NEW YORK (AP) -- Just a few months ago, the parking lot at Jacob Riis Park on New York City's Rockaway seashore was filled with happy beachgoers. Now, it is home to a mountain of misery from Superstorm Sandy — a growing pile of garbage containing everything from mangled appliances, splintered plywood and sodden drywall to shreds of clothing and family photos.
The seagull-pecked pile, at least two stories high, three quarters of a mile long, and fed by an endless caravan of dump trucks, is just part of a staggering round-the-clock operation along hundreds of miles of coastline to clear away the mangled mess of homes, cars and boats so the rebuilding can begin.
Three weeks in, it is an effort that has strained the resources of sanitation departments and landfill operators, and caused headaches and heartache for thousands of families in the sprawling disaster zone.
The lucky have only had to empty their basements of soggy belongings. Others have been forced to strip their flood-ravaged homes down to the studs and pile drywall, furniture, clothing and appliances on the sidewalk.
"We've seen people put virtually all their worldly possessions at the curb," said Mike Deery, a spokesman for the town of Hempstead, which includes several beach and bay hamlets on Long Island's South Shore. "We've gone down streets and picked up the entire contents of homes, and come back the next day and have it look like we haven't been there in months."
In the three weeks since the storm, New York City alone has removed an estimated 271,000 tons of wreckage from flooded neighborhoods. That doesn't include the downed limbs and trunks of some 26,000 damaged trees.
New Jersey shore towns have been adding to big piles of rubble just like the one at Jacob Riis. One of the biggest ones, in Long Branch, reaches nearly three stories into the sky from a vacant lot a block from the ocean.
As of Friday, auto insurance companies had reported storm damage to at least 52,000 vehicles, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Many of those cars floated on the tide and were left smashed, silt-filled and strewn across sidewalks and yards.
In Long Beach, N.Y., a barrier island city of 33,000 people that was completely inundated by the storm surge, public works crews worked 16-hour shifts to scoop up hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand that had buried city streets. The mountain of silt they have created now stands five stories high.
A powerful mechanism has been at work to make it happen: In New York, the city's regular army of 6,000 sanitation workers has been supplemented by battalions of private contractors, hired under a $92 million FEMA contract administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Garbage barge terminals on Staten Island that were last used to remove debris from the World Trade Center after 9/11 have been pressed into service again, this time carrying Sandy's wreckage up the Hudson River, toward a landfill outside Seneca Falls.
Rubble has also been moving by truck to landfills in Pennsylvania, some of which have been stretched to the limit.
"You are trying to drive material through a funnel that isn't quite wide enough to accept it," said John Hambrose, a spokesman for industry giant Waste Management. He said the company has had to boost staffing and bring in 65 additional trucks and equipment from as far away as Florida and Wisconsin to handle the rubble headed for its landfills in Pennsylvania.
The task of clearing the streets has had its share of missteps.
In the devastated beach town of Seaside Heights, N.J., famous as the location for MTV's "Jersey Shore," there was outrage after officials asked a towing company to clear the streets of flooded cars.
Numerous residents complained that the company also hauled away undamaged vehicles from private property. Some owners were told they would have to pay as much as $900 to retrieve their vehicles.
Prosecutors in Ocean County, N.J., said they are investigating. An attorney for the company, APK Towing, blamed the episode on "messed-up" communication in the chaotic days after the storm.
"We were told, 'Get rid of everything.' We did what we thought was the right thing to do," said the lawyer, Steven Secare. "A couple of people were honestly charged too much." He said the company is now charging a maximum of $250 for tows and will issue a refund to anyone who paid more. Some people are also getting vehicles back for free.
Boats ripped free by the tide pose another challenge. In Broad Channel, a maritime village built on an island in the middle of New York City's Jamaica Bay, a motor yacht with the words "S.S. Minnow" spray-painted on its side sat partially blocking traffic on the only road in and out of the community for two weeks before it was hauled away.
Up and down the coast, sanitation crews have been working seven days a week, including holidays, since the storm hit, starting before dawn and continuing into the night, when the task of handling nail-studded debris gets dicey. Some of the workers are spending their days off cleaning out their own ravaged homes.
"You've got to remember a lot of our employees live here," said city Public Works Commissioner Jim LaCarrubba. "We asked a lot of them, and they've stepped up."
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has sought to speed the cleanup by suspending safety rules that normally limit how many hours or days in a row a truck driver can work without time off.
Speed is seen as key by many people working on the recovery.
On New York City's heavily flooded Rockaway Peninsula, home to 115,000 people, private contractors have been in a race against mold.
"Every last one of these houses needs to have (this) done," said Stephen Wagner, owner of Specialized Cleaning and Flood Restoration of Rochester, N.Y., as he worked to rip out the inside of a flooded Rockaway building.
Living in a home with mold can cause health problems such as skin and eye irritation, a stuffy nose or shortness of breath, particularly for people with asthma or allergies. Ideally, homes would have been gutted within 48 hours — an impossibility because of the magnitude of the damage.
The floodwaters left behind a nasty mess of contaminants. Residents were urged to clean carefully, especially in areas where the water might have been tainted with sewage.
"If there was a box of paint in a garage, or a car that was swamped that had oil in the engine, those contaminants were released," said John Lipscomb, a boat captain with the environmental group Riverkeeper. "It is an amazing pollution event that just occurred."
New York City's deputy mayor of operations, Cas Holloway, said the beach sand that was scooped off the streets has to be checked for contamination from such things as fuel oil.
"You can't just put that stuff back on the beach," he said.
Wayne Parry in Long Beach Township, N.J., and Martin Di Caro in New York contributed to this report.