LONG BEACH ISLAND, N.J. -- The queue began in darkness.
Early on, about 5 a.m., there was only a car or two on the berm of Route 72 at the blocked entrance to the bridge connecting the mainland with Long Beach Island. The 18-mile island, north of Atlantic City and a popular summer vacation destination for Pittsburghers, had been closed to residents and business owners since Superstorm Sandy slammed into its seaside homes, condos, motels, restaurants and other attractions.
For a brief period Monday, residents -- except those living in heavily damaged Holgate and North Beach -- had been allowed to inspect their homes and recover important documents. They had to leave in the afternoon, though, as the area is unsafe: while electricity has been restored in most areas, natural gas has been shut off for fear of ruptures, and the water is unsafe to drink.
Friday was the first day that residents of Holgate and North Beach could visit their communities. They lined up alongside Route 72, wondering what damage they'd find. While some had seen pictures posted on the Internet of their homes, they needed that first-hand look to know for certain. So they waited anxiously.
Soon, the line of vehicles stretched for miles. At 6 a.m., contractors were allowed to cross the bridge first. Every type of truck imaginable -- pickup, box truck, van, dump truck, refuse trucks, tractor trailers -- went over the causeway and onto the island. And then came the residents, who would have to leave the island by late afternoon.
On the way to Holgate, at the southern end of the island, some relatively minor damage was evident in places such as Surf City, Ship Bottom and Beach Haven. But once through the final checkpoint on Long Beach Boulevard, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, it was like a war zone. There were local police, state police -- even from Louisiana -- and National Guard soldiers, about 180 of them on the island. Police cars with flashing lights and Army Humvees were everywhere. So, too, were bulldozers and other heavy equipment, providing an incessant roar from revving diesel engines and chirping from the vehicles backing up.
Amid the controlled chaos, residents inspected their houses. They walked or drove, many with video cameras in hand, recording what no one had ever seen before on this island.
They saw demolished houses. And sand. Lots and lots of sand.
Stanley Michael Krebushevski learned that he had been doubly lucky. A Staten Island resident who didn't incur any damage from Sandy in his New York home, he drove to Long Beach Island to find his Holgate home had fared as well. An architect, he knew that having high dunes would provide a buffer from a storm surge, and that's just what happened.
But the surge and high winds had been so powerful that they remade the shoreline.
On the beach, bulldozers pushed sand into 10-foot-high dunes. On the boulevard, bulldozers scraped sand from the roadway.
Seaside homes still stood, but all were on exposed foundation pilings because the breakway walls that once surrounded them had done what they were supposed to do in a storm surge. Ripped insulation hung beneath homes where deck stairways had once touched the beach's dunes.
Across the street, giant sand dunes were now in people's yards, up against scarred houses and on side streets. Residents worked to clear the sand so they could get inside their homes.
"It's like a blizzard," one snow-bound homeowner said, "but it doesn't melt."
"I'm selling sand cheap, as much as you want," joked resident Jim Dobrowolski of Burlington County, N.J., as friends dug the 3 feet of sand that surrounded his house.
Two neighbors approach. The men embraced.
"How are you?"
"I got 4 feet of water," one said, shrugging.
"We'll be having cocktails in the garage before you know it," Mr. Dobrowolski said, and the men heartily agreed.
"We're alive and we're breathing," said Mr. Dobrowolski. "We'll live for another day."
Several blocks away, Paul Polizzi had the same attitude -- even as he stood near his house that was flattened by the storm. Most of the roof of the two-story home was now on the ground.
As powerful as the storm was, it also had its quirks. Inside his demolished home the beds remained made, the pictures hung on the wall.
"It's amazing how Mother Nature works," he said.
Agreeing was his sister-in-law, Cathy Polizzi. Despite the loss, she too was upbeat. She said you have to laugh to keep from crying.
"I'm going to put two stockings with ruby slippers under the roof," she said, referencing an iconic scene from "The Wizard of Oz."
"The Wicked Witch of the East came through."
Tomorrow: A look at Atlantic City.
The Post-Gazette's Michael A. Fuoco and Rebecca Droke are visiting shore towns devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Many of these towns in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are popular vacation spots for Western Pennsylvania families.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968. First Published November 10, 2012 5:00 AM