Sandy had come to Jersey and crushed, but her monster footprint is shrinking.
The second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, after Katrina, punched its way up the Northeast coast in late October of last year, causing nearly $37 billion worth of damage in New Jersey, according to a November report from the governor's office. The hurricane resulted in 117 total deaths, based on American Red Cross figures; destroyed or damaged 346,000 housing units; and affected 75 percent of the shore's small businesses. About 2.5 million cubic yards of sand and debris choked roads and waterways.
But time, plus money, heals. Eight months (and $6.8 billion in federal aid) later, New Jersey's beach towns are wriggling back to life. Over Memorial Day weekend, the psychological start of summer, Gov. Chris Christie heralded the triumphant return of the oceanside destination. Someone pressed play on the sun-baked anthem "Stronger Than the Storm," then left it on a continuous loop. This summer, we're not surfing with the Beach Boys, "we're resilient, we're Jersey-tough, we are stronger than the storm."
Catchy ditty, for sure, but sunbathers can't cop a tan on perseverance, resolve and good intentions. We want silky strands and restored boardwalks, hot funnel cakes and frozen cocktails. We need the Jersey Shore to be operational and functional, and back in full-on beach party mode. We'll take that song, but mix it with Pitbull, please.
To determine the Garden State's state of readiness, I retracted the top on the convertible and followed the salty scent of sea to the Jersey Shore. Along the route, I looked for vestiges of the hurricane, but in many places, Sandy was a nobody.
Sandy was a fickle beast.
In New Jersey, the storm unleashed its greatest wrath upon Monmouth and Ocean counties, in the central coastal region. Although the hurricane clawed some areas, it barely nipped at others.
Long Beach Island exemplifies the storm's mercurial nature, The 18-mile-long barrier island endured a patchwork of casualties: nothing serious on the north, but painful in the south.
At the tippity-top of the island, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park reopened less than a month after the storm hit. The lighthouse did not lose a fleck of red paint.
Farther south, I noted a few boarded-up stores and restaurants, as well as an abandoned 7-Eleven. In different circumstances, I easily could have interpreted the damage as the inevitable wear and tear of salt spray and strong ocean breezes, or blamed the weakened economy.
At Brighton Beach Surf Shop, which I last visited in 2007 for a surf lesson, the front yard and porch looked unchanged. I was greeted by the same jumble of jellybean-colored beach chairs, inflatable rafts, surfboards and umbrellas. And once again, I found Mike fussing around in the garage bursting with surfboards.
Sandy is a sensitive topic for many residents, but I had to ask Mike a vital question: "Did you surf the storm?"
"With Irene, I went the day after, but I didn't really surf this one," he said. "It just didn't feel right. I didn't go back out till around Christmas."
The storm flooded the shop with about 4 feet of water, blew off the gutters and trampled the roof. His staff removed the merchandise piled on the floor, but it did not anticipate the water rising and carrying off higher-shelved items like corks on a creek. He set a date to reopen by Easter and met his goal.
Mike, who admitted that tourist numbers are down so far this year, politely answered my questions. But I sensed that he was tiring of this topic and ready to switch to more important matters, such as when could he get me out on the waves again. My answer: When the water warms up; see you in September.
The biggest concern at Fantasy Island Amusement Park in Beach Haven is not freezer burn on the toes but losing your funnel cake. The family fun center has been making kids dizzy for more than three decades with theme park rides and sugar highs. Swamped by 9 feet of water, the entertainment venue had to gut every building, including the arcade. However, the rides escaped structural harm, and every evening (at least through August), the park flips the switch, setting the thrill-mobiles in motion.
Fantasy Island operates 18 rides; many move at blurring speeds or feature tot-size seats that require adults to slip into a pair of Spanx. The Giant Wheel, by comparison, provides roomy cars and a lost balloon's view of Long Beach Island.
Before I could board the wheel, I had to draft a partner to go around with me. Yes, I am taller than 54 inches, but after the 2011 death of a young girl in Wildwood, the state recommends that amusement parks pair up at least two people per car. Victoria, an employee, stepped in as my chaperone.
As we slowly churned, I rotated my body counterclockwise, taking in the long and wide spread of the island. I saw Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic on opposite sides, and the Monopoly-size homes wedged in between.
Sandy was nowhere to be seen.
To find her, I had to travel to the bottom of the island, to Holgate. The community, a vulnerable target near the rendezvous point of the bay and the ocean, received quite a bruising. Today, the laid-back community is a humming hive of activity, with contractors fixing windows, porches, doors and driveways. I barely could hear the cackles of gulls through the din of bulldozers, hammers and drills.
"Take pictures of the nice things," Eileen Bowker told me when I stopped by her deli for a soda, "the beaches, and the restaurants that are open."
A few minutes before meeting Eileen, I had snapped a picture of the rah-rah sign - "LBI is Alive" - hanging from the store's second floor. Before driving off, I took a photo of Holgate's beach and its new fence, which smelled of fresh pine.
If you want to support the restoration and revitalization of the Jersey Shore, be hedonistic and self-indulgent. Follow the T-shirt gospel, "Jersey go hard or go home."
Here are some suggestions for Seaside Heights: Take a long, REM-deep nap on the beach (remember to buy your $5 badge). Fill your chipmunk cheeks with thin-crust pizza, Hershey's ice cream and fried Oreos on the boardwalk. Chug $2 pints of Budweiser or $10 shakers of shots at EJ's bar. Pass out in a local hotel (I suggest the comfortable Colony Motel). Rouse yourself for a henna tattoo or a Monroe piercing. Or, for less bodily intrusion and mutilation, spring for a "Restore the Shore" magnet or sticker; all proceeds go to recovery efforts, according to the accompanying sign.
"Seaside Heights was the hardest to come back so far," said Bob Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There wasn't a board on the boardwalk."
But that was then. Since Memorial Day weekend, visitors have been stepping on nearly a mile of new planks stretching from Kearney Avenue to the border with Seaside Park.
No doubt, the progress is fitful, especially along the two piers, which have grown into a tertiary tourist attraction. At Casino Pier, I watched workmen array the disassembled seats of the chairlift and dust off large panels with Southwestern desert landscapes. At the end of the boardwalk, I settled into a picnic table at Park Seafood that overlooked the decapitated head of a giant (fake) snake and a lone T. rex staring off to sea. I can't read dinosaur emotions very well but imagine he was pretty choked up.
By next summer, one can only hope that the snake's head will be reunited with its body and that T. rex will have playmates again. That should lift his spirits, and Seaside Heights's, too.