Mike Stavola saw the damage at Driftwood Cabana Club, the Sea Bright beach club his family has owned since the 1950s, the morning after Hurricane Sandy slammed its southern building off the foundation, perching it onto a seawall at a 45-degree angle.
It didn't take long for Stavola and his five siblings to decide what to do: rebuild and reopen by Memorial Day weekend.
"There was no discussion about it, believe it or not," Stavola said. "We kicked the sand a little bit and said, 'OK, this is what we have to do.' … There are some beach clubs that aren't as lucky as us."
Sea Bright's seven private beach clubs plan to rebuild, according to James LoBiondo, a borough councilman who serves as council liaison to the clubs, even though two — Ship Ahoy and Sands — were so severely wrecked that remaining structures had to be demolished as a public safety issue, and much of another club, Chapel, was washed away by the storm.
The clubs often are family affairs, with multiple generations of members sharing a locker or cabana, and owners being known by last name: the Jacksons at Ship Ahoy, the Chimentos at Sands, LoBiondos at Surfrider, Mulherens at Chapel, and Stavolas — cousins of Mike Stavola — at Waters Edge. The only exception is Sea Bright Beach Club, a member-owned club managed by a board of governors.
Like many small, family-owned businesses hurt by Sandy, insurance coverage will play a significant role in rebuilding plans.
"Everyone is underinsured pretty sizably," said LoBiondo, an owner of Surfrider Beach Club, who said Driftwood was the lone exception. "You're never prepared for a full building loss all at once."
Before a property loss, the thinking of business owners can be "I'll never lose the whole building," said Michael Tiagwad, president and CEO of Conner, Strong & Buckelew.
While insurance policies are based on the replacement cost of a building, unexpected factors can increase that cost, such as an insurer balking at covering costs of demolition, even if it was mandated by local government. Further increasing costs can be changes in building specifications, such as those related to wheelchair accessibility, that didn't exist when the damaged structure was built decades ago, Tiagwad said.
"You can speculate on what it will cost, but you never really know," he said.
Additional building ordinance coverage can be purchased, but is more prevalent for large commercial businesses, not small enterprises, he said. Larger businesses with multiple properties also can spread their risk by using blanket limits of insurance where, for example, $1 million coverage on each of 10 sites could be consolidated to cover a $10 million loss on one building. But smaller businesses, with tighter budgets, often don't have that option.
"It's a catch-22: For them, the expense of insuring it properly is more of a burden," Tiagwad said.
However, it's common practice for insurers to advance funds for part of a settlement, even while details about full payment are being negotiated, Tiagwad said.
The Stavola family has moved forward with its rebuilding efforts at Driftwood, even before nailing down what it will receive from insurance.
"We're not waiting on anything," Stavola said. "It's how we approach business. It's not always the best way, financially, but it was the way I was raised."
Stavola declined to provide specifics of Driftwood's insurance, which may be the best of the seven clubs.
"We did our homework. We're very proactive when it comes to insurance," Stavola said, noting it can be tempting to cut back on coverage during a string of good-weather years. "We spent the money upfront on insurance."
Other clubs may have had sufficient flood insurance but insufficient wind insurance — or vice versa — for an event that saw devastation caused by water and wind. Owners at the five other clubs did not respond to messages or could not be reached for this story.
Surfrider also plans to be open by Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the clubs' season, LoBiondo said. LoBiondo's father, James LoBiondo, has owned it since 1986. Surfrider, whose membership is about 400 families, seemed to suffer the least of the seven clubs — its pool area on the south side was damaged, but the main structures largely were spared. In late November, its main building was cleared by structural engineers; two years ago, the family undertook multimillion-dollar renovations to its main building and Windows on the Water banquet room.
"It's probably one of the reasons we fared the best," said LoBiondo, noting the renovations brought the buildings up to current standards.
Besides the taxes the clubs pay to the town, they provide an economic impact by drawing people to Sea Bright.
"The pizza places and secondary businesses feed off the beach clubs," LoBiondo said. "They still had a great loss, but their loss was not catastrophic like some of the beach clubs."
Stavola, who also owns Southampton-based heavy highway contractor Cardinal Contracting, plans to launch a fundraiser later this month to help offset the cost of permit fees for businesses and landowners in Sea Bright.
For Stavola and his siblings, deciding to rebuild for its 2,000 members was more than a strict business decision. He started going to the club as an infant, swam on its swim team and worked as a lifeguard and on the cleanup crew as a teen.
"It's a whole culture. … One (aspect) is business and operating the business, and the other is absolutely emotional," said Stavola. "I'd like to go a couple more generations if we could."
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