MANASQUAN, N.J. — Saws and sledgehammers joined beer and barbecues — under covered porches — as a fixture of the first Memorial Day weekend at the Jersey shore since Superstorm Sandy roared through.
Seven months after the devastating storm pummeled large swaths of the shore, the tourists made their way back, though many substituted porch parties for a day at the beach on Saturday due to rain that has lingered since Thursday.
Though most shore towns have mounted Herculean efforts to rebuild boardwalks and restore beaches, thousands of homes remain damaged, including many along the beachfront.
Jennifer Kornas of Neshanic Station, N.J. and her husband own one in Manasquan. Sandy washed away its stairs and wrecked the furnace, but the home itself escaped without the kind of catastrophic damage that ruined the smaller home next door.
"The devastation was unthinkable," she said Saturday as her three children scampered in and out of the house in a light rain. "We're just praying for no nor'easters this summer because the dunes are all gone. They're coming back, but not until September."
There was never a question of selling the house.
"I have three kids that I raised here," she said. "This is what we do; this is my life. I'm going to do everything I can to stay here. It's going to be tough, but we'll stick together and it'll be OK."
Nearby, Meghan Wisniewski of Sayreville rented a house for the summer for the first time with three fellow 20-somethings.
"When we first talked about getting a house, we didn't know what the shore would be like by summer," she said. "It almost looks back to normal."
Lauren Liberatore, one of her housemates, said their rental was ideally located for a great summer.
"It's 100 yards from the beach and 100 yards from Leggett's," she said, referring to a legendary Jersey shore bar.
Throughout their neighborhood, groups of young people filled rentals, spilling out onto porches as the rain fell, red and blue plastic cups in hand. Surfers took advantage of wind-whipped waves near the Manasquan Inlet, and fishermen still ventured out onto the rock jetty to cast lines for fluke and bluefish.
But the beaches were deserted; badge-checkers were not even on duty Saturday for the unofficial summer kickoff. Lifeguard stands were turned upside down, and only a handful of hardy souls braved the blowing sand that stung the eyes and scoured the skin along Manasquan's paved beach walk, which was just rebuilt a few weeks ago.
Rainy weather and below-normal temperatures were forecast to continue Saturday, with things improving somewhat Sunday. Monday is forecast to be the best weather of the holiday weekend, with the sun finally breaking through and temperatures climbing into the 70s.
Shore towns are counting on strong summer season to help recover money lost to the storm, and even more so than usual, good weather is seen as crucial this year.
On Long Beach Island, most of the beach near Steve Sweeney's home remains badly eroded. Neighbor David Denenberg said he can't believe what a difference a few months makes considering the street was littered with mattresses, furniture and people's belongings right after the storm.
Denenberg said he knew things were getting back to normal not when cleanup efforts began but when a local convenience store opened.
"It was like, victory! We're back!" Denenberg said.
Victory is more elusive at the southern tip of the island, where the township's Holgate section remains badly damaged. Only a few people bundled in sweatshirts walked on the beach, and scores of houses remained in ruins.
Pat Darcy said despite the removal of 25 tons of sand and 54 inches of water from her Holgate house, and repairs under way to a garage where walls were blown out by the storm, things still don't feel right.
"I don't feel like we're normal yet," Darcy said as she sat on her front steps and pointed toward an empty lot where a house used to be — it had floated up the street and is still sitting on the bay, turned sideways.
Darcy and her husband Sid spent at least two days a week all winter making repairs and replacing belongings. The home is now close to being done, "slowly but surely," Sid Darcy said.
Kathy Waldron, of Livingston, was working with her husband Bob on the first floor of their Holgate home, which they gutted down to the studs. Her husband was hammering nails and installing insulation.
"This is as far as we got in seven months," she said, standing in what was her living room. "It's getting better; we can see it getting better. If you just entered Holgate, you'd think, 'What a disaster.' This is such an improvement."
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