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Sandy-devastated NJ town has reason to celebrate

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KATIE ZEZIMA | July 4, 2013 02:25 PM EST | AP

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UNION BEACH, N.J. — Keith Galotto stood on the damp dirt that once anchored his home, clutching a Miller Lite and offering hugs, hamburgers and cold beverages to friends.

The muggy air, filled with the sounds of Aerosmith and smell of charcoal, was reminiscent of the 4th of July parties Galotto has held in years past, but with one huge exception – his house was no longer there, swept out into Raritan Bay by Superstorm Sandy.

"We always had the biggest parties and the smallest house," said Galotto, looking out onto the bay that was once his backyard.

Three days ago, he decided to rent a portable toilet, a camper and some DJ equipment and continue the tradition that accompanied the town's fireworks show. "I said, `we're gonna have a party like we have every year.'"

This blue-collar town about 40 miles southwest of Manhattan was devastated in October by Superstorm Sandy. Nearly the entire town flooded. Homes were sheared in half. Roads turned into raging rivers. Precious pieces of lives – photographs, silverware from the town's favorite watering hole – lay strewn in the sandy streets for months.

Most residents have vowed to rebuild, some just can't afford to. But everyone agreed on one thing: Union Beach needed a night to celebrate, to forget the troubles and tragedy of the past 8 months.

Robert LaBerta was the fire chief during the storm. He heard about a contest sponsored by Destination America, which is part of the Discovery Channel, and USA Weekend, a weekly magazine published by Gannett, that gives a huge parties and fireworks shows to deserving communities. LaBerta entered Union Beach, writing about first responders who waded through neck-deep water to rescue residents in a town that "came together not only to rebuild, but to save each other emotionally."

Union Beach won, as did Fayetteville, N.C., where fireworks were cut at Fort Bragg.

"Since Sandy there's been very few opportunities for us to get together as a community and have something positive," LaBerta said.

Each year the town holds its fireworks on July 3 to save money on police holiday overtime. Families crowd onto the beach and parallel Front Street, looking out over a bay where the Freedom Tower and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge sparkle in the distance on a clear night.

This year was like no other. A lone hot dog vendor or two were replaced by dozens of food vendors selling tacos, jambalaya and fried dough. A huge stage was erected on a lot that once held homes. The stars of the network's show BBQ Pitmasters doled out free food – 750 pounds of beef brisket and 750 pounds of pulled pork. Residents grilled in their yards and carried young children on their shoulders toward the waterfront, where a war memorial stands. "Lest we forget" is etched into the stone.

"It's wonderful. Everyone's been so depressed," said Mary Chepulis as she watched a local band perform on a stage that stood where the home next to hers had been.

Every July 3 she and her friends and family would stand on a deck packed with people, food and coolers and watch the water and the fireworks. Next week she will find out if she will get enough grant money to rebuild the home where she lived for 15 years.

Galotto's landlord, Casey Zois, stood on the ground where one of the four homes he owned stood. Three were destroyed; One, a yellow two-story home that was ripped in half, clothes still hanging in a closet flapping in the wind, became one of the storm's iconic images.

Zois, a meteorologist, feels most at home here, watching the clouds roll in over the bay. He wants to rebuild, albeit slowly.

"We're on the road to recovery," he said, choking up. "It's great to see so many people here."

At 9:30, the show started, with plumes of yellow, green and purple exploding in the sky. Partygoers clad in "UB Strong" T-shirts danced to "God Bless America" and "Firework" by Katy Perry. Children waved glow sticks and screamed and exclaimed every time the sky lit up with a boom.

Resident Joan Westerfield watched the show with her daughter-in-law and two-year-old grandson. Her home survived, but she had trouble even being in town for the first few months after the storm.

"With everything that went on, the people with nowhere to live," Westerfield said, "They deserve this."