ALONG THE JERSEY SHORE -- With all the hoopla and ribbon-cuttings up and down the Jersey Shore Friday, you'd think New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other government officials, business owners and residents were unveiling something new.
And in a sense, they were.
This is a brand-new Jersey Shore. While some recovery is still ongoing from Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast seven months ago, the Jersey Shore to a very large extent has been cleaned up, rebuilt, reopened and is ready for business.
The toll was immense: A total of 117 people died in the storm, 34 of them in New Jersey, which suffered an estimated $31.8 billion in damage. The northern part of the state suffered the worst from the storm that made landfall Oct. 29.
But with great fanfare Friday, Mr. Christie symbolically opened the summer season at the shore by cutting a 5-mile-long blue ribbon in Seaside Heights, one of the hardest-hit northern beach towns. New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno handled ribbon-cutting duties 75 miles to the south in Sea Isle City as did officials and citizens in 11 other seaside communities.
The coordinated statewide event marked the rollout of a $25 million comprehensive media campaign designed to send an unambiguous message: New Jersey is "Stronger than the Storm."
The campaign's strategy -- delivered in TV commercials, billboards, a website (strongerthanthestorm.com) and a Twitter account (#STTS) -- is to eliminate any belief that the Jersey Shore is no more. That's crucial because tourism generated a record $40 billion last year.
As Americans deal with the loss and trauma of another natural disaster -- this one inland in Oklahoma for which Mr. Christie has urged swift government aid -- those in New Jersey want tourists to forget the shocking images of a ravaged shoreline. Heading into the tourist season, they want the focus to be on the present and the better-than-before Jersey Shore.
Here, then, is a road trip down that shoreline where many Pittsburghers vacation.
Long Beach Island
Long Beach Island wasn't slammed as hard as Seaside Heights, about 30 miles to the north, but it took quite a hit. Damage was estimated upward to $1 billion, most of it in Long Beach Township, which makes up 12 of the barrier island's 18 miles.
The surreal scene of Sandy's destruction and its depositing of 3 feet of sand blocks inland, is no more. Here and there are reminders -- empty lots where houses once stood and continuing reconstruction, particularly in Holgate, the hardest hit area. But for the most part, Sandy's scars are few. All beaches and most every restaurant and store is open as the island's governments, businesses and residents banded together and acted quickly to reclaim their island.
Stephen DiPietro exemplified the resiliency. All four of his restaurants were flooded with 4 feet of water, causing about $500,000 in damage. Still, he viewed himself as relatively lucky.
"The four walls were there. The roofs weren't ripped off. All of the restaurants were on their foundations," he said.
So he set about rebuilding. He reopened the California Grill & Pizza on Nov. 15 -- and found his business tripled for that time of year because of all the recovery contractors working on the island. He reopened the Blue Water Cafe on Feb. 14, the Dockside Diner on April 1 and Stefano's Seafood on April 20.
An added plus, he said, is "everything's new and improved."
"We're moving forward," said his wife, Jane. "We're not victims. We decided, 'Let's just do what we do best, serving food.' "
A couple with a baby walked into Murphy's grocery store in Beach Haven, smiles as wide as the aisles. They spotted owner Ron Murphy and general manager John Wachter. There were hugs and handshakes and backslaps.
The scene would be repeated over and over May 15, the reopening of the grocery store serving the southern part of the island.
There were banners and cake and balloons. The preceding night, about 400 people attended a reopening party. Like other businesses rebuilt after Sandy, Murphy's is new and improved, now completely operated by computers, Mr. Murphy said proudly.
And it's not alone. A bulletin board near the exit doors is filled with photographs of the community's other 72 businesses that have reopened for the season.
"Beach Haven Strong!" it's titled.
It's not even noon and Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph H. Mancini is giving his fourth media interview of the day. His theme: Countering misconceptions.
Mr. Mancini and others concerned about losing tourist business this season point to the iconic image of the Jet Star roller coaster in the ocean at Seaside Heights as a nemesis. The coaster, most recently publicized May 14 when Britain's Prince Harry visited Seaside Heights and since dismantled, created a false impression that the entire shore remained destroyed.
"[The media] always show that damn roller coaster in the water ... but we're not Seaside Heights, although our hearts go out to them," said Mr. Mancini. "We're really back to normal. There's only been one business that closed."
Helping spread that word that "LBI is Alive" is the website lbiisalive.com, the brainchild of Pat Sepanak, owner of Sand Dollar Real Estate in Surf City on Long Beach Island, and her daughter, Sam, a December marketing graduate of Penn State University.
Getting the word out is crucial, Pat Sepanak said, because rental bookings are down an estimated 20 to 30 percent. The mayor estimated business will be off this season about 10 to 15 percent but would be higher without the state and local informational campaigns.
In that vein, the municipality and businesses each donated $25,000 for an advertising campaign running in New York and Philadelphia.
For Pittsburghers, he had this message: "Hey, come on back, we're better than we were last year because everything's new." He added an extra enticement, which could not yet be verified: "The beer's colder this year!"
Sandy's eye reached landfall near Atlantic City, meaning the brunt of the damage was to the north and relatively less damage occurred to the south.
Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo T. Langford said that while his city incurred "hundreds of millions of dollars of damage," it wasn't as bad as the perception created by media reports. He remains particularly upset that some people believe the boardwalk, the world's oldest, was destroyed. He noted that only the northernmost section of the boardwalk, which fronts no businesses, was destroyed.
Ninety-five percent of the residents displaced are back in their homes. The damaged boardwalk will be repaired beginning in September. Businesses, including all the casinos, are up and running.
"I think we're poised to make a full recovery. In Atlantic City, we had the greatest number of homes affected but did not get the total devastation of other communities.
"Certainly we were traumatized and inconvenienced. Hotel rooms, trade shows and conventions were all canceled in November and December. But the outlook for summer is very positive. We're ready to rock and roll."
Painted pink, it's hard to miss The Chatterbox Restaurant, whose slogan is "Where the Town Meets." The historic restaurant on East Ninth Street near Central Avenue, which dates back to 1937, was flooded like most other businesses downtown. Marie Repici, who has run the restaurant for 35 years, and her partner and daughter-in-law, Mt. Lebanon native Aimee Bachman Repici, decided to totally remodel the 150-seat restaurant, even creating a new menu.
"We never had water before. I was devastated at first but now I'm excited," Marie Repici said May 16 as workers continued preparing the restaurant for its grand reopening. "I'm looking forward to it. We're going to be all right."
Not far away, couples and bikers and dog walkers traversed the boardwalk as waves lapped at the beach. The town that bills itself as "America's Greatest Family Resort" has this year adopted an additional slogan: "Ready for Your Stay."
"All the downtown is back, the boardwalk didn't have any damage, the beach is being replenished," said Mark Soifer, the city's public relations director for 42 years. "You wouldn't know anything happened here."
Ocean City is on the northern tip of Cape May County, the state's southernmost county, which suffered $600 million in damage. Most of the damage was in Ocean City and Sea Isle City, with less damage in Avalon, Stone Harbor, The Wildwoods and Cape May, said Gerald M. Thornton, director of the Cape May Board of Freeholders, or commissioners.
"We are just about completely recovered, except for some people who remain displaced as far as residential areas," he said.
Tourism is the county's main industry, bringing in $5.2 billion a year. On peak weekends, the county of 97,000 residents can swell to 700,000 people, he said.
And there could be more this year -- bookings are up about 20 percent over last year, probably because tourists who normally vacation on the north Jersey Shore are moving south this year.
"I'm happy to have the business but saddened by the way it has been increased."
Sea Isle City
The sun is shining and for the first time in days, it's warm and getting warmer -- a perfect day for the beach in Sea Isle City.
On the Promenade, the 1.5-mile paved walkway that runs from 29th to 57th streets along the Atlantic Ocean, a sea breeze softly strokes strollers in sunglasses. On the beach, two bikini-clad women sun themselves. Not far away, eight Little Sisters of the Poor, all wearing white habits, discreetly but excitedly walk along the shore's edge as waves roll over their feet.
The day confirmed the city's advertising slogan for the season, "We're Ready," which was kicked off during the Polar Bear Plunge celebration in February attended by 50,000 people.
"We're very optimistic, very excited," said Mayor Leonard C. Desiderio, who also is a Cape May County freeholder. "We think we're going to have a fabulous 2013 summer season."
The city suffered $162 million in public and private losses, including irreparable damage to its 106-year-old city hall and 50-year-old public safety building, whose operations are now both housed in a vacant elementary school. Plans are in the works to build a new combined building. Some homes suffered first-floor flooding but most businesses were spared major damage.
Mr. Desiderio said recovery from Superstorm Sandy, as well as completion of the long-planned infrastructure developments, make Sea Isle City a better vacation destination than ever.
"We're ready," he said.
Businessman and Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey noted The Wildwoods -- North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest -- were only spared severe damage because Sandy veered from its original track and made landfall much farther north.
Mr. Morey, who with his brother owns Morey's Piers & Beachfront Waterparks, said the upside to the publicity the storm generated is that "there is more awareness of the Jersey Shore than there has ever been nationally and worldwide."
Mr. Morey, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, with members in 95 countries, said more widely marketing the Jersey Shore's recovery and its uniqueness -- such as the absence of chain restaurants and hotels -- could pay big dividends in tourism. Each of the state's shore towns has its own character and tone but all evoke Americana by the sea, he said.
"It's authentic culturally and there's an edge to it. I think that's interesting to folks."
After all, he noted, there's only one Jersey Shore. And it's open for business.
Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968. First Published May 26, 2013 4:00 AM