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New Jersey Beach Communities Crushed By Sandy But Officials Vow to Recover

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Superstorm Sandy fled the East Coast as quickly as she arrived but her presence will linger for years to come. For the 5,900 year-round residents in Belmar, N.J, a beach community about 90 minutes south of New York City, Sandy destroyed their homes, their beach and their 20-block boardwalk. Six pumps are still working 24 hours a day to push the neck-deep salt water back into the ocean. Chunks of boardwalk have been floating along the flooded streets for days. Residents' yards and rooftops are still littered with storm debris and sand. The boardwalk shops and cafes that sold daily beach passes, ice cream and cold drinks just three months ago have been washed away with the waves, barely leaving a trace of their existence.

On Friday residents were trying to resume a modicum of normalcy even as they continued to remove refuse and flotsam from their homes. Getting around town the past few days has involved jet skiing, boating or kayaking — fun water activities in the summer but now the only methods of transportation available to stranded residents.

"I've never seen anything like this before," says Belmar Mayor Matthew Doherty. "It was like an explosion erupted on the beach."

The storm's powerful surge lifted sections of the boardwalk and threw them inland. Ocean water surged through Belmar's streets and reached the heart of its business district, located about half a mile from the beach. Most residents had evacuated the community before Sandy battered the coast, but around 150 families decided to ride out the storm. Many of them needed to be rescued by emergency personnel from their front porches or second floors.

Local Belmar businesses are finally starting to reopen and National Guardsmen are still assisting in the storm cleanup. Half the town continues to be inaccessible to cars and pedestrians. Doherty says the town's rebuilding will require both federal and state funding, as well as private donations.

"Our town is so small, it's a middle class town," he notes. "We can't bear the financial burden alone."

Related: Atlantic City Casinos Shuttered Amid Sandy Fallout

Like many coastal communities, Belmar's storefronts are owned by local families and depend on tourism dollars to survive. The town took in $3 million in beach revenue this past summer, according to Doherty. Belmar's pristine beaches attract shore lovers from all parts of New Jersey, and its close proximity to major Northeast cities draws in vacationers from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Doherty says Belmar's population swells to 60,000 in the summer months.

According to Joseph Seneca, a professor of economics and policy planning at Rutgers University, Hurricane Sandy could cost New Jersey shore communities $20 billion to $30 billion in damages, with private insurance covering only half the liabilities. He says Sandy would be the "most damaging storm to ever hit New Jersey, even after adjusting for inflation."

Related: Hurricane Sandy Ranks Among the Worst Economic Disasters: Mark Zandi

Many of the hardest-hit NJ beach towns have yet to fully assess the total cost of destruction to their shores as the search and rescue effort continues. U.S. Congressman Jon Runyan, who represents many of the Ocean County communities impacted by Sandy, says it could take "multiple years" to get the New Jersey coastline back to what it was. Some of the first responders who assisted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Lower Ninth Ward have been on site to help evacuees and distressed homeowners. Runyan pauses when he recalls a recent conversation with the responders: "They told me, 'Sandy is just as bad as Katrina."

Hurricane destruction and loss also bring economic opportunities. Seneca says the enormous damage from Sandy will require "significant" amounts of labor and materials for the repair, restoration and rebuilding of homes, businesses, infrastructure and public facilities. Construction will be likely ongoing process, one that could last "for a significant amount of time," he notes. The Garden State's unemployment rate is 9.8%, higher than the national 7.9% jobless rate.

Joe Deane, head of municipal bond portfolio management at PIMCO, says the biggest benefactors from the storm could be the states. An increase in sales tax revenue from the rebuilding process and higher employment could provide a "modest" boost to state coffers.

Eight counties in New Jersey -- Atlantic County, Cape May County, Essex County, Hudson County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Ocean County and Union County -- were given major disaster declarations by President Obama, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to administer federal aid and supplies to affected individuals and municipalities. Belmar has started soliciting donations on its official Web site this week to help offset the costs of rebuilding its boardwalk. Doherty says the town has received financial contributions from as far away as Texas, California and Canada. One individual pledged $2,500, the largest single donation to date.

The summer beach season may still be months away but Vincent Barrella, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, says the rebuilding process cannot wait one more day. The beach town's iconic boardwalk was destroyed and will have to be rebuilt, he says, as was the pier that hosted the popular drinking hole Martell's Tiki Bar.

"There was more sand on Ocean Avenue than on the beach and boats were parked on Arnold Avenue," he says in a phone interview. Barrella's past few days have been spent listening to horror stories from residents and bailing 6-foot-high ocean water out of his basement. Even with all the obstacles he and other beach mayors are now facing, Barrella vows that summer at Point Pleasant Beach will go on as planned.

"I am committed to making sure Point Pleasant Beach will be open on Memorial Day," he says. "I have no intention of going down as the mayor in office who presided over the end of the Point Pleasant Boardwalk."

Meanwhile, Atlantic City casinos have been given the OK by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to reopen after being shuttered since Sunday, but it remains unclear when they will actually do so.

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