MANTOLOKING, N.J. — For the first time in almost four months, residents are living again in Mantoloking, a well-off New Jersey beach town that suffered some of the worst of Superstorm Sandy's wrath.
Town officials allowed residents to return Friday to stay. It's the last New Jersey community to hit that milestone since the storm.
"It's a wonderful feeling to be back in your own home after four months of not knowing what your future is," said Sandra Witkowski, who returned with her husband, Stan.
But it's also difficult to be in a place with such devastation. When she looks out her window, Witkowski sees one house wrecked by the storm and bare land where another used to be.
All 521 homes in the community an hour and a half's drive south of New York City were damaged. About 60 were swept away entirely and hundreds more will have to be demolished. Most of the homes are grand summer getaways. Only about 100 residents typically stay through the winter.
The community, 2 1/2-miles long and just a couple blocks wide with the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Barnegat Bay on the west, was cut in two by an inlet during the storm. That was fixed quickly, and Route 35, the main road through the barrier island community, has also reopened after repairs.
Across New Jersey, the storm destroyed about 30,000 homes and caused an estimated $37 billion in damage.
The destruction in Mantoloking meant that not many residents were able to take advantage of the permission to return on Friday.
"It's quiet in the winter, which we like," Sandra Witkowski said. But now? "It's really quiet."
The Witkowskis' home needed major repairs to the electrical and other systems, but because it's built on pilings, water did not get into the house.
The retired couple has been staying with their daughter's family, which meant adjusting to living with two teenagers.
Doug Popaca said he was full of anticipation about returning. He said he and his wife, Joyce, awoke every hour through the night before deciding at 5 a.m. that it was OK to get up and head home.
"It was almost like Christmas, you know, when you're expecting a good gift," Popaca said. "You can't sleep. You keep waking up hoping it's daytime."
Popaca said all of the utilities in the house are up and running, a requirement for residents to be able to inhabit their homes permanently again.
The Popacas had been staying in a small summer cottage in nearby Brick that they rented on a month-by-month basis.
Popaca said while the cottage was warm and dry, it was much smaller than their home. He said they are looking forward to using their full-size appliances and shower.
"And of course sleeping in your own bed," Popaca said.
He said the first thing they did after going home was laundry. The next step would be cleaning – a relatively easy task considering what others in the area are dealing with.
"While we're very happy and very lucky to be back," Popaca said, "there is still that feeling that other people are suffering."
Associated Press writers Rema Rahman and Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton contributed to this report.
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