SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. — Police are preparing to search for bodies in this resort town by the sea, but first they have to round up the animals.
“When they die, they send out a stench that makes us think there’s a body,” said Police Chief Thomas Boyd, as animal protection officers cruised abandoned streets and summer houses looking for pets left behind when their owners fled Hurricane Sandy.
Along the Jersey Shore, where carefree fun is a source of income, many residents say it will never feel the same. Three days after the massive storm washed over the towns built on the barrier island just off the mainland, the waters are receding, unveiling the magnitude of the destruction.
In Seaside Heights, whose population swells from 3,000 in the offseason to 100,000 on summer weekends, the 16-block boardwalk has by turns buckled, collapsed and been shredded into fragments bristling with rusty nails. A roller coaster that used to sit at the end of Casino Pier now sticks out from the edge of the ocean, like a manhandled Erector Set. Sinkholes have swallowed up entire trucks. Boats and houses have been plunked down in the middle of streets.
To prevent looting, police have sealed off the bridges leading to the island towns and allow visitors to enter only with a police escort. On Thursday afternoon, the solitary sound in the streets was the beep-beep of a Caterpillar in reverse as it pushed aside mounds of beach sand that the storm had deposited in the roadways.
As recovery efforts proceeded in the states struck by Sandy, the nationwide death toll rose to at least 90. New York City officials recorded 38 deaths from the storm, including two Staten Island boys, 2 and 4, whose bodies were found Thursday.
More than 4.6 million homes and businesses remained without power, the Associated Press reported, but many public transportation systems across the Northeast came back to life, at least in part. While many people were able to return to their homes, many others remained stranded or coped with long lines for gasoline and other supplies.
Seaside Heights police estimated that 50 or more residents remained, insisting on protecting their property. Throughout the day Thursday, teams of prosecutors and police officers combed through the ruins of the town, urging those still here to go to the mainland. Officials said nobody would be forced from their homes, so long as they had generators and were on higher ground.
On the mainland, residents in the neighborhoods that have been without power since Monday formed patrols, saying they had seen interlopers making away with possessions that had landed in front yards during the storm. The residents were just as protective of their own dignity, saying they wished the curious would stay away.
“People are coming from out of state,” said Pat Shields, 53, a disabled trucker who lives two blocks from the water in a neighborhood where the water rose so high it spilled into bathtubs. “They say they just want to see it. But what is there to see, except our misery?”
Bob Stewart, a volunteer fireman who rescued residents from their attics during the storm, lost the 300-game arcade he had run for five years near Casino Pier.
“I kept checking on it, until one time I came back, it wasn’t there no more,” he said, standing on the beach where the 120-year-old building had collapsed into the sand.
“This used to be my office,” he said, sweeping his hand around him to take in nothing but debris. “Of course, it was higher up.
“That was my cash box,” he added, pointing to a gray box about 50 feet away. “It was filled with quarters. We wouldn’t count them. We’d weigh them.”
Stewart dropped his contents insurance after Hurricane Irene last year, figuring why pay $15,000 a year in premiums when the building had shown it could withstand hurricane-force winds and waves?
“Everything I had was invested in this,” he said.
A lot of people who have lost everything ended up at Toms River High School North, which has been converted into a shelter for about 300 evacuees, many of them from Seaside Heights and other barrier island communities. Residents of means are staying in hotels; those in the shelter are either poor or working class. They lived year-round in the modest bungalows that dot the barrier island because they were cheaper to rent than apartments on the mainland.
“I’m 53, and I’ve got to start all over again,” said Mark Young, a retired wallpaper hanger.
Young stayed in his apartment in Forked River Beach during Monday’s storm, even falling asleep for a couple hours as the water lapped up around his bed. He fled Tuesday morning, clinging to the side of a gigantic bulldozer while other evacuees filled its bucket.
“I’ve got my union pension,” he said. “And I’ve got my family. But I’m going to relocate. I’ve had enough. After what I’ve been through with this one, I don’t have any particular desire to live on the water anymore.”
Amy Tripaldi, 38; her husband, Lazaro Mayo, 45; and their 2-year-old son moved into a small winter rental in Seaside Heights just a month ago after they gave up their previous apartment when Mayo had a heart attack and lost his job. Tripaldi went to work at a clothing outlet store, but it’s an hour away and she doesn’t have money to buy gasoline.
“I had just gotten us on our feet,” she said, sitting on one of the three American Red Cross cots they sleep on beneath the electronic scoreboard in the high school arena.
Almost all those at the shelter, she said, were “people who don’t have nowhere to go. People like me who couldn’t afford a roof over our heads.”
And people like Fern Lumpkin, 40, an unemployed single mother who says she has been a victim of abuse, and her 13-month-old daughter, Freedom. In the small, welfare apartment where they lived in Seaside Heights, Lumpkin left behind most of her clothes, the diary she had kept since she was 15 and a lot of reminders from her childhood.
“This seems like a really bad dream,” she said, as Freedom happily tried to crawl away, oblivious to their circumstances. “I can’t believe I’m homeless again.”
Most residents have no idea how much they lost, because they have not been allowed back to their homes. Boyd said police may permit some residents to return and do damage assessments on Sunday or Monday. But normality is still a ways away. Toms River Police Chief Michael Mastronardi said he has asked the school superintendent to keep schools closed through next week.
As the two chiefs gave reporters a briefing Thursday morning, a man who said he lives in the barrier island community of Lavallette angrily demanded to know why he and others had not been allowed to return to see their property.
“I don’t care about the houses, I care about lives,” Boyd told him, explaining that natural gas is still leaking in some communities.
Nerves were noticeably less frayed just a mile inland, even though most of the residents have no electricity and the neighborhoods remain dark and foreboding while electricity is slowly being restored to commercial strips and major intersections.
“I feel guilty, because I got away with just a little inconvenience,” said Bob Kennedy, 40, as he waited in an hour-long line at a gas station in Point Pleasant to fill up a red plastic container with gas for his generator. “I lost power, that’s it. But with the generator, we’re able to do the laundry and keep the refrigerator going. My girls are 2 and 4, and the only thing they’ve noticed is we don’t have cable.”
Owner Baris Alkoc, 40, opened his Singin gas station Wednesday and Thursday, even though his own house was reachable only by canoe.
He was rationing customers to $20 each, whether in their car or a container, and said he expected to run through his supply by the end of the day.
“People need gas,” he said. “The temperature keeps dropping. It was really cold last night.”
As long as people have gas for their generators so they can keep warm, they will stay calm. But he expects problems if gas stations do not get a new supply.
“Once the gas runs out, people will start panicking,” he said. “There will be more fires. People will use books, wood, anything they can. Without electricity, you start to go a little crazy.”