re been living in a rental property elsewhere in town.

“Having lost my home and still being displaced almost two years after the storm, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what many people are dealing with in terms of the Sandy legacy, because I’m experiencing it myself,” she said. “It’s frustrating because for folks like me and thousands of other people, Sandy is still an everyday thing for us. For most of the country and New Jersey, everybody’s moved on, they think Sandy’s over, it’s all better. I think they don’t realize that it’s still going on today.”

On the challenges of dealing with the storm’s aftermath: “I know I didn’t foresee anything like this when I first ran for mayor,” Long said, noting that it’s a part-time, volunteer position. “Prior to Sandy, serving as the mayor of Sea Bright was a 10-to-20-hour a week job. In the days since Sandy, it’s been a fulltime, just about 40 hour a week job that happens at night, on weekends, in the morning, squeezed in between. I pretty much eat, breathe, drink and sleep on disaster recovery at this point.”

“About six months after Sandy,” she added, “I really had a wakeup call where I had to reorder my priorities in that I was doing everything Sea Bright, Sea Bright, Sea Bright. And that was kind of to the detriment of my family. It’s been challenging, but it’s work that has to be done.”

On the progress of Sea Bright’s recovery: “I think we are doing better than a lot of people thought we would,” Long said, noting the borough’s successful summer tourism season, rebounding property values, and repairs to its downtown. “In terms of getting the people back, getting the businesses back, and getting the properties repaired, I think that we’re doing very well, but we still have so much work to do.”

Planning for the future: Beyond the immediate challenges of dealing with Sandy’s physical damage and financial impacts to Sea Bright, Long says she’s been concerned since the beginning about how the borough would go about rebuilding. “Putting it back the way it was, was never an option for me,” she said. “Extreme weather and hurricanes are going to happen, but the number one priority going forward is how can we make sure that this kind of damage doesn’t happen again?”

The answer she and borough leaders arrived at involved several approaches, including pursuing programs and partnerships with FEMA, Rutgers, and groups like New Jersey Future to assist with resiliency planning for future storms. Sea Bright also now requires residents rebuilding their homes to elevate an additional foot above the state-mandated requirements, as an added precaution against sea-level rise and severe weather.

Thoughts on plans to repair Sea Bright’s seawall: The Christie administration recently announced that it would contribute $8.5 million to a federal project to fix a damaged portion of Sea Bright’s seawall and extend it to provide added protection for the borough. The announcement was criticized by some environmentalists, who’ve argued that seawalls have more drawbacks than they have benefits. But while saying she understands those concerns, Long felt steps needed to be taken to close the break in the wall that allowed Sandy’s storm surge to funnel into Sea Bright’s downtown. “When you have an existing seawall that has a 1,000-foot gap in it and you’re talking about future resilience, you need to either take down the whole seawall or you fill the gap, and obviously, it was a lot easier to fill the gap,” she said.

While some have called for residents to move away from the most vulnerable areas of the coast, Long added that that’s not really an option unless homeowners were offered buyouts. “So if we’re staying, then we had an obligation to make sure that people and property are protected to the extent that we can,” she said.

On her decision last spring to leave the Democratic party: Though she was a lifelong Democrat, Long was one of several Shore town mayors who crossed party lines to endorse Gov. Chris Christie for reelection because of his handling of the Sandy recovery. As a result of that, she said she experienced significant political fallout within her own party. “The Democratic county chairman at the time invited me to leave the party,” she recalled. “He basically said in comments to the press that if I was going to do such a thing, I did not belong in the Democratic Party. So when the dust settled, after reflection, I chose to take the chairman up on his invitation. To me it seems more important to solve problems than to take positions based on partisan principles, so I kind of wanted to get out of the partisan game because I’m really just focused on my community here and trying to get things done.”

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