OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Forget the sand, muck, and flotsam that now covers the Jersey Shore barrier islands thanks to Sandy.

The new pollution around here may be the noise and exhaust fumes from a cacophony of gasoline-powered generators lining streets and driveways up and down the coast. And the curbside mountains of ruined flooring, sofas, chairs, bedding, and other trash.

On Thursday, the generator hum outside and in many homes, stores, offices, churches, and other buildings reached such a peak that people sought refuge in vehicles to take phone calls, conduct business meetings, or just to take a break from the din.

Some said they were losing their voices trying to shout over the machines they now depend on to run electrical devices as power has not been fully restored.

Gov. Christie lifted an evacuation order Thursday, permitting thousands of Atlantic and Cape May County residents and business owners to return to their properties for the first time since the huge storm engulfed the region Monday.

Brigantine, Margate, and Longport in Atlantic County and Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and West Wildwood allowed entry if drivers could prove they lived or work there. To stem looting and other problems, a mandatory curfew remained in effect between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., officials said.

Ventnor and Atlantic City remained closed because of public health issues involving sewer and water.

"It's definitely very noisy, but what can you do? We've got a lot of cleaning up to do . . . a lot of work ahead of us," said Pastor Matt Stokes of Coastal Christian, a ministry at the corner of Eighth and West Avenue in Ocean City.

Stokes had generators powering dozens of heaters and fans trying to dry out the carpet in the church's main worship area. He was unsure whether his insurance would cover replacing the flooring in the two-year-old building.

"And it's hard for us to find ourselves in the position of being a helpee instead of a helper. We want to be back in business helping people as quickly as we can because there are a lot of families here hurting right now," said Stokes, whose church plans to supply 22 pallets of nonperishable goods to residents by Saturday and resume regular services Sunday.

Up and down Asbury Avenue, this beach town's main street, stores, and other businesses were trying to get operational again. Most were drying out flooring or creating piles of wet, ruined carpet at the curbside.

Next to go would be the damp drywall, said Chris Friel, 18, of Ventnor, a Rutgers University student who was sent home when classes were canceled because of the storm.

He could not return to Ventnor because of sewage problems there, so Friel was staying with friends in nearby Egg Harbor Township and working for a contractor hired to refurbish some storefronts along Asbury Avenue damaged by as much as three feet of floodwater.

"This was much worse than '62 . . . the water came up eight inches higher inside our old store than in 1962," said Mike Wallace, 57, whose family has owned Wallace Hardware for 103 years and has seen a lot of storms.

Wallace's was one of the few stores open Thursday in Ocean City's downtown, with a constant stream of customers looking for everything from trash bags to sump pumps. It had been out of generators for days, he said.

That was bad news for Mary Curley, a longtime resident of the Gardens section, whose five-year-old generator had just died.

"You probably can't find a generator for sale between here and Kansas. . . . At least now I can go in search of one now that we are allowed in and out of town," Curley joked. "But I'm just praying the power comes back on soon."

As in Ocean City, the moment travel bans were lifted, vehicles began streaming into Margate, Longport, and Brigantine, backing up traffic along a section of the Atlantic City Expressway.

For some, it would be a sad shock when they arrived.

Tina Sacco, whose family owns Sack-O-Subs in Margate and Ocean City, said she was upset when she saw her boyfriend's house, the beachfront, and the three feet of sand still covering Kenyon Avenue in Margate.

"I'm devastated," Sacco said. "This is my family beach. It is sad. I've been on their beach my whole life. I'm very happy to be back on the island . . . but very sad to see all this."

Adam Sherman of Penn Valley said he left Center City before hearing the ban had been lifted so he could be among the first back on the island. He found his home on Mansfield Avenue in Margate in pretty good shape.

"I was very concerned. We got lucky," said Sherman, who found only minor flooding in his front foyer.

Continued bans in Ventnor and Atlantic City, where police have set up roadblocks and checkpoints, were creating something of a surreal experience. There were stories of people sneaking through in the beds of pickup trucks or arriving by boat circulating among "detainees" - residents who can't leave the towns because if they do, they won't be permitted to return.

"It's like the Mexican border," one Margate shop owner said.

And anyone wanting to get into tony Longport before the ban was lifted?

"They're guarding Longport like it's the White House," noted a Margate police officer stationed a few streets away.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downshore.