The boardwalks are back, and so are most of the beaches, even if some are a little thinner this year.
The smell of funnel cakes, french fries and pizza will mingle with the salt air, and the screech of seagulls will be heard, but so will the thwack of hammers repairing what can be fixed and the roar of bulldozers and backhoes tearing down what can't.
Welcome to Summer 2013 at the Jersey shore, the first since Superstorm Sandy pummeled the coast and upended hundreds of thousands of lives.
“The Jersey shore is open for the summer and ready to receive our customers,” Gov. Chris Christie said Monday at a ceremony reopening the newly rebuilt Lavallette boardwalk, three-quarters of which was destroyed by the storm. “This is going to be a really good week.”
Christie cautioned that parts of the shore won't look as they did last summer, but predicted by next summer they should be back to normal.
Even in many of the places that suffered the most from Sandy, remarkable recovery and rebuilding efforts have been made to get them ready for the summer tourist season. Yet reminders of the storm's devastation are visible all around.
Denise Gottilla and her husband Daryl stuck their beach umbrella into the sand in Point Pleasant Beach earlier this month. To their right was a wood-shingled home that had been destroyed by the Sandy's storm surge. To their left was concrete rubble from a pool and patio from homes that also were badly damaged. And in front of them were large piles of sand that still needed to be smoothed down before beachgoers could arrive. But she was encouraged by what she saw.
“The houses took a beating, but I'm pleased with how the beach looks,” she said. “It's not as bad as I thought it would be.”
While Sandy damaged or destroyed many shore rentals, there are still plenty to be had, said Randy Sinor, past president of the Ocean County Board of Realtors, who works in Ship Bottom on Long Beach island.
“On LBI, we all have 95 percent or better of our pre-Sandy inventory ready for rental,” he said. “We are open, we are ready, and we have prime weeks still available. It is not too late.”
Countywide, rental stock ranges from about 65 percent of what was there before Sandy to 90 percent, depending on the town, he said. Demand has been about 75 percent of what it was at this time last year.
Not all of the Jersey shore was hurt by Sandy. Famous resort towns including Ocean City and the Wildwoods suffered minimal damage that was quickly repaired. Those areas are girding for a potential spike in visitors this summer as vacationers seeking thrill rides look elsewhere this year.
“Our hearts go out to the areas that were affected, but we have to get the message out that a good portion of the Jersey Shore will be open, and we hope vacationers will support New Jersey's tourism economy,” said John Siciliano, head of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement Development Authority.
Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, where the Jet Star roller coaster plunged into the ocean, will have at least 18 rides open this summer including a pendulum ride defiantly named The Super Storm. (The Jet Star was dismantled and removed last week). Funtown Pier, on the south end of Seaside's boardwalk, was too badly damaged to open this year; it will be back in 2014.
“We are 100 percent ready for visitors,” Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said. “Please, make your plans to come here, and have Jersey support Jersey. Keep your vacation local. If you want to help us, the best way you can do that is to come here and have your summer vacation with us.”
Sue Sineradzki of Newtown, Pa., is doing just that.
“There was never a question of not coming back,” she said. “Even if there was no boardwalk here, we would come back. There are families that have been coming here forever. I think it's going to be a great summer here. It's the Jersey shore, The people are great and they've worked hard to build it back. That's what's going to make it extra special this year.”
Anthony Baldino's balloon dart game on the Seaside Heights boardwalk was wrecked by Sandy. For this summer, he literally took his business to the streets, setting up at the curb.
“I think it's going to be a terrible summer. This is my building,” he said, gesturing toward the boardwalk. “It got wiped out and it's going to take a long time to rebuild.”
Point Pleasant Beach's amusement rides were unhurt by the storm, and the half of the boardwalk that was damaged in the storm has been replaced; two mini golf courses that were wrecked have not been rebuilt. On Long Beach Island, the Fantasy Island Amusement Park is also up and running.
To the north, Keansburg Amusement Park has also rebuilt.
Most of the Jersey Shore's boardwalks don't have amusement rides or games; they consist of wooden or synthetic walkways carrying beachgoers from one end of the beach to the other. Belmar finished its boardwalk repairs first, in late April, Seaside Heights is not far behind, Asbury Park is done and numerous other towns have either finished or plan to do so by Friday. Even the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, which was devastated by the storm, started rebuilding its boardwalk two weeks ago and expects to have it open by June.
The beaches themselves may look fine in most places, but many are flatter than they once were, said Jon Miller, a coastal expert with Stevens Institute of Technology. He predicted the coast will remain vulnerable to future storms until much of the sand that was lost either returns naturally with the tides, or is physically put back on the beaches by heavy equipment, and beach replenishment and protective dune projects need to be carried out. He also said dangerous rip currents could appear this year in places they didn't use to be, due to the changed topography of the ocean floor.
And for all the attention on boardwalks and tourists, this summer will be marked by long, hard work for many shore residents still struggling to recover. Andrea Bowne is elevating her home near the ocean in Point Pleasant Beach, which took on 3 feet of water during the storm. Since then, she has moved from place to place, longing for the day she can go back home.
“Hopefully they'll be done soon and we can be working on the interior all summer,” she said. “I say I'm moving back in as soon as there's electric and cable. My friends say, ‘Uh, how about water and sewer? You plan on flushing any toilets?’ And I say, ‘OK, that, too.’ I don't even care if there's gas yet; I don't plan on cooking anything all summer!”