Down on the Boardwalk, New Jersey Rebuilds One Year After Sandy

First a superstorm, then a fire, but the human spirit remains unbowed.

The sun rises in behind the Jet Star Roller Coaster on Feb. 25, 2013, in Seaside Heights, N.J., where part of the Casino Pier was destroyed after Hurricane Sandy.
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SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J.—The roller coaster isn't in the ocean anymore. It's not anywhere anymore, really. Its former home, a small oceanside amusement park on the boardwalk, is overrun with state inspectors, construction crews, and No Trespassing signs instead of groups of teenagers, cotton candy, and Tilt-a-Whirls.

[PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy Then and Now, One Year Later]

The weather couldn't be more different than a year ago. There's not a cloud in the sky, a light breeze blows through, people are walking around in T-shirts. There are no 75 mile-per-hour winds, no storm swells, no buzzy words like "Blizzicane" being tossed about. It's been a year since Hurricane Sandy destroyed the boardwalk, picked a roller coaster off its supports and deposited it into the Atlantic Ocean, while putting mom-and-pop shops out of business.

A year after Hurricane Sandy, much of the coastline is still under construction on Oct. 29, 2013 in Seaside Heights, N.J. (Jason Koebler for USNWR)

Now, the boardwalk is back, its two-by-fours barely weathered in the few months since they've been reinstalled. There are cranes and construction workers and the sounds of drills and people wearing "Restore the Shore" hoodies, but there are also people selling trashy T-shirts, hawking pizza-by-the-slice, selling saltwater taffy. Just like the old days.

A few blocks inland, Seaside Heights has been taken over by dump trucks, traffic cones, and bulldozers. Local restaurants offer contractor specials. Road work and detour signs have been reinforced to seem permanent. There are more hardware stores than a resort town should have. There are detours everywhere.

Most of the establishments are closed, but what else would you expect in a northeastern oceanside city as November approaches?

Back on the boardwalk, Lucky Leo's arcade is open, its Wheel of Fortune and claw games lit up and making plenty of noise. Established in 1952, it advertises the fact that it's open 365 days a year. Not last year. It had to close for nearly two months following Sandy.

Michael Whalen, manager of Lucky Leo's Arcade in Seaside Heights, N.J. (Jason Koebler for USNWR)

"This whole area was just filled with sand and water," Michael Whalen, a manager at Lucky Leo's, says, pointing at an area near the entrance of the arcade. He and his family, who own the arcade, thought it had survived the storm with little damage. "The machines weren't broken right away. We turned them on and they seemed to work, but the next day, 30 of them were broken."

An employee there, Tessah Melamed, has worked on the boardwalk for the last seven years. She was scheduled to work at the arcade during hurricane Sandy but decided to stay home a few miles inland because she was feeling sick. Crossing the inlet bridge back to Seaside Heights from Tom's River, she was shocked.

"We had no idea it was going to be so bad. I came back and I just cried the whole way over the bridge," she says. "This is where I grew up, this is my home, and the boardwalk was just a big hole. It was all gone."

A Lesson in Survival

The hurricane was bad enough, but just after Seaside Heights was finishing up its first post-Sandy summer, a small electrical fire in a candy shop got out of control last month at the end of the boardwalk that suffered less damage from Sandy. Wind gusts helped ignite a blaze that burned blocks of the boardwalk. Not even shells of buildings remain there now.

"We were just saying we had a perfect hurricane and then we had a perfect fire," John Gato, manager of Van Holten's Chocolate, a candy shop next to the amusement park, says.

[READ: Chris Christie Still Riding Hurricane Sandy Wave in Polls]

Following the two-day blaze, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he "will not permit all the work we've done over the last 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night … we have lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens, we will rebuild. We will make new memories, because that's what we do."

Lucky Leo's managed to survive Sandy and was also untouched by the blaze.

"What helps is our name, " Whalen says. "We made it through Sandy and the fire. We feel very lucky."

So do Edward and Cynthia Johnson Jones, a couple that lives a few blocks down from the arcade. Their brick house now sits adjacent to a pit where buildings once stood before the blaze. They said they could feel the heat from the blaze from inside their house. The fire made electrical transformers spark and explode. Their house remained untouched.