But not everyone is convinced that places like Mantoloking are the best targets for limited federal resources in the battle against rising seas. The town lost about 25 percent of its landmass during Sandy, one official estimated, exposing the challenge of defending thin strips of sandy land that are heavily developed.
"Sandy looked for a place where it could find softness, so to speak," said Gerry Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland and a former officer with the Army Corps. "Every storm will find the weak points and go after them. When you're on a narrow strip of land, you're obviously at higher risk."
'One spot out of a hundred just like it'
That elevated risk is measurable: The closer you are to the ocean, the more danger there is. That's because, in part, storm defenses will move under the force of wind-driven ocean water. An ideal defense is divided into sections, beginning with a large sloping beach that extends into the ocean, followed by a dune that is normally up to 90 feet thick, followed by marshes on the bayside that can accommodate the island as it moves inland -- away from rising ocean water.
But in Mantoloking, "you don't have that space," said Joe Vietri, director of the Army Corps National Planning Center of Expertise for Coastal Storm Damage Reduction. "Mantoloking is one spot out of a hundred just like it."
That raises troublesome questions. Should the narrowest barrier islands be abandoned? Or should the government direct its limited resources to fortify -- and rebuild -- areas that could be destroyed again?
There is only one answer for many residents of Mantoloking, even as some of them acknowledge that climate change is making their lifestyle more precarious. It's their home, they say, and decisions about rebuilding it can't be made in government memos.
Connie Pilling, 86, grew up in the town and has lived in her home since 1976. The first floor was flooded during Sandy and needs to be replaced. But she's not sure how she'll pay for it. Pilling allowed her coverage with the National Flood Insurance Program to lapse last year.
"I thought it was coming," she said of a big storm like Sandy. "But not this severe."
Constantine Rossakis' beachfront house is in splinters. The detritus is covered protectively by the roof -- the only portion of the house still intact. He encouraged other beach-side owners to support construction of a dune, even if it limits their views and permits the public to take a dip along their exclusive shoreline.
"I think a lot of people get hung up [on the easement], probably for selfish reasons," Rossakis said.
If you rebuild, how long will it last?
Whether a dune is built or not, the federal government is already committing investments to the island's rebuilding. The Army Corps has filled in all three breaches with rocks and sand, and the main road on the island, Route 35, is being temporarily repaired before it's entirely replaced.
New utility poles are going up, natural gas lines are being replaced and sewers are being cleared of sand. The town also needs a new police department, fire department and municipal hall, officials say. All that is happening as scientists warn that sea levels are continuing to rise at accelerated paces.
"It is certain that higher mean sea levels increase the frequency, magnitude and duration of flooding associated with a given storm, which often have disproportionately high impacts in most coastal regions," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says in a report released last week.
For many beaches like Mantoloking, that risk is enhanced by its narrow width and shallow slope. Vietri of the corps says those types of beaches can expect seawater to encroach 30 feet onto shore for every foot of rise.