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Residents return as last Jersey Shore town reopens after Sandy

Sandra Witkowski, standing in the living room of her family's home in Mantoloking, New Jersey February 22, 2013, points to a house in the ba
Sandra Witkowski, standing in the living room of her family's home in Mantoloking, New Jersey February 22, 2013, points to a house in the ba

By Dave Warner

MANTOLOKING, New Jersey (Reuters) - Coming home to the last Jersey Shore community to reopen after Superstorm Sandy, Sandra Witkowski stood in her dining room on Friday to revisit that old familiar coastal view only to see her neighbor's house in the middle of Barnegat Bay.

The storm that slammed into New Jersey on Oct 29, ravaged the coastline and damaged all of the 521 houses in the narrow barrier island community, said Doug Popaca of the local emergency management office.

About 100 homes were damaged beyond repair and another 40 washed away, said Chris Nelson, a lawyer helping with the community's recovery.

One swept about 100 yards out into the bay, salt water lapping at its windows, was owned by Witkowki's neighbor.

"I love it here, but it's a lot scarier than it used to be," said Witkowski, 69, a 12-year resident of the barrier island that stands between the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of New Jersey.

Sandy caused nearly $30 billion in damages in the state. When Jersey Shore residents were evacuated, most expected they would return after a few days and were stunned when the devastation turned out to be so extreme that it would be months before they could go home.

Mantoloking, an affluent community of 296 fulltime residents that expands in summer to 4,000 beachgoers, is the last of the shore communities to allow residents to move home. Officials declared Friday "repopulation" day and welcomed home residents - at least those who still had homes to come back to.

Under overcast skies, they made their way across three bridges - the only way onto the island. Cresting the bridge into Mantoloking, residents saw empty coastline where once sat a solid line of million-dollar waterfront homes side-by-side.

"You are almost in a state of shock when you see the devastation," said Popaca, 66, who has lived in Mantoloking for 32 years. "We know several people whose houses are gone, they don't exist anymore," Popaca said.

Ordered by police to leave his home as the storm approached, Popaca moved back after the structure was treated for mold and had its insulation replaced.

Witkowski, a retired secretary who has been living with her daughter's family in nearby Point Pleasant since the storm hit, said repair work was still underway to fix the damage.

"It's a little frightening, but it's home, and we're coming back," Witkowski said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Leslie Gevirtz)

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