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Cleanup, recovery at Shore seems overwhelming

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - The Ferris wheel rests on the sand, and the Jet Star roller coaster is in the ocean but somehow still upright.

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - The Ferris wheel rests on the sand, and the Jet Star roller coaster is in the ocean but somehow still upright.

The bar where Snooki of Jersey Shore fame was a regular is still standing, and sand lies in drifts up to six feet high on the roads.

As Seaside Heights officials toured Sandy's destruction Thursday, they started to do the grim calculation of the volume of work ahead if they are to bring the town back to its pre-storm condition.

"Where do you begin?" asked Councilman Harry Smith, who visited the island for the first time since the storm. "First we have to get the water and electric back on. And only then can we start the cleanup, which is going to be huge. Just fixing the boardwalk alone is going to cost millions of dollars."

Three days after Sandy dealt the New Jersey coastline a mighty blow, authorities and residents alike were moving beyond the initial shock of seeing their communities wrecked and trying to come to terms with making them habitable again.

In some places, cleanup remains secondary to the task of simply making the islands secure. Gas leaks were only just being solved Thursday as the infrastructure was shut down in Seaside and on Long Beach Island, cutting service to 28,000 homes.

Buildings were still being assessed for their risk of collapse. And state troopers were sent to the islands to stamp out looting.

"Before you do anything, you need to make it safe," New Jersey State Police Superintendent Lt. Rick Fuentes said. "The last thing you want to do is let people go back where there's no light and gas leaks everywhere."

Still, there are some signs of progress.

Gov. Christie said at a news conference Thursday the number of homes without power statewide was down to 1.8 million from a peak of more than 2.5 million. And all but 20 state roads were now open; in the immediate storm aftermath, more than 450 were closed. By late Thursday, the number without power was 1.6 million.

"Our job has moved from saving lives to rebuilding them," he said. "That's what people expect of us now."

In some coastal areas, power had been restored, and sand drifts covering roads were being plowed up back onto beaches. Residents in places like Ocean City and Avalon were allowed to return to their homes.

The state was making contingency plans to ensure that registered voters could participate in Tuesday's presidential election.

For those areas where voting precincts have been destroyed, National Guard troops will turn Department of Defense trucks into polling places. The makeshift facilities will be set up in the same places as the blacked-out or destroyed polling places.

Those living in shelters will receive mail-in ballots over the next few days, distributed by state employees, allowing them to vote right there.

"We've come a long way from the start of the storm until now. People are getting back to somewhat normal," Sea Isle City Mayor Len Desiderio said. "We're not open for business yet, but we should be by the weekend."

Atlantic City was slowly getting back on its feet Thursday morning, with a number of grocery stores and coin laundries opening and locals filling the streets.

Some are still struggling, they said. At the All Wars Memorial, used as an emergency shelter during the storm until it began flooding during high tide Monday night, city employees handed out water and food to residents who still didn't have power, heat, or, in some cases, drinkable water. Some said they had lost hundreds of dollars' worth of food when the power went out.

A few blocks away, Milton Shanks was ripping up the last of the carpet in his first-floor apartment near the marina, which had waist-high flooding.

He returned after the storm to find watermarks a foot above his windowsills and his refrigerator in his living room.

"I grew up in this city; I used to live down the street," he said, pulling up a piece of warped floorboard. "I knew it was a flood area, but I never would have imagined it would be like this."

Shanks wants to apply for FEMA assistance, he said, but isn't sure how. City employees haven't stopped by to assess the damage to his home, he said.

"I'm going to ask for any assistance I can get," he said. "I don't have anything but the clothes I'm wearing."

Next door, Denise Crudup's carpets squished with water when she stepped on them. She hadn't been able to open her back door, swollen with seawater, for two days.

"I was just astonished," said Crudup, who works as a nurse's aide at a nursing home on the mainland.

Crudup's landlord was submitting an insurance claim, she said, and she planned to apply for FEMA assistance.

"We have to replace all the appliances and furniture, pull the rug up, and the electrical sockets are wet," she said. "But I'm alive. And this is material stuff. You can get that back."

Atlantic City and Ventnor were still under a travel ban Thursday afternoon, but evacuated residents from Brigantine, Margate, and Longport were slowly returning to their homes. At sheriff's checkpoints on the causeways, they were required to show valid ID and proof of residency to enter.

In Ventnor Heights, Tom Hewitt, his wife, and child found their house had been flooded. It's uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

"You can't keep a 3-year-old in conditions like this," he said.

Farther north along the Shore, the picture was grimmer.

On Long Beach Island, many roads remained impassable, and the island was not expected to reopen for another week.

And Seaside Heights, perhaps the most familiar Shore town these days thanks to MTV, turned into a international symbol of Sandy's destruction as reporters toured the island this week.

Arcade owner Bob Stewart, 59, jokingly offered to show reporters the site of his office, now an empty spot of sand below what used to be the Funtown Pier.

"I had insurance, but after Irene, I figured the building was 125 years old, it wasn't going anywhere," he said Thursday. "I said, 'Why am I paying $15,000 a month?' Now I know."

As Police Chief Tommy Boyd looked out over the twisted wreckage of one of the roller coasters lying in the ocean, he said the town had no plan yet how to get it out of the ocean. Other work would come first.

"We're worried about getting the power back on and the people back in," he said. "Everything else is going to have to wait."