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Storm-hit Jersey shore struggles to be ready for summer season

By Ellen Wulfhorst

AVON-BY-THE-SEA, New Jersey (Reuters) - As the spring sun glinted off the Atlantic Ocean at the tiny resort town of Avon-by-the-Sea, a small brown and white dog raced gleefully down the empty beach.

"He's the only one getting anything done," muttered a scowling hard-hat worker, frustrated over the pace of rebuilding the town's boardwalk, which was demolished by Superstorm Sandy.

The Jersey shore, a 127-mile stretch of beaches, small communities and kitschy icons, remains largely in shambles, with the traditional Memorial Day start to the summer season a mere two months away.

The four counties along the Jersey shore account for half of the state's tourism and travel industry, which in 2012 generated a record of nearly $40 billion in revenue, according to the New Jersey Amusement Association.

When Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, it submerged much of the Jersey shore in seawater and damaged or destroyed 346,000 houses statewide, taking a financial toll of nearly $37 billion, according to official statistics.

Ruined houses still lie on their sides, dunes are washed away and seaside snack shacks are boarded up as repairs advance in fits and starts.

In Avon, workers rebuilding the boardwalk ran into large rocks under the beach that slowed progress, but officials said the project is back on track to meet the start of summer.

Lingering winter weather has hindered efforts to reopen the popular amusement park in Seaside Heights, officials said, while many homeowners are still waiting for payments from insurance policies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) before they can rebuild or even clean up.

"I think we're going to have a fantastic summer. It's just not going to be the summer we're used to," restaurant owner Mike Jurusz said. "There's not a lot of places and things for people to do the way there was before."

Jurusz, whose oceanfront restaurant Chef Mike's ABG in Seaside Park is open, said he is waging a radio and social media campaign to coax people to visit the battered barrier island.

"People think the island is not open," he said.

ECONOMIC MOTOR

Helping him along will be a $30 million advertising campaign to help revive shore tourism. The ads, to begin in April, will be announced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Tourist dollars in 2012 accounted for 7 percent of the gross domestic product in New Jersey. Visitors seek out the beaches, boardwalks and attractions such as Wacky Golf in Seaside Heights and Madam Marie's fortune-telling booth in Asbury Park, given eternal fame in the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song.

"For a lot of people, it's sad for them to see places that they know that aren't there anymore," Jurusz said.

Even with rebuilt boardwalks to stroll along, visitors will find themselves without such amenities as eateries, observed longtime Belmar resident Joseph Momich.

"It's all sand," the retired floor layer said. "When the people come, where are they going to eat?"

In Mantoloking, some 40 homes are waiting to be demolished, and another 100 are awaiting debris removal that won't be completed until mid-June, said Chris Nelson, a resident and special counsel to the barrier island town of 528 houses.

One house sits partially submerged in Barnegat Bay.

"The ocean washed over the entire length of the town," Nelson said.

Only about 30 families have moved back, and fewer than 200 are expected back by summer, he said.

"The psyche has to come back. Emotionally we have to bring people back," said Stephen Acropolis, the mayor of Brick, where thousands of homes were flooded.

"People have to see progress. They have to see homes being repaired in their neighborhoods," Acropolis said.

DESOLATION ROW

Brick's historic Camp Osborn, a collection of more than 100 bungalows on the site of a former tent camp that dated to the 1920s, burned to the ground due to Sandy damage.

Larger houses bear red spray-painted slashes denoting their destiny for demolition. Boats using side-scan sonar are hauling submerged debris, recently including a Mercedes Benz, from Barnegat Bay to make it safe for boating.

In Lavalette, where Mayor Walter LaCicero estimates 95 percent of homeowners suffered storm damage, a curfew remains in effect in the largely deserted town.

Nevertheless, LaCicero said, "We will be ready when summer rolls around."

In boisterous Seaside Heights, known for its arcades and amusement park rides, the broken skeleton of the Jet Star roller coaster still lies in the ocean, as do three other rides swept into the waves.

Efforts to remove them are in the works, according to officials at Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach.

About half of the rides on the pier, which once offered 35 such dizzying attractions, should be open by Memorial Day, they said.

A lack of electricity is hampering efforts to reopen the games of chance arcade and get rides such as Pirate's Hideaway, Moby Dick and Disk'O up and spinning again, said Lou Cirigliano, director of operations for Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach.

"We're trying," Cirigliano said. "We really want to be open."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Gregorio)

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