Six months after Sandy ravaged the tri-state area, uprooting thousands of trees, decimating homes and submerging cities, many residents say life has mostly returned to normal, though for some, recovery from the deadly storm remains a painstaking process, and "life as normal" a far-away dream that may never be realized.
Separation is the new reality for the Gatti family, a clan of several generations that shared the same three-story home near the ocean on Staten Island until Sandy destroyed it.
The flood-soaked place was demolished months ago, and they're waiting for a government buyout. Now the family is scattered across New Jersey, New York and Texas.
"The whole family's separated," said Marge Gatti, the matriarch. "And it's terrible, you know?"
Tens of thousands of people remain homeless. Housing, business, tourism and coastal protection all remain major issues with the summer vacation — and hurricane — seasons almost here again.
"Some families and some lives have come back together quickly and well, and some people are up and running almost as if nothing ever happened, and for them it's been fine," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said ahead of the six-month mark. "Some people are still very much in the midst of recovery. You still have people in hotel rooms, you still have people doubled up, you still have people fighting with insurance companies, and for them it's been terrible and horrendous."
Lynda Fricchione's flood-damaged home in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, N.J., is gutted; the roof was fixed just last week. The family is still largely living out of cardboard boxes in an apartment. But waiting for a final decision from federal and state authorities over new flood maps that govern the price of flood insurance is tormenting her and many others.
"The largest problem is, nobody really knows how high we're going to have to elevate the house," she said. "At town hall they told us 5 feet, but then they said it might go down to 3 feet in the summer. Most of us are waiting until the final maps come out. It's wait-and-see."
By many measures, the recovery from Sandy, which struck Oct. 29, has been slow. From Maryland to New Hampshire, the National Hurricane Center attributes 72 deaths directly to Sandy and 87 others indirectly from causes such as hypothermia due to power outages, carbon monoxide poisoning and accidents during cleanup efforts, for a total of 159.
The roller coaster that plunged off a pier in Seaside Heights, N.J., is still in the ocean, although demolition plans are finally moving forward. Scores of homes that were destroyed in nearby Mantoloking still look as they did the day after the storm — piles of rubble and kindling, with the occasional bathroom fixture or personal possession visible among the detritus.
And more than a few residents whose homes were overtaken by mold or completely destroyed in the storm still cry as they drive down the barren streets that once held their valued memories as well as their most fervent hopes for the future.
Throughout the region, many businesses are still shuttered, and an already-tight rental market has become even more so because of the destruction of thousands of units and the crush of displaced storm victims looking to rent the ones that survived.
FEMA has paid out $387.4 million in housing grants and $263 million to communities and nonprofit groups in New Jersey since the storm hit. In New York, Cuomo's administration worked with banks to release more than $200 million in insurance payments.
But insurance companies have not paid out all that many homeowners expected. Municipalities are borrowing tens of millions of dollars to keep the lights on, the fire trucks running and the police stations staffed, waiting for reimbursement from the federal government for storm expenditures they had to fund out of pocket.
And yet, by other measures, remarkable progress has been made. Boardwalks, the tourism lifeblood of the region, are springing back to life. A handful of homes are going up, and the whine of power saws and the thwack of hammers is everywhere in hard-hit beach towns as contractors fix what can be saved and bulldozers knock down what can't.
Volunteers in Highlands, N.J., are rebuilding the home of Bromlyn Link, the single mother of a 17-year-old boy. Link and her son are both members of the town's first aid squad and who spent 12 to 14 hours a day helping friends and neighbors forced to live in shelters for weeks after the storm.
Mantoloking, which was cut in half by the storm and saw all 521 of its homes damaged or destroyed, is creeping back to life. The post office recently reopened, and the first of 50 demolitions will start next week, which is also when Mayor George Nebel will join the 40 other residents who have been able to move back home.
Beaches that were washed away are coming back, due both to nature and bulldozers, and real estate agents say demand for this strangest of upcoming summers appears good, particularly in the large portions of the Jersey shore that were relatively unscathed by Sandy. Beach badges, required for access to most of New Jersey's shoreline, are selling at a near-record pace in Belmar, N.J.
And while towns fortify beaches and dunes and put up sea walls, rock barriers or even sand-filled fabric tubes to guard against future storms, state governments are readying hundreds of millions of dollars to buy out homeowners in flood-prone areas who want to leave.
"We've made a lot of progress in six months; I know we still have a long way to go," Gov. Chris Christie said at a recent town hall meeting. "By Memorial Day, every boardwalk that was destroyed at the Jersey shore will be rebuilt. Businesses are reopening. Rentals are picking up again, roads are back open."
Christie estimated 39,000 New Jersey families remain displaced, down from 161,000 the day after the storm. In New York, more than 250 families are still living in hotel rooms across New York paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while others are still shacking up with relatives or living in temporary rentals.
Sandy also damaged interior areas, particularly those along rivers in northern New Jersey. Cities including Hoboken and Jersey City were inundated, and officials continue try seek exemptions for skyscrapers and large apartments from federal rules requiring flood-prone buildings to be elevated. George Stauble, whose Little Ferry house took in four feet of water, said FEMA payouts caused some rifts between neighbors.
"Everybody's house had pretty much the same amount of damage, but people are getting different amounts of money, and that's caused some problems," he said, adding some homeowners received as little as $8,000, while others received as much as $29,000.