Seaside Heights historically embodied both the natural beach-encrusted splendors and the boozy, boardwalk MTV excesses of the Jersey Shore. That status was only enhanced after pictures of its half-submerged roller coaster, long a destination for families in search of fun, became a post-Hurricane Sandy metaphor in news reports for nature's triumph over what man had wrought.
But on the beach under a brutal mid-July sun, all seemed as it once was. Teenagers frolicked in the waves like ponies, tossing their manes in the surf, while older couples contented themselves under umbrellas against the sun, and children built castles just out of reach of the waves.
Then a small plane chugged overhead with a flying billboard that often touts the mysterious virtues of the Boardwalk hurricane drinks, but its message instead was a reminder that an actual one had perforated this place.
"Raise your house in 60 days," it promised.
The idea of resurrection, of rising up and restoring, is everywhere on the Jersey Shore, but then so are signs that it will take a while: While every public boardwalk on the Jersey Shore has opened, some businesses in commercial districts are shuttered, and nearby housing will take many more months and perhaps years to be rebuilt. In public statements, Gov. Chris Christie has suggested that 80 percent of the shore is back to what it once was, a generous estimate from the state's biggest booster that is hard to reconcile with some of the more devastated areas.
Still, when the sun beats down hard on the asphalt of the city and the Garden State beckons, you can be sure that the shore is not just open for business, but is also a remarkable place to visit post-Sandy. As an immigrant to New Jersey, I take pride in the shore's rebuttal to jokes about the quality of life here, and four recent days on the beach did nothing to change my mind. The shore, with its necklace of jewels -- some bawdy, some refined -- still sparkles even though there are missing or damaged pieces.
Governor Christie has said Sandy "messed with the wrong people," and given the manifest resilience, it's hard to argue with his Jersey-pride bromide.
People don't want the Jersey Shore to be rebuilt better than ever: they mostly want it be the same as it ever was. Nostalgia is triggered in the nose, quickly followed by taste, and the post-Sandy Jersey Shore does not disappoint. From the first whiff of a funnel cake at Point Pleasant, memories come rushing back and the stomach begins to growl for the pizza at Vic's in Bradley Beach, the corned beef hash at Frank's in Asbury Park, and the burgers at Woodies on Long Beach Island. In the same way an army fights on its stomach, this place makes sure visitors find the food that they grew up loving.
More so than the beseeching bumper stickers and hats about "Restore the Shore" and "Stronger Than the Storm," those smells suggest that not only will the shore be back, but in many places it already is.
After days of reporting on the shore, I gave in to the heat and the remarkable beaches and plopped down on the sand in Surf City on Long Beach Island. There was trouble in paradise -- the sand flies got the memo about Jersey being back and feasted on my ankles until I draped a towel in self-defense.
But then as I lay back and closed my eyes, nature's metronome, a surf that came and went in a gorgeous rhythm that began millions of years ago, took over. I heard a distant rumbling and realized that an offshore rig was pumping sand onto the beach just down from where I was. That chug of renewal, of man pushing back on what nature had done, came to sound comforting as well. The shore was both back and not, damaged and renewed. It all depended on where you put your towel down. Asbury Park, Ocean Grove and Belmar look not so much remade as remarkably untouched. But Ortley Beach, Lavallette and Sea Bright still have deep, open wounds.
After sitting in the water in Seaside Heights as an elegiac reminder of what happened on Oct. 29, the Jet Star roller coaster -- a former giant amusement tossed like a broken toy -- was demolished and pulled out in May. The crane came in by barge, and, like so many miniature ones in the arcades on the Boardwalk, picked at it bit by bit until it was gone.
The mess has been cleaned up at the amusement park at Casino Pier, but rebuilding is a work-in progress. Louis R. Cingliano, director of operations at Casino Pier, is overseeing the rebuilding of the park and expects to completely open sometime this month with 18 rides, including one called the Super Storm. Take that, Sandy.
Walking over a rebuilt pier, he said he's had to beg parts from all over to get the operation ready. "It's not like you can walk into a Home Depot and get the parts that we needed," he said. It could be worse. Just up the beach, the amusement park on Funtown Pier will not open until 2014.
"You have to keep your head up and look for something positive," he said. "You learn to be happy about the little stuff."
Sitting on a bench on the rebuilt Boardwalk, Andrew Wagg knows exactly what he means. "When they rebuilt the Boardwalk, I was worried it wouldn't be as cool, but the Boardwalk is starting to get that lived-in look again," Mr. Wagg said. "Now that you see gum and a few cigarette butts, it seems like the old Jersey Shore is back."
His family's house at the beach took on two feet of water and has yet to be rendered habitable, but he's sticking to the sunny side of the Boardwalk.
"Yeah, we have to go back to Somerset for the night, but we're just happy to be here for the day," he said. "Where else would you rather be?"
According to Governor Christie's office, 365,000 homes were substantially damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. More than $5.3 billion in total federal assistance has been spent so far, and $300 million has been set aside to buy out homes that are beyond repair. Some $1 billion has been dedicated to restoring and protecting the actual shore by the Army Corps of Engineers.
If that all seems like a lot of money, keep in mind that tourism in the state of New Jersey generates about $40 billion annually in revenues for the state. That's a lot of snow cones. Public money has surged toward the waterfront, restoring beaches, boardwalks and commercial districts in remarkably short order. But slow down and look down the streets leading away from the beach, and you will see lasting scars, with houses that contain little more than memories of the past seasons, their walls moldering and furnishings in piles, houses in pieces, waiting for a verdict from insurers. "Do not tear down!" pleaded a sign on what used to be the first floor of house in Lavallette. Many homes judged to be in the flood plain will have to be raised up before insurers will pay for rebuilding, so weekly renters will have fewer choices.
The dissonance between rebuilt beachfronts and devastated housing can make it seem like a Hollywood Western town where there is little behind the edifice on main street. In Sea Bright on a Saturday night, Woody's, a restaurant that nourished the recovery workers for months on end, had 90-minute waits for a table, with a mob queuing up in front of the four hostesses. Two blocks away, a block of small homes stood mostly bereft, with some having little prospect of rejuvenation.
Chris Woods, who owns Woody's Ocean Grille, came back post-Sandy to find Ocean Avenue, the town's main street, a ruin of dunes with cars embedded here and there. Working with the National Guard and a mobile unit, the restaurant served more than 200,000 free meals to people working to restore the shore.
"I can't believe how far we've come, but you have a lot of houses in Sea Bright that are worth $250,000 that need $150,000 in repairs," he said. "There's no doubt that some of them won't be back, and I worry that the mix here is going to change."
Sandy can seem as fickle as it was ferocious, because its force exposed idiosyncrasies in the natural and manufactured landscape. In general, the closer the distance between the ocean and the bays, the more hideous the damage.
Mantoloking sits on a peninsula, a long, narrow spit of land that separates Barneget Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It is a gorgeous place, with natural features unencumbered by boardwalks or commerce. But those characteristics and the forceful hydraulics of the waves pushed by Sandy meant all 500 homes there were clobbered and as many as 100 have been torn down or will be soon.
Sal Garguilio, a large man who piled out of a car with his children, was looking at a house he had come to for many summers.
"It's just complete devastation," he said, before yelling after his children, who were walking into the ruin. "Don't touch anything!"
"Three blocks north of here, nothing. Three blocks south of here, nothing. But it looks like a bomb went off here," he said, shaking his head.
People with surfboards walked underneath homes that had been completely wrecked, while a block away, a police officer on a four-wheeler admonished visitors to use designated beach entry points. "If you owned these properties, you wouldn't want strangers wandering through just because Sandy did what it did," he said through mirrored sunglasses.
But for every Mantoloking and Sea Bright, there are other communities that sat on more protected parts of the coast or behind higher dunes and were ready for the season.
On this July weekend, more than 15,000 people attended Lobsterfest on Bradley Beach, lining up for at least six versions of lobster rolls and dozens of other fried, whipped and frozen treats. Down on Point Pleasant, the beach was inviting, and a still-chilly surf offered splashy respite with plenty of room to spread out.
"My family has been coming here for six generations back when we all we could afford was a $5 cabana for the day," said Alan Weiss, who, along with his wife, was keeping an eye on two granddaughters.
"Now we stay right there," he said, jerking a thumb toward a beachfront property. "You can't support the recovery unless you show up, right?"
A management consultant who has written dozens of books, he thinks that Point Pleasant and other (mostly) unscathed communities should get the word out.
"The damage here is tiny, yet vacancies abound and the Boardwalk is not as crowded as it should be," he said.
He has a point. People play favorites and develop loyalties to one town or another -- the peace and quiet of Ocean Grove would drive the average Seaside visitor crazy -- but if visitors pick their spots, it is an oddly wonderful time to visit the shore. Crowds are down, surf is up, and coveted rental properties are suddenly available.
The town of Asbury Park knows a thing or two about being back on its heels. After shaking off years of neglect, it came roaring back, powered by an influx of mostly gay pioneers who found bargains. It's bustling. The musical legacy of the place was audible throughout a recent July weekend, from the open-air stage run by the Stone Pony, the legendary bar made famous by Bruce Springsteen. Even those who didn't pay to see the show were treated (or assaulted, depending musical tastes) to the sounds of raucous, incredibly profane rap acts. The Berkeley Hotel was jammed with lots of attendees at a White Party, a half-evocation of the legendary Black and White Party put on by Truman Capote at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966, but this one was by and for women only. Still others came for the women's dodge ball tournament and the nearby roller derby.
The glancing blow from Sandy left Asbury well positioned for this year, according to Tony Imbimbo, the weekend manager at the Silver Ball Museum, a temple to the shiny splendors of pinball.
"We took out 23 wheelbarrows of sand, and I never want to see another wheelbarrow," he said. "But we are getting very good traffic. I think part of what is happening is that people want to see what happened, and we are one of the first turns off for the shore on the Garden State."
The frolic, sometimes amid the ruins, can seem odd.
"It is difficult to come down to the beach and know that just behind you, people are struggling," said Jerry Malazzo, standing near a keening dump truck on the beach in Mantoloking. "But you can tell people here appreciate everyone who is coming down."
In one of the beach community subdivisions at Toms River, Russ Miller was repainting his house in the second row just off the beach. Some neighbors no longer had homes to paint, a brutal reminder of the whimsy of a big storm.
"The first row got clobbered, and if you look now, you can see the exact pattern of the waves," he said, climbing down from a ladder. Rentals are down -- only 50 of the 350 homes in the subdivision have been rented -- but he is confident that the shore will not lose its magnetic charms because of the hit from Sandy.
His wife, Marjorie, said that the comeback has profound aspects.
"We came back to so much devastation, our neighbors' stuff floating in piles. But they have done an amazing job of cleaning it up and getting it back to what it was," she said, looking out toward the beach, "It's sort of a miracle."
"If you don't look behind you -- if you look forward, it's as pretty as it ever was."
DAVID CARR writes the Media Equation column and is a culture reporter for The New York Times.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.