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Sandy, the Never-Ending Storm, One Year Later

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This is where the elite once lived, their picture windows giving them a fresh view of every fallen wave, splashing lightly on the sands that were close enough for them to marvel at.

But on those Mantoloking, N.J. beaches and elsewhere -- where Superstorm Sandy turned those same multimillion-dollar homes into curbside woodpiles -- those waves rarely, if ever, came close enough to worry about.

This, the Jersey Shore, is the home of commuters, the working stiffs, the souls whose families moved from the north back in the 1950s and 60s, paying on the cheap to live in a Beach Haven West bungalow with no winter insulation or flood insurance to worry, or care about.

They knew the worst storm of their lives was coming, one year ago today, in those dark, windy, dreary, early morning hours. Many stayed put, anyway, thinking they could shelter every family heirloom and photo album, every couch, T.V. and bed from the worst of it.

Then they watched the surges of water punch through their windows and doors, flooding their cellars and rotting their floors down to the floorboards, and coming within inches of taking them down, too.

In places like Green Island in Toms River, N.J., they watched the boardwalks in Seaside and Point Pleasant Beach get quickly rebuilt, while their own neighborhoods stayed much the same. For too many months, they lived in RVs sitting in their driveways, just a few feet from their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens that they spent years maintaining and preserving.

They couldn't give a damn about the history and glamour that people talk about when they romanticize about the "Jersey Strong." They turn away when they see the governor or the senators take their victory laps around the state, holding up New Jersey as a model for disaster recovery, when they haven't recovered themselves.

For still too many, there's nothing really to show after a year of dealing with this, when the broken, waterlogged wood from the houses that washed up a year ago on Route 35, between Seaside Heights and Bay Head, are still rotting there, looking like a dumped pile of Lincoln logs.

People say, this is no "Night at the Museum" here, where everything sprouts back to life, just as it was before.

They're done.

The storm is gone, but the impact remains

A year ago today, a crush of wind, rain and waves crippled a shoreline, and for many, sucked something out of here that can't be easily rebuilt or replicated.

It was a way a life, something that made the Jersey Shore unique and separate from the beaches of Florida, Maryland and California. It was a history and culture that had a spirit of survival, even if its structures and symbols were aging and decaying.

There was something different about the now-scorched boardwalk of Seaside Heights, N.J, where the not-so-sturdy piers and the browning, rusting metal of the amusement rides spilled into the rough seas when Sandy struck.

Then, in September, a fire came and burned what was left around the storm-ravaged Funtown Pier; for many, the final nail.

The Shore was once a place that was safe, where the summer sounds of crickets and cicadas of the inland towns, like Brick, Barnegat, Berkeley, Galloway and Point Boro, were always louder than the summertime traffic. The bedroom-community homes of those towns were always close enough for a short car or bike ride to the beach, but spaced far enough apart to preserve some sense of privacy.

Now that sense of safety, history and, in many cases, privacy is in peril, with so many of the crumpled, crushed and mold-infested houses or businesses wasting away as their owners await some sort of assistance.

And for many, so goes that spirit that once made the Shore and its 1 million-plus population proud and strong enough to stick through the snowstorms, the rising tides and taxes and anything else that would scare others away.

"We're great!" wrote Doug Shartzer, one of the many people who commented on Patch articles recently, noting the not-so-pleasant year anniversary date.

"Sold my lot with no house for a profit after the storm," he wrote. "Took my money and ran to Maine. Finally rid of New Jersey, that insidious cesspool of a state. My wife and I are finally free citizens again."

A proud region, now in a lurch

Many do have what they had before, or they were able to come up with cash -- whether it was through FEMA, their own insurance company or from their own pocket -- to build everything back.

But many still don't, not even close. Instead of taking the time to appreciate what they've saved, they're fretting about running out of time and money, bogged down by insurance company and government red tape, the passing deadlines to apply for grant money, and the demands to raise their houses above the ever-rising flood levels.

Places like Seaside Heights have lost some of those same places that people would go for a stroll, those same rides and the games that made for a special summer night. In the summer, fewer teenagers and twentysomethings didn't have those same jobs that let them breathe in the air at the beach, and watch the waves and feel the wind while doing their work.

"Isn't there anyone who can unravel this absolute mess?" said Ed Duva of Toms River, whose Toms River house on the Barnegat Bay got four feet of water on the first floor. He lost everything on the lower level, as well as a wrap-around deck. Now he's required to raise his house about five feet because of FEMA regulations.

On Monday, the day before the first anniversary of the storm, Duva celebrated his 80th birthday. It was a much better day than last year, when he was preparing for the worst thing to ever hit him, hit his neighbors, and hit the whole damn Shore.

On this birthday, he was feeling lucky to have his life and his family, even if he's still scraping by to push through the long recovery process.

"We're survivors," he said. "We're not victims."

In some cases, life is worse

Duva, like Shartzer, was one of the more than 1,200 who responded to a Patch poll this past week, asking people how they're faring after Sandy. Duva felt compelled enough to talk, just like nearly 60 others did, venting about the storm that never really ended.

Many are not like him - indeed, 48 percent of the respondents said they're doing slightly or vastly better since the immediate aftermath of the storm.

More, however, spoke of the misery or the helplessness of it all. Or they spoke of the inaction, and how their lives are not any better or worse, because they're still bad off. Indeed, 52 percent of those polled said they're doing the same or worse since the storm ripped through.

"It's one year later -- even with having the money to rebuild, it still is taking forever to get anything done," said Ginny Lima, whose Ortley Beach house was destroyed by Sandy.

For a lot of them, this is the home of their kids, too, many of whom grew up here, settled at the Shore once they became adults, and bought their own houses in Point Boro, Point Beach, Manasquan and Brick. Or they rented apartments in Ocean Grove and Belmar, and continued to live out their youth in the bars, and the famous nightlife that's the stuff of Snooki and reality T.V. programs.

For a year now, they've had to endure the painful news reports, watching the boardwalks, the rides and the arcades of their youth, the places where they had their first job or date, crumble and wash away. Some of those bars and other hangouts went with them, too, either infested by mold, crumbling into rubble or getting scorched by the fire that burned in Seaside Heights and Park a month ago.

Some lost their one-room apartments, for many of the same reasons, with no promise from the landlords that they could ever return. They're frustrated that they, too, can't get the help that others got, and protect the property they paid for, saved for, preserved and lost.

"That's a sore spot for a lot of people who are looking for grant money. They're asking, 'Why them and not me?' " said Duva.

Hurry up, and wait.

Duva said his home and office looked like "they were hit with a giant mixer" after the storm. He'd love to do some rehab work, but he's afraid to do anything until hears about two different grants that he applied for months ago.

"I'm put in the situation of doing nothing," he said.

In Lima's case, she's watched, in despair, as a whole tourism industry has rebuilt itself, while her mother's "little Shore shack" - something they've owned in Ortley Beach since 1978 - needed to be demolished.

She admits that it could be worse. She could be living with friends, relatives, or even in a hotel or shelter as many in Bayville, Toms River's Green Island and other communities along the Barnegat Bay -- which flooded worse in spots than the Atlantic Ocean -- did for months, or longer.

It's also her family's second home, but Lima calls herself a "second-class citizen" now, somebody who feels more penalized than anybody else.

She pays taxes, and insurance premiums just like everybody else, she said. Unless the family can scrape up some savings to pay to rebuild it, they'll never have a property they can sell.

"My mom is in her 70s, and is using all her hard earned savings to rebuild our family's slice of the shore," Lima said. "My mom was not rich. Growing up, we were a hardworking middle class family. We did without a lot -- my mom saved and saved.

She says, over and over, how lucky she is. But the savings, the nest egg that she had sustained for so long will be gone, now, too. The family keeps hoping that the money will come in from somewhere.

But like the thousands of others still waiting, nobody's holding their breath.

"All we do is wait and wait, and make phone calls, and ask, 'When?' " she said.

This blog post originally appeared on Patch.