The iconic Seaside Heights boardwalk on May 12, 2013. It was rebuilt in preparation for Memorial Day crowds.(Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. -- Twenty minutes after Jason Villano opened his Bushel Baskets stand on the boardwalk for the first time in six months, he received an omen.
A man and his wife were visiting from Chicago. The man told him that as he strolled the rebuilt boardwalk, he remembered summers on the Shore with his family. The smell of fried dough. The chatter of people. The clatter of games.
And just like that, he gave Villano a $100 bill. He said it was his small contribution to help the Shore return to the place of his youth after Superstorm Sandy destroyed it last October. It was the first money Villano made on the boardwalk this season.
The generosity of a stranger that first Saturday in May capped months of hand-wringing, uncertainty and lack of solid information about the progress of the boardwalk that has been Villano's livelihood since he was 13. Like the visitor, Villano fell in love with the people idling away their summer vacations and the camaraderie among the carnies hawking their games.
But after the storm, he had only the memories of the good times.
"There was so much damage, so much destruction," Villano, 32, says. "We didn't know if we would open."
When Superstorm Sandy roared onto the coastline in Seaside Heights on Oct. 29, it washed away the 92-year-old boardwalk and left a tattered pile of broken planks, cracked pilings and jagged splints.
Natural disasters like these - whether known by their given name (Sandy or Katrina) or by the communities they ravage (Joplin, Mo., and now, Moore, Okla.) - steamroll our sense of safety and test the resiliency of even the most stoic community. Yet there comes a moment when the news satellite trucks move on, the nation looks away, and all that is left is the hope that life will one day return to "normal," whatever that might be.
For the folks on the Jersey Shore, that moment will arrive in just days.
As the Memorial Day weekend kicks off, the round-the-clock construction and healthy dose of grit will have paid off. The 16-block boardwalk is rebuilt -- work crews have just one more street block of decking to finish by Friday -- and more than 80% of the businesses are open or will open this summer. Beach life is kicking off with music festivals and volunteer events to clean the beach, drawing thousands of visitors.
In the days and weeks after the storm, the destruction was so total in this blue-collar town, it seemed unlikely that the boardwalk would be in place by this weekend, the start of the summer season when the city and its businesses make the bulk of their money.
Pockets of the 130-mile New Jersey coastline bore the brunt of the storm that cut a wide swath of destruction along 24 states from Florida to Maine. The devastation brought Chris Christie, the state's tough-talking governor, to tears as he remembered his family's summers on the Shore. The state suffered $7.8 billion in insured commercial and residential losses. Its total damage was roughly six times that.
In Seaside Heights, not one bar, game stand, arcade, amusement park or pizza shop on the boardwalk was spared. Many were wrecked by the winds. Basements flooded. Merchandise was ruined. The boardwalk's main attractions - the two amusement parks that buttress both ends - suffered catastrophic damage when parts of the two piers collapsed and sent rides into the ocean. The whistle of beach winds replaced the usual clamor of bells, dance music, crying children and laughing.
But city officials and the entrepreneurs used to hustling a living on the boardwalk vowed not to surrender to the storm's destruction.
'BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS'
Seven months ago, the thought of rebuilding seemed daunting. There was so much to do. Clear the streets of the mountains of sand and debris dumped by the storm. Repair gas mains, electric transformers and water and sewage pipes.
"We had no experience with this," Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers says. "You were flying by the seat of your pants."
At the top of the list: Mend the town's broken backbone, the boardwalk.
The city had to move quickly. Sixty-five percent of its revenue is from tourism, most of it during the 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day when the sleepy town of 2,800 people swells to up to 65,000. Its money-making clock was ticking.
By January, the city put out bids for the $4.2 million job. The first piling went in on Feb. 15.
A few boardwalk business owners quickly reopened.
At the Beachcomber Bar and Grill, Sandy blew down the doors, flooded electrical boxes and sent cases of soda floating in muck. Owner Michael Carbone and his staff used garbage pails and handcarts to dig out the sand and water. He reopened the first week of January, one of the first businesses to do so.
"I wanted to be back to normal as soon as possible," says Carbone, 58, a Seaside native. He's been working the boardwalk since he was 12, selling newspapers, then managing rides and arcade games. He bought the Beachcomber nine years ago. It became a Seaside landmark, best known as a hangout where the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore stopped for $1.50 beers.
Across from the Beachcomber was Peter Morrison's place, the Beach Bar. Reopening it would not be so cut and dried.
The Beach Bar was one of the few air-conditioned places on the beach. Families ducked in for a burger or pizza, and clubbers danced at night to the beat of DJ mixes.
The structure where so many memories were made was no match for Sandy, whose devastating wind gusts ripped out the wall that faced the beach, blew out all of the windows, knocked down the wrap-around balcony and pushed the bar from the beachfront side of the restaurant to the boardwalk side. The storm turned the place into a bricks-and-mortar turbine with winds inside the restaurant reaching 160 mph.The pier and pilings under the building were split, leaving the property open and structurally weak.
Morrison, who rented the building and ran the business for seven years, estimates at least $450,000 in damage. "Everything is gone," Morrison, 64, says. "I lost my life savings."
Now, Morrison finds himself in an insurance morass quite familiar to others on the Shore. From November to March, at least five insurance adjusters visited the property. A structural engineer and an adjuster he hired, as well as the insurance broker representing his claim, say high winds destroyed the bar. The engineer's report in March found that the wind force nearly doubled inside the partially open building.
Morrison echoes a frustration shared by other business and property owners along the Shore: that insurance companies are dragging their feet to pay claims.
"If you have wind insurance, they say it was flood," he says. "If you have flood insurance, they say you had wind damage." Morrison had property and loss-of-business insurance.
The company responsible for paying out his claim, Rafael and Associates Claim Management, sent Morrison a letter dated April 12 that says the investigation into his claim is ongoing. Christopher Hotalen, the company underwriter who signed the letter, would not comment.
Morrison's insurance claim was one of more than 2,700 filed in Seaside Heights after the storm. Almost two out of every three claims were paid out as of May, state data show.
In early April, the building's owners tore it down. Only sand covers the area where the 40-by-100-foot building had stood for 50 years. "A part of me went down with that building," Morrison says.
By comparison, Villano is a small-time player on the boardwalk, who says he's done OK for himself.
The 32-year-old has earned enough peddling games of chance that he bought his first house at 23. But Villano didn't have insurance to cover the loss of thousands of dollars in merchandise when the basement of his shop flooded. And the ruined boardwalk meant he couldn't open for business.
He worried about his chances of making a killing in his second year running his own stand. Most years, winter events - the Polar Bear Plunge in February and the St. Patrick's Day celebration in March - provide the start-up money for the rest of the year, Villano says.
"I lost all that," he says. He moved in with his mother and went to work managing projects for a buddy's construction company. It was the first time in 20 years that he'd turned somewhere other than the boardwalk to make a living.
"I was heartbroken," Villano says. "This is my livelihood."
'THIS IS HUGE'
But the frenetic construction along the Shore delivered rays of hope on the first weekend in May, when a six-block portion of the southern part of the boardwalk reopened.
"We took six months to do something that usually would take two years," Mayor Akers says as he surveys the boardwalk that first weekend.
His smile practically wraps around his head as visitors gawk at the ongoing rebuilding of the boardwalk to the north, as tourists crowd into long-time hot spots Three Brothers Pizza and Maruca Pizza and play arcade games.
"This is huge, to see so many people," he says.
Akers says he expects the boardwalk to be complete by this weekend and at least 85% of the businesses here to be up and running.
The Beach Bar won't be among them. Morrison stares at the patch of sand where his restaurant stood as visitor after visitor greets him.
"It's heartbreaking to see," he says. "You leave your blood up here. I will miss everybody."
Villano, though, is ready. His stand is open and he is in his element, sporting a New York Yankees jersey and talking a mile a minute as he charms teenage girls and entices families to play the $5 game toss.
He calls out to a trio of girls.
"It's our first day open; you gotta help out," he says. "It's three balls for $5. You throw them in the basket. Here, I'll teach you."
"This basket?" asks one of the girls.
"No, you throw it in the ocean," he deadpans.
He borrowed money from family and friends and sank his life savings into reopening his stand. He couldn't imagine not doing it.
"I'm part of someone else's fun," he says. "I'm a good memory for people."
He pictures all the children who played his games, became teenagers and then returned to the Shore as adults with their own kids. "I know these people. I see the same people year in and year out," he says.
WILL THEY COME?
The reopening is not without worry. Sure, the boardwalk is being rebuilt, but Villano wonders whether visitors will come. And even if they do, it won't be the same.
On the north end of the boardwalk, the Casino Pier is rebuilding and plans to open part of the park with 18 new rides this summer, down from its usual 40. Its Jet Star roller coaster plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, the iconic image of the storm. But the work won't be completed this year.
Funtown Pier, on the south end of the boardwalk, was destroyed and won't open at all this year.
"Are people going to come down?" Villano asks. "All the houses are messed up. Will people even have a place to stay?"
Akers says day-trippers and curiosity-seekers will help Seaside Heights get through the summer.
As if to say, "Yes, they will visit," England's Prince Harry arrived at the Shore in mid-May, turning worldwide attention to the rebuilding with a walk along the beloved boardwalk, where he toured the construction sites and played one of the ball toss games.
That same day, work crews began pulling the Jet Star roller coaster from the water, and the Casino Pier unveiled a new thrill ride - a pendulum that swings higher with each pass, eventually turning passengers upside down - that will open this summer.
In the ultimate act of defiance, the ride is called the Super Storm.
Marisol Bello, USA TODAY