MANTOLOKING, N.J.—There's no light or heat on this strip of island shaped like a spaghetti strand six weeks after Superstorm Sandy sliced it into a string of shortened noodles with a burst of seawater that residents say hit their town (population 296) like a small tidal wave.
But other progress is happening fast, like changing people's minds about the need for a big sand wall to protect them from the ocean.
This small borough of cedar shake homes, many of them ruined, remains under an emergency evacuation order, and residents are able to cross a bridge from the mainland only after displaying a pass at a National Guard checkpoint. A roof, cars and whole houses are said to be somewhere at the bottom of the bay crossed by the bridge. Residents must leave the island every day before the sun drops behind the two-story piles of homes turned to sticks.
This middle point of the Jersey Shore sustained powerful winds during Sandy, but it was the bulging ocean that raked this quarter-mile-wide section of island. All the town's 562 buildings were damaged, and 134 homes will need to be bulldozed, according to Lt. John Barcas, a local police official. Those are the ones that still stand. An additional 60 homes and buildings disappeared during the storm, leaving "no evidence" of them, he said.
"The ones that survived had a decent dune in front of them," explained Barcas, who huddled on the top floor of a mainland business during Sandy with about 20 people he helped rescue from a flooded road. "The ones that didn't learned that they need a decent dune."
That sentiment might be the storm's one gift. Town officials, after facing years of opposition from oceanfront homeowners worried about protecting their views, are moving quickly to collect approval for the construction of a sand dune that many here believe would have prevented the most severe damage in late October.
The Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan about five years ago to fortify a long strip of the island with 15-foot dunes and other flood-prevention methods. But Mantoloking officials couldn't persuade every property owner on the water to sign easements allowing public access to the thin, private strand of sand between the ocean and their homes, a requirement of the corps. The project stalled.
"I think they're foolish not to" sign the easement, said Mantoloking Mayor George Nebel, who believes a federal dune could have prevented much of the damage caused by the surge of ocean water. Instead, the houses took the shock.
Do we protect our view, our beach or the island?
Now there's tension, and a dose of blame, from residents with property on the back side of the barrier island. Sandy created three breaches in Mantoloking. Suddenly, there were rivers crosscutting the island. Three or four homes might fit into the largest breach, but any structures in them when Sandy hit were washed into oblivion.
That tension revealed itself in a local meeting last week. Nebel forcefully prodded oceanfront homeowners in a packed room at the mainland library to finally sign the easements, saying Sandy is proof that their decision doesn't just affect ocean views and public access, but also the safety of every home in the island town.
"You want the sand or you don't," Nebel bellowed when the owner of a beach house worried that the state might build a boardwalk in front of his house.
Mantoloking tried to protect itself after the federal project stalled by using bulldozers to form berms with beach sand. But they were lower and poorly engineered compared with Army Corps dunes made of sand sucked out of the ocean. Mantoloking needs 127 signatures to complete the easements, and Nebel believes he'll have them by Christmas. That could mean the borough is able to take advantage of President Obama's disaster funding request of $60.4 billion, which includes money for unfinished corps projects.