11/16/2012 09:54 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

At the Jersey Shore, It's Getting Late Early

At the concrete barricades that seal off Ortley Beach, Bay Head and Seaside Heights, N.J. from everything else, fully armed police officers peek through dimly lit cars, looking for any trouble they can find.

The clouds that hover over them never seem to leave, covering what's left of the shining sun, long before it's ever supposed to set. Each officer is bundled in burly black jackets, pointing flashlights in each passing car before turning them away.

Wearing knitted hats that nearly wrap around their eyes and ears, these officers are mere shadows with badges, figurines with no faces that stop people from getting a glance, even a sniff of the beach.

Behind them is the only thing scarier than they are:

The darkness.

In Bay Head, at the foot of the Lovelandtown Bridge, these cops stand guard of the rows of million-dollar homes behind them, the ones still standing, with garbage piled on their front lawns and sidewalks. Missing are the burning flickers of street lights or living room lamps shining through their windows, just as night falls around 5 p.m.

Next door, in Point Beach, where anyone can enter now, piles of sand fill the big beach parking lot, the same one that normally packs the beach-going cars during the summer, steered by drivers struggling to find a spot within that white-hot asphalt.

In each of these towns, the air smells like sand. The crashing waves get too close to the smashed-up boardwalks in Seaside Heights and Point Beach. There, 12-foot high, recently piled sand mounds are all that's keeping the ocean from roaring up, and ruining things all over again.

Darkness reigns over these towns now, creating a "new normal" that Governor Christie talked about some days ago, and one that we'll likely see for a while.

Darkness descends much like it did in New York City, back in September 2001. Many of us were there that day, or within a day after the attacks, and many times after, when the "pile" lay burning at Ground Zero. We were there when there were signs papering the walls of blacked-out storefronts, each pleading for a clue of the missing.

Then, the constant clouds of ash and smoke often blanketed the sun. Those who worked through the "pile" at Ground Zero lost track of the days of the week.

Now, as the Jersey Shore sorts through the rubble of its homes, just as Manhattan sorted through its ruins then, the people, the victims are asking the same things.

"Is today Sunday?"

No, they're told. It's Monday. Maybe even Tuesday.

I've heard comparisons between then-and-now, how some people are even calling Ortley Beach, and the once plush beachfronts nearby, "Ground Zero." The characterizations may seem unfair, perhaps inappropriate, especially when you compare the death toll between what happened then and now.

But the feelings, and the moods of the people there, are quite familiar. For many, this Hurricane Sandy was another kind of attack, one that didn't kill thousands, but still left too many dead, damaging much more than it killed.

Darkness reigns now, at the Jersey Shore, just as it did in New York then.

"What we have seen is way beyond accessible for people," said Lee Childers, a Normandy Beach land agent who has struggled to gain access to his holdings since much of the barrier island, from Bay Head to Island Beach State Park, has shut down.

For Childers, and from many others, the things you hear now are the same things you heard in New York, back 11 years ago:

This wasn't supposed to happen here.

In Childers's Bay Head office, water rose four feet high. In houses in Mantoloking, Ortley and elsewhere, the water lines wrap around the walls like string, just above the mold that's spreading throughout.

At the foot of the Mantoloking Bridge, a new inlet has nearly formed. Just a sliver of a sand bar is all that's left that keeps the Atlantic Ocean from completely merging into the Barnegat Bay.

Photos show a house still sitting in the bay, half-submerged, sitting there as if it won't ever be drawn back in.

Much of Route 35 is what it was a century ago: A dirt road, with trees on either side tilting downward, giving the once busy road the look of what's 30 miles to the south and west: a classy beach resort morphed into the rustic Pine Barrens.

Utility poles are either broken in two, laying on the road or hanging, barely, on their wires.

In places like these, residents are allowed to return for a half-hour, if that. Some, like Bay Head, let them come back for longer. For others, like those in Toms River, the mantra is simple: Grab and go.

When they do it, many of them have to board buses to get there, and watch National Guard scampering around their neighborhoods, where bucolic storefronts now have red "Xs" slapped on their windows. They lose sight of the vision they once had of these places from just three months ago, where cars were lined up as they headed south, and kids rode their bikes, right up in their own line, in the summer.

When they get there, these full-time, part-timers must move quickly, and not just because they're being ordered to. They have to get what they need before it gets anywhere near being dark. Some pockets of neighborhoods don't have any street lights left.

At many places along the Jersey Shore, night falls before the sun sets.

I wrote about these houses once, in a book, "A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family From Generations of Mental Illness." My grandfather's family didn't have much money, but what little they could scrape up -- or borrow -- they paid for places like these.

They used to vacation here, because they were so far removed from the badness that was elsewhere. During the Great Depression, I wrote, Bay Head was a refuge, a place where men wore black jackets and ties, and women wore their fancy dresses, just as the rest of the world wore rags, or whatever was left in the charity pile.

Paintings from that time show men wearing their Sunday best while standing on the glistening sand. Women wore white dresses that gleamed in the sun. Few showed them actually bathing in the water, because they were too busy making small talk, and showing off in the sunshine.

In Bay Head, they pretended as though the Depression didn't exist. The sunny, shining world in front of them was what mattered to them, mostly.

Now the darkened remains of what's left, the ground zero of New Jersey's tourism economy, matters to everybody. The tall task of rebuilding will bring the light back, some say.

The only question left, when will they see that glimmer of hope?

"There's so much mystery -- they're not giving any inside information to people," said Childers's son, Jeff.

The post was originally published in Patch.