And if they looked east toward the Atlantic Ocean, there was only emptiness. The oceanfront homes were gone, as were the ones behind them, and the ones behind them, and so on.
"It's really eerie," said Lynn Ackermann, 31, as she picked up her father, who was working on her childhood home Wednesday. "It's a such a familiar place that's become so unfamiliar. Every time I come over, I feel like I'm in shock."
Three months after Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard, the small working-class enclave of Ortley Beach - among the hardest-hit communities along the Jersey Shore - still looks as though the storm might have hit yesterday.
In truth, thousands of tons of obliterated houses have been carted away; streets that were once covered in four feet of sand and liable to collapse underneath the weight of a car are now mostly drivable.
But telephone poles still lean at precipitous angles, gas mains for half the town probably won't be turned on until after Easter, and residents might look out their kitchen window to see their neighbor's house resting in their yard.
The state evacuation order, instituted back when Sandy was bearing down on the Jersey Shore and lifted months ago in most Shore towns, remains in effect at night in Ortley until Monday.
At that point, some residents will be able to sleep in their beds for the first time since the storm; those on the oceanfront side of the town of 2,000 homes figure they'll be lucky to be back by summer.
On Wednesday, Toms River Township Mayor Thomas Kelaher, the former Ocean County prosecutor, drove an unmarked police car around the community he presides over, pointing at vacant, rubble-strewn lots and explaining what used to be there.
There was St. Elizabeth's Chapel-by-the-Sea, the century-old church where Episcopal vacationers attended services in the summertime. Now, only a wooden cross marked an otherwise empty lot; a chalice from the chapel was found in a motel courtyard a few blocks inland.
And there was the tangled mass of concrete and rebar that used to be the Surf Club, whose panoramic views made it as popular for breakfast as a sunset cocktail - even for the mayor, who fought bitterly with the owners when they refused to allow him to build dunes in front to protect against storm surge.
"When I first saw this, I said: 'We'll never get this straight.' There was no manual for a storm like this," Kelaher said. "The biggest controversy we had before the storm was whether they were going to repaint the dolphins on the water tower."
With fist-pumping Seaside Heights on one side and bourgeois Lavalette on the other, Ortley has long existed as a sedate summer retreat for the families of police officers and firefighters, contractors and auto mechanics.
The locals had their own language. "Bennies" was code for the North Jersey families that started showing up at the beach and Barnacle Bill's for games of miniature golf come Memorial Day.
But that's all changed now.
The cottages that were swept off their foundations by the storm surge to end up who-knows-where have become known as "Dorothy houses." Flocks of seabirds nest atop a pile of sugary soft drinks laid bare to the elements outside a pizzeria.
And the question hangs: When will the ocean that had always seemed so benign again swallow the island whole?
Outside what used to be the headquarters for the town's volunteer first-aid brigade, but now serves as the staging center for the hundreds of volunteers and charity groups that descend on Ortley on the weekends, a woman cooked hot dogs over a grill while laborers warmed themselves next to a burning trash can.
Residents who had come back for the day to meet with a contractor or retrieve some item of clothing debated who was to blame for the slow pace of the cleanup in Ortley. Was it FEMA? Officials in Toms River, who many in the beach community have long argued ignore them? Or the ocean itself, which roared through the town with near unparalleled force?
Rumors were spreading about who was leaving the island for good, the future too uncertain, the rebuilding process too onerous to ever go through again.
In between phone calls, Cassandra Vitale, who grew up on the mainland and was now organizing volunteers, recounted how earlier in the day she had tried to comfort a woman whose home was wrecked in the storm and who coincidentally lost her husband a few days later.
"She was just breaking down. She said, 'Every time I come back, it's so depressing,' " Vitale said. "And I understand that. Ortley was so badly hit, and it's so far behind everyone else, it's getting depressing."
To see a video about Ortley Beach, go to www.philly.com/ortley
Contact James Osborne
at 856-779-3876 or email@example.com.