When Superstorm Sandy washed over this popular Jersey shore resort, water poured in through the heating vents and electrical outlets of Linda Polites' and Michael Riley's home. A 10-foot section of boardwalk slammed into the house as they fled to the attic. Hours later, they waded through armpit-deep water to a military truck, then headed to the first of five emergency shelters that have been their home since.
On Friday, they traveled from their current shelter to see the start of the reconstruction of the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, a town known worldwide from the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore."
"It's time to build new character," Riley said. "You don't lose your memories. It's time to make new ones."
Heavy equipment including a gigantic drill and a pile-driving machine were brought onto the sand in the south end of town Friday morning. They quickly began drilling holes in the sand and pounding wooden pilings into them, shaking the ground for blocks around.
It marked the beginning of a $3.6 million contract the borough awarded to rebuild the boardwalk. Mayor William Akers said the initial work — restoring the boardwalk so that it can be walked on safely — should be done by May 10. Railings, lighting and ramps will be part of a second contract that has yet to be awarded. The project is also likely to include a protective seawall, and cost between $6 million and $7 million, the mayor said.
"It's a huge day for us, a new beginning for the town," he said. "It's the culmination of a lot of hard work, starting with the rescues, the cleanup, the planning, culminating in the actual rebuilding of Seaside Heights."
The town's Jet Star roller coaster plunged off an amusement pier during the storm, coming to rest in the ocean as perhaps the most enduring image of Sandy. Plans still have not been finalized on how or when to remove it.
The entire length of the mile-long boardwalk is being rebuilt. It is the most famous of the numerous boardwalks destroyed by Sandy, known for its pizza and ice cream stands, its games of chance, arcades and bars with cheap beer specials.
Seaside Heights was famous long before MTV came to town, but Snooki, The Situation and Pauly D presented it to the world in a fist-pumping, hard-drinking blur. It angered some and delighted others until the show ended last year.
Michael Loundy, a real estate agent who rents out the house where the "Jersey Shore" cast lived while filming, could not overestimate the importance of getting the boardwalk back. (The cast's house was not seriously damaged in the storm.)
"This is a proud moment for all of us, after everything we went through with Sandy," he said. "We're excited about rebuilding. We loved Seaside the way it was and we'll love it again."
He said potential tourist want to know if Seaside Heights will be ready in time for vacation season.
"Our phones are ringing," he said. "People want to know: 'Is the town open? Will you be ready? Will the beach be ready?' We absolutely will be ready."