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 spot for Pittsburghers, has been closed to residents and business owners and other members of the public since Superstorm Sandy slammed into its seaside homes,condos, motels, restaurants and other attractions 11 days ago.
Residents and building owners of all areas but Holgate and North Beach, the two most damaged areas, were allowed on Long Beach Island for part of Monday to inspect their homes and recover important documents, such as insurance papers. They had to leave in the afternoon as the area is unsafe -- while electricity has been restored in most areas, natural gas has been shut off for fear of ruptures. Also, the water is unsafe to drink.
Because the gas is shut off, the community is in desperate need of electric space heaters, said Long Beach Township Deputy Emergency Manager James "Butch" Hartman. Anyone wishing to donate is asked to email the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org
But today was the first day that residents of Holgate and North Beach could visit their communities so they lined up alongside Route 72, wondering just how evil Sandy had been.
Soon, the line of vehicles stretched for miles. At 6 a.m., contractors started crossing the bridge first. Every type of truck imagineable -- 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 mid-afternoon.
On the way to Holgate, at the southern end of the island, some 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 entering a war zone. There were local police, state police -- even from Louisiana -- and National Guard soldiers everywhere. There was so much sand that it was difficult to determine where the beach ended and the road began.
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 the homes where deck stairways that once touched the beach's dunes now hung with a path to nowhere --10 feet now separating the last rung from the sand.
Across the street, giant sand dunes no longer were on the beach but in yards, up against scarred houses and on side streets. Residents worked to clear the mounds of sand so they could get into their homes.
"I'm selling sand cheap," one resident joked with a stranger, as friends dug the 3 feet of sand that surrounded his house.
"It's like a blizzard," another sand-bound homeowner said, "but it doesn't melt."
On the beach, bulldozers pushed sand into 10-foot-high dunes. On the boulevard, bulldozers scraped sand from the roadway.
Some homes fared well structurally, some were off their foundations, some collapsed. Sheds were blown 150 feet to an area near a damaged house that residents good-naturedly refer to as the "shed graveyard." Concrete driveways were lifted and blown like Styrofoam. A car was carried across the boulevard and into a house. Next door, a tree was now inside.
Although it was the first time residents had viewed the damage in person, many knew what to expect -- they had seen photographs of their homes on the Internet.
Most were resigned to what they now face in rebuilding, if that's possible.
"We're alive and we're breathing," said Jim Dobrowolski of Burlington County, N.J. "We'll live for another day."
The Post-Gazette's Michael A. Fuoco and Rebecca Droke are visiting the shore towns devastated by Superstorm Sandy, for a first-hand look at the damage. Their full story will appear in an upcoming Sunday edition of the Post-Gazette.
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Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com; 412-263-1968 First Published November 9, 2012 5:30 AM