Barbara Stillman proves where there's a will, there's a way

Barbara Stillman, the manager of the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort in Misquamicut, has served as the unofficial psychologist and disaster consultant to business owners in the area since Superstorm Sandy struck last October.
Barbara Stillman, the manager of the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort in Misquamicut, has served as the unofficial psychologist and disaster consultant to business owners in the area since Superstorm Sandy struck last October. Peter M. Weber

March 5, 2013

It is four months since Superstorm Sandy swept through the Rhode Island coastline, and the scene in Misquamicut is grim. The lonely and quiet spell of solitude that hovers over the beach in late winter is broken. The air buzzes with the dull grind of generators, a monotony interrupted now and then by unseen power tools and a whiff of gasoline. Bulldozers scrape against large rocks as the pieces of a new sea wall in front of the Windjammer are hoisted into place. An occasional slow-moving car crunches the sand down Route 1A — onlookers slowing down to take in the towering pyramids of sand that, waiting to be cleaned and sifted, fill the state beach parking lot. At the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort, orange and blue extension cords run around doorways and poke up through the sand in every direction. Piles of debris and signs of construction dot the landscape — sawhorses, pick-up trucks laden with materials. It is daunting, almost impossible, to see how this scene will be transformed into a sunny and welcoming tourist destination when the first visitors arrive in a few short weeks.

But Barbara Stillman sees it.

The resort's developer and manager has worked this beach since the age of 12. She has worked mowing lawns, she has worked selling snacks and groceries and boutique clothing to the families who fill the summer cottages every year. She quit school at 17 to work. She managed the former skating rink, then the restaurant at The Windjammer, bringing big names to perform concerts there, like Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis and Bonnie Raitt. Seizing on the banking debacle of the late 1980s, she leased, bought and rehabbed foreclosed motels, running them as the Misquamicut Beach Connection and working to rebuild the area's reputation as a family-oriented destination. She worked getting fellow business owners to support the first free Movies on the Beach program back in 1998 — an experiment at the time that has become a staple of summer traditions there. She has worked every day and night since the storm. She has gotten up in the middle of the night to work. She has worked to the point of exhaustion, and then beyond it.

"My mind just keeps going," she says.

From a small trailer parked in front of her property, Stillman coordinates help for her fellow business owners. She explains how to fill out sheets of FEMA paperwork. She puts people in touch with contractors and equipment companies. She doles out encouragement, and beer.

"Everybody's pulling together. We're going to get it done," she says simply.

Stillman's ability to adapt to hardship has had a quirky side effect. For four months, she has paid $65 a day for gas to run the generators needed to power the tools to repair her property.

"I get gas, every single day," she said. "And the worst is — I went on vacation to Aruba for two weeks, I had to take a break — and I'm not kidding you, I missed the smell of gasoline. Annoying as it is," she laughs. "I was trying to swim over to the docks to smell the boats..."

Oct. 29, 2012

Stillman rode out Superstorm Sandy at her home in Dunn's Corners. As soon as the wind let up she went out to look around.

"I drove over to Venice restaurant and looked across the pond and honest to God I didn't even know what I was looking at. Ten feet of earth was missing and things just weren't there."

Stillman convinced a friend to take her up in his airplane.

"You gotta get me up there. I gotta know," she remembers saying.

The first person she talked to was Norm Dufresne, a longtime friend and the owner of Sam's Snack Bar for roughly 30 years.

"It killed me. I told him, I'm flying over right now — and you're not there."

All traces of his business — the shack, his sign, his five picnic tables were gone — washed away. In weeks to come his predicament would take on gallows humor. "We'd say, 'This guy has the cleanest place on the beach,'" Stillman says with a half-smile.

She sprang into action, helping Lisa Konicki, the executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce coordinate a resident pass system to help people get back to survey their properties and begin cleanup.

"It was an overwhelming process," she recalls. Stillman worked the chamber offices every day for three weeks. She sold "Bring Back the Beach" T-shirts every weekend and on Thanksgiving Day. And she was the last person to get a pass.

She pulled up to the resort to find her decks and septic system gone, her indoor pool filled with sand and debris. Stepping into her office, she saw little left to save.

"I lost everything in my building because it had just been sitting in water."

As the magnitude of the work ahead sank in, Stillman couldn't sleep.

"There was so much thinking — 'What are we going to do?' I'd be walking the streets in the middle of the night, looking for Norm's picnic tables."

She eventually found them — pieces in the pond, in the weeds along the road.

"I found every single top and bench but for one table."

Stillman salvaged them, called a carpenter friend and had them reassembled.

"I couldn't help myself at the time. I didn't have any power, any equipment. So I said to Norm, 'Let's get your place going.'"

In the end, Dufresne wanted a fresh start. Sam's Snack Bar is open now, with a beachfront deck, new picnic tables, a gleaming portable kitchen and restrooms.

Stillman is keeping the tables as a memento of how far they've come. "We're resilient," she says. "We'll be back 100 percent and better."

June 5, 2013

All down Atlantic Avenue, activity has resumed. Cars fill the lot at The Andrea, where the owners used the destruction and razing of their building as an opportunity to build an outdoor fireside dining area right on the beach. The mini-golf putting greens are ready at Bayview Fun Park. Water Wizz is open; the pool is clear. The carousel and kiddie rides are up and running and The Windjammer has been hosting weddings since May. Paddy's is back too, with a remodeled bar and building. The dune grasses are gone, but the beach is there, with kids playing and couples walking like it's any other summer. And the innovative EMILY lifeguard robots — which earned Westerly national press coverage last year — are safe because of Stillman.

"Before the storm, she made sure to retrieve our EMILY robots from the town beach equipment building — thank God," Konicki said. The building was washed away in the storm.

"If she ran for mayor of Misquamicut, she would win." Dufresne says. "Hands down. Everyone loves her."

Konicki echoed that sentiment.

"She constantly encourages me, constantly has faith in me. She is always helping others. She has an amazing heart," Konicki says.

Stillman's efforts, the hard work of the Chamber, and the more than 1,200 volunteers who mobilized throughout the area, digging out the sand and carting away debris, have paid off. But there is a poignant irony to Stillman's tireless efforts on everyone else's behalf. Over at her resort, there's frustration. She didn't get electricity until mid-March. She's had to delay her opening until the new septic system — enclosed by concrete barriers in anticipation of the storms to come — was installed. The reopening she counted on for this spring took place in mid-June. That news was disappointing to the time-share residents eager to return. And she had to secure her utilities before attending to details like landscaping. She's eager to get all the residents back in, eager to see kids splashing in the pool. Eager for a sense of normalcy after these many months of work and work and waiting and waiting.

But — she says — people are back on the beach, and that is what counts.

"There's a solution to every problem," she adds, looking out across the tide.

Barbara Stillman and her daughter, Taylor.
Barbara Stillman and her daughter, Taylor. Peter M. Weber
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