LONG BEACH, N.J. - Cars were submerged in three feet of sand. Six feet of water added insult to injury. Then, nine days later, snow blanketed the town.
Those are some of the lasting images of the Sandy-battered Shore for first responders in this barrier island town.
On Saturday, some of them saw for the first time an island transformed, nearly returned to its old self. Seven months after Sandy made landfall, hitting North Jersey and New York the hardest but also causing significant damage to southern Shore towns like this one, Mayor Joseph Mancini and other locals thanked hundreds of first responders Saturday for their efforts.
The township hosted a "Long Beach Island Thank You Fest" for the 194 agencies, including the National Guard and Louisiana State Police, that conducted rescue missions, cleared roads, and secured the island after Sandy made landfall Oct. 29.
Saturday was an occasion for responders to reconnect with one another over free burgers, barbecue, and beverages. Locals pitched tents under a hot sun outside Township Hall, many clad in #STTS T-shirts, Twitter parlance for "Stronger Than The Storm."
Responders also shared memories that underscored how far the island has come in its recovery efforts.
Chief Matt Letts of the Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Company recalled an island submerged under three to five feet of sand and six feet of water. "Electrical wires down. Structures in the middle of the road," he recalled Saturday.
Thirty members of his fire company, based about five miles south of Long Beach Township, started working the day of the storm, checking on houses and inspecting hazards and gas leaks.
They stayed for two weeks. "We had no water, gas, electric," he said. "We had to get buckets of water from the street to flush a toilet."
Even as he acknowledged that "the island is definitely hugely improved," Letts said his fire company was still trying to cope with the hardships it had endured.
"It almost feels unreal," he said. "We're still recovering from the stuff we've gone through. Our members lost their own houses."
For the most part, though, this 18-mile-long southern Ocean County barrier island has largely recovered. Mancini said the infrastructure was "100 percent," adding that 95 percent of businesses were open.
The main problem, he said, is that 10 percent of the town's houses had been gutted "but hadn't yet been brought back to life" because homeowners are still waiting for insurance payments.
That the island was doing so well was surprising to Monica Efthemes and her husband, Anthony, of the Louisiana State Police, which sent about 25 troopers in the aftermath of the storm.
In New Orleans, "there are still areas they haven't touched eight years" after Hurricane Katrina decimated that city, Monica Efthemes said. Her husband arrived in Long Beach on Nov. 7, the same day a nor'easter brought the island a new problem: snow.
Because he came from an area where hurricanes are more common, Anthony Efthemes, who spent 18 days in Long Beach, was seen by the locals as an expert.
Efthemes said he was used to bouncing back from storms in Louisiana, so he told people here: "Everything's going to be cool. It's going to be all right."
The Long Beach Township mayor said everything was indeed OK. Fifty-four beaches are open, and work continues to restore 20 badly eroded areas.
"We're very thankful we had all the first responders," Mancini said. "Long Beach Island has never looked better."
Elected officials aren't the only ones eager to tell of the island's comeback. A local businessman launched "LBI is Alive," a website and Facebook page dedicated to convincing tourists that the beaches here are open for business.
But in a telling sign that obstacles remain, a construction company staffed a tent near the festivities Saturday, offering advice and setting up appointments with homeowners.
Darin Smith, owner of Heritage Construction Enterprises in Ship Bottom, said customers wanted to raise their houses to comply with newly revised flood maps. Some are simply asking him to knock them down.
"We have had a lot of inquiries," he said.