MANTOLOKING, N.J. - The bridge into town looked as if it led to nowhere, arching over a slim waterway before disappearing into darkness.
There was no traffic Sunday night, no sign of life except for a few police cars that gave the mist an eerie glow. You couldn't tell, from atop the bridge, where the town ended and the Atlantic Ocean began. But after the bridge curved down into town, past the piles of debris and the house slumped in the shallow water, a large crowd appeared, anxiously staring at a pile of dirt. This affluent Ocean County community was not a ghost town after all.
"Three, two, one . . . " a man said through a bullhorn. When the countdown was over, a small Christmas tree lit up on the dirt mound, and the crowd erupted in cheers. For the next three hours or so, residents, relatives, countless utility workers and first-responders shared a sense of normalcy that Superstorm Sandy had washed away nearly two months earlier.
"This is a real special, special Christmas. This means we're still here, that we can raise our collective spirits," said Fred May, an Episcopal hospice chaplain who lives in the same Mantoloking house in which he grew up.
May and his wife, Kathy, and a few hundred people followed a fire engine carrying Santa Claus past the dark homes on Bay Avenue, some braced up by fresh, wooden beams and others leaning off their foundations at impossible angles. Mattresses, couches, bicycles, and other ruined belongings were piled high at the curbs of nearly every one.
"A lot of people own second homes here, and for many of them this is going to be their first time back on this island," May said, eyeing up the damage. "It will be a big shock to some of them."
Power is not expected to be up and running here until February and officials said water and gas lines are being restored to essential government buildings, slowly, before residences. Nearly 60 homes in Mantoloking are gone - unaccounted for, either broken up beyond recognition or washed out in the bay or ocean - and another 139 are uninhabitable, said Police Chief Mark Wright. Some homes were destroyed when fires erupted from ruptured gas lines.
"It could be more when all is said and done," Wright said, sitting in an RV that is now the police station. "We may have ultimately lost half the homes in this town."
Per capita, Mantoloking, about 13 miles south of Asbury Park, is one of the wealthiest towns in the nation, part of the Jersey Shore's "Gold Coast."
The Census Bureau's 2006-10 American Community Survey found that Mantoloking's median household income was $151,667. Just for comparison, Cherry Hill's was $88,183.
But homeowners here say that they've invested more than money over the years. They value the memories. Many here feel blessed that they, unlike residents of Sandy-affected blue-collar communities such as Ortley Beach and Union Beach, have places to which they could evacuate.
"My house is standing, and I will live in it again. That's a lot to be said after this storm," said Barbara Deamics, 62, a member of the volunteer fire company in Mantoloking. "There are still stones for everyone to roll uphill, up and down the shore."
In Seaside Heights, Sandy ripped apart most of the boardwalk, the town's biggest tourist attraction, sending amusements spilling into the sea. Mantoloking doesn't have a boardwalk, or even one store, officials said, and the town runs on property-tax revenue generated by many of its multimillion-dollar homes. The assessed value of properties and improvements in Mantoloking, Mayor George Nebel said, was $1.7 billion before Sandy.
"We could be down $500 million from that number," he said.
Most of the crowd that was allowed in for the special tree-lighting ceremony followed Santa to the Mantoloking Fire Company, where a spread of food, cookies, and cold beers replaced the fire engines. A five-piece brass band played Christmas carols.
"You just want to be here with your neighbors in times like this," said a tearful Leta Gandolfini, who lost her Mantoloking home to Sandy. "We're going to be here, we're going to be back, to make new memories soon."
Santa, usually the biggest and most popular guy at any party, was upstaged in the fire company's garage by another big guy with clout, Gandolfini's brother. James Gandolfini's iconic Tony Soprano character on HBO's "The Sopranos" might be the embodiment of New Jersey's gritty, unpolished reputation, but on Sunday night, Gandolfini mingled on the fire company's sandy floor with a wide grin and a glass of wine.
Gandolfini, a lifelong Jersey resident, said he grew up vacationing in Mantoloking and nearby Lavalette and even worked in Seaside Heights. He still rents a place in Mantoloking, near his sister, for two weeks every summer and doesn't expect that to change.
"Hey, listen, we'll bounce back," he said, smiling. "This is New Jersey. We're pretty tough here."