Handful of Shore residents find devastation in final town to reopen

The wreckage of a house opened wide by Sandy sits on the bay in Mantoloking, Ocean County, where residents now have been allowed to move back permanently.
The wreckage of a house opened wide by Sandy sits on the bay in Mantoloking, Ocean County, where residents now have been allowed to move back permanently. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2013

MANTOLOKING, N.J. - The view across Barnegat Bay from Sandra Witkowski's lovely breakfast room isn't so lovely anymore.

Hurricane Sandy blew a neighbor's bay-front house off its foundation and into the boat channel Witkowski sees from her breakfast table. Swans and ducks serenely swim past as if the edifice is just another buoy marker.

So much has changed since Oct. 29, Witkowski noticed as she and a few other families returned home Friday to this narrow, northern Ocean County barrier island town, the last storm-ravaged Jersey Shore community to allow residents to permanently come back. Sandy washed away or destroyed half of Mantoloking's 521 homes.

Many of the remaining structures in this affluent summer playground for showbiz royalty such as Alan Alda, a cereal company heir, and dozens of Wall Street tycoons are still under repair. Only about 100 people lived here year-round before the storm.

"This is a very small, tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody else. It's a wonderful feeling to be back in my home, but when I see what's happened to a lot of my neighbors . . . I feel very bad," said Witkowski, who had been living with her daughter in Point Pleasant.

Down the block from Witkowski's property, another house sits wrecked, its contents chewed up and strewed like a dead animal's entrails across a side yard.

Though the storm happened nearly four months ago, the destruction looks fresh. Piles of debris - splintered wood mixed with mattresses, couches, chairs, appliances, bathroom sinks, bicycle baskets, photo albums, and shampoo bottles - lay bare lives once lived in these homes.

The beachfront - once a row of manicured estates lined up so perfectly it looked like a model's toothy smile - is gnarled and gapped. All that's left of one mansion, described by locals as a "fortress," is a wide, empty lot.

"My friend's house near the bridge . . . it's just gone. Nobody can find it," Witkowski said. "She keeps asking me to keep an eye out for a little blue bag with all her jewelry in it. People lost everything."

Some who returned said they had thought about never coming back. Sixty homes were swept away, and an additional 200 were so badly damaged that they will have be demolished. Fires ignited by natural gas leaks burned 14 homes to the ground after the storm hit.

"It's like survivors' guilt to be able come back, to be soothed by returning and the prospect of spending the night in your own bed," said Hank Rzemieniewski, who returned from renting on the mainland to his year-round home with his wife, Debra.

"We thought about not coming back. But when we look around and we see what happened here, well, we realize we are about as lucky as you can get to be able to come home," Rzemieniewski said.

Most are not so lucky, said Chris Nelson, a special counsel to Mantoloking Borough officials who was coordinating Friday's return.

Few homes were able to comply with the borough's criteria for residents to return. Atop the checklist: working electricity, gas, and heat.

"I can count them on one hand," said Nelson, holding up his right hand with all five fingers extended to signify the number of families who had returned.

Sandy sliced the town in two when roiling waves cut an inlet through the center of the 2.5-mile-long community, which is only a couple of blocks across at its widest point, Nelson said.

To prevent looting and other illegal activities, state police and the Ocean County Sheriff's Department are enforcing a strict public safety code.

Along Route 35, which connects a string of beach towns north of Seaside Heights, vehicles are not allowed to stop or drive below posted speed limits to gawk at the destruction. In the week that Route 35 reopened to through traffic, police issued more than 60 tickets to drivers who failed to comply.

Police also were keeping tabs on vehicles pulling off the road to enter side streets or driveways, checking that property owners and contractors had the proper credentials. An overnight curfew will remain in effect, Nelson said.

That's fine with Joyce Popaca, who returned with her husband, Doug, to their year-round home after renting a cottage in Brick.

"It's always so quiet here in the winter, but I think it's going to be really quiet here at nighttime, when all the contractors go home and there is really no traffic coming through," Popaca said. "Things are going to seem very different around here for a long time."

Witkowski, who came to live here full time 12 years ago when her Wall Street executive husband retired, agreed.

"My mother always wanted me to be called Sandra, but, sometime around high school, everybody started calling me Sandy," Witkowski said. "From now on, I want everyone to call me Sandra."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at philly.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

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