In this Oct. 31, 2012 photo, residents and borough officials in Mantoloking N.J. stand on what used to be Route 35 , two days after Sandy devastated the community and wrecked the highway.
The New Jersey barrier island community of Mantoloking finally let residents back into their homes Friday, nearly four months after Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the borough.
Mayor George Nebel said nearly 200 of the area's 561 homes were either destroyed or suffered major damage from the October storm. About 60 were swept away entirely and hundreds will have to be demolished.
Most of the homes are grand summer getaways; only about 100 residents typically stay through winter.
The community, 2½-miles long and just a couple blocks wide with the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Barnegat Bay on the west, was cut in two by an inlet during the storm. That was fixed quickly, and Route 35, the main road through the barrier island community, has also reopened after repairs.
"Right after the storm, I thought we'd be lucky to be back in our homes by the summertime," Mayor Nebel said.
But after virtually all utilities were rebuilt, the town is ready to live in again, even if most of the houses are not.
The home of Joyce and Doug Popaca is one of the lucky ones. It sits up high enough that only crawl space insulation and duct work had to be replaced.
"It's hard to feel sorry for yourself when you see that kind of damage and realize some folks aren't going to be back for years, if ever," Doug Popaca said.
Joyce Popaca was busy putting up St. Patrick's Day decorations on Friday. She's not even Irish but it's the first holiday since last summer that she can celebrate in her home.
But as glad as she was to move back in, she said Mantoloking seemed forever changed.
"I don't recognize it as our town," she said.
Beth and Larry Nelson will be moving back in to their bayfront home in a few days, as soon as the plumber can install a hot water heater.
The downstairs walls and floors are still stripped and none of the new kitchen appliances have been hooked up, but the upstairs bedrooms were untouched by the storm.
Beth Nelson said she is very eager to call her house a home again.
"It's been four months almost. That's a long time to be away from your house," she said.
But Nebel predicted it will be three to five years before all of his residents who want to come back will have finished rebuilding.