Cars navigate water on a downtown street in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Bethany Beach, Delaware, October 30, 2012. (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)

At the height of the storm, Scott Mumford was watching waves crash against the foundation of his house on the bay just west of Fenwick Island. The water kept rising, pouring into his yard, his driveway, his patio. The whole street was underwater. Fish were swimming in his garage.

He was one of the few waterfront homeowners in the Delaware beach towns to watch Hurricane Sandy firsthand. It wasn’t just the governor’s evacuation order; this is an area of vacation homes, all but empty this time of year. And so this weekend, many people drove to the beaches to check on their houses, unsure just what they would find.

It’s a beach ritual, just as much as the first sunset on Memorial Day weekend, or the shuttering of the house in the fall: the post-storm trip.

In Dewey, town officials asked residents to come help clean up, and set up giant bins for debris. Businesses like the Starboard and Woody’s East Coast Bar and Grill planned for crowds, bumping up or even doubling their orders for food and drinks.

People came to see what Sandy did to their condo, their oceanfront mansion or the little cottage they inherited from grandparents.

“We were all pretty convinced this was going to be the big one that finally got us,” said Gary Persinger.

Damage ranged dramatically, from town to town, block to block, house to house: Rehoboth Beach got lucky, while Dewey next door got socked. The bay flooded streets on the west while, to the east, the ocean only breached the dunes in some places. New houses on pilings towered over the tide, while lower homes filled with mud.

What people found, when they got to Delaware, is not what Mumford saw — not the worst of the flooding, which ripped decks off restaurants, left houses on Fenwick Island poking up out of the water like lily pads, sent a sailboat floating down the middle of Route 1.

But they did find a new view.

“The landscape has changed now, forever,” said former Dewey Commissioner Jim Laird.

Some of the beaches shrank, to skinny strips of sand. The marinas are trashed in Dewey. A pier washed up in the parking lot of the Lions Club, hundreds of feet from its original location.

A rubber roof on a house rolled up like a sardine can. A boat washed away and lodged under a neighbor’s deck as though hiding from the rain.

“Everything looks drenched” in town, said Rose Lucas, who with her husband has owned a house in Dewey for 32 years. “That’s the only word for it.”

The first floor of their house, with their bedrooms, was flooded, so they had to clear everything out and repair the walls. “In front of us are some cottages and they are really in sad shape,” she said. Those cottages now have foundation problems, and one lost three-quarters of its roof. “We lost our heat pump and washer and dryer, but we still feel fortunate.”

As people talked to neighbors, they heard stories with happy endings — the guy whose $40,000 boat washed away but was caught, somehow, by maintenance guys from Bethany who lashed it to some pine trees. And they heard some sad tales, such as the dog that stepped into a flooded garage in Bethany Beach and got electrocuted.

Construction workers arrived, and cleanup crews. Mumford scrubbed Warren’s Station, his family’s restaurant on Fenwick Island, dousing it with bleach to get rid of the marshy smell.

People ripped out soggy carpet, tore down drywall, picked up battered pieces of docks. Some joked about losing a patio but gaining two kayaks, or setting their lawn chairs loose for a transatlantic trip. Dennis Roberts found that the $20,000 or so in damage at his house in Bethany Beach wouldn’t be covered by his flood insurance.

Mumford had decided early in the storm that he wanted to be in the house, which has been in his family for decades, to make sure everything was okay. After Sandy, after thinking, “Good lord. Oh my God,” as he watched the water rush in at high tide — he’s rethinking that.

Next big storm, he said, “We’ll be leaving, for sure.”