More than two months after Hurricane Sandy, the state of New Jersey is allowing residents of some barrier island communities to return to their homes. But the “repopulation” of the island towns is proceeding slowly. Not all towns are open yet for occupation. In the towns that are open, many homes are still uninhabitable or lack utilities. And some roads are still impassable. As the first homeowners move back to their devastated blocks, there’s relief — but also the strain of living in a shattered environment, and the realization that “normalcy” on the Jersey Shore lies far in the future.

The Huffington Post is following the repopulation story (“After Hurricane Sandy, 'Repopulation' Begins For Jersey Shore Residents,” by Wayne Perry/Associated Press). “The slow pace of return helps illustrate the difficulties in recovering from the historic storm,” the story notes. While returning residents are elated to be back in their houses, they will have few neighbors.

The return of residents to houses is the second phase of a four-phase process, reports (“Seaside Heights residents allowed to repopulate 10 weeks after Hurricane Sandy,” by Melissa Viscount). “The first phase of re-population, which allowed businesses to open their doors, started on December 12. The third and fourth phases are expected to start on February 1 and March 1 and will involve residential rentals and hotel/motels respectively,” the website reports.

Custom builder Eric Borden, a JLC author, is working on the barrier island, including two of the hardest-hit sectors: Bay Head and Ortley Beach. Borden’s workload has quadrupled, and the rush is far from over, he told Coastal Connection. “We specialize in building on the barrier island,” said Borden: “The oceanfront, the bay side, and in between. I’m standing right now on Goetze Street in Bay Head, on the bay side, and I can see the ocean side from here, three blocks away. That’s how wide the island is.”

Borden has been building there for more than 20 years. It’s a high-dollar market: “It’s not unusual for us to do two jobs a year and gross $2 million,” he says. Before Sandy hit, Borden told us, his busiest year was 2003. “I ran five jobs that year, and I grossed about $2.4 million,” he says. “And that, for me, was a lot of work. Right now I’m running 18 jobs.” And the phone is still ringing, he says: “I’m building already for people who have cash to rebuild. Now I’m getting calls from people who say their insurance money is coming in, and they want to get started.”

The damage to Borden’s clients’ homes runs a gamut from serious to total. “I’ve got the severely damaged jobs where I need to drive piles. In some cases we have to do selected demolition so we can get the pile driver in there. Then there’s another job where we have to get permission from the town engineer to give us access to the site, because it’s right on the oceanfront, and the street is missing.”

New flood elevations for the area — which are not yet final — complicate the picture. “We don’t know what the official flood elevations going to be,” says Borden. “We have the new advisory base flood elevation, and we have the current base flood elevation.” Some towns are permitting houses at the old elevations — but when the new elevations take effect, flood insurance for houses built below the new elevations will soar.

For one customer, Borden had already filed permits for a renovation on the house before Sandy hit. “When I got access to the house after the storm, I saw that the damage was repairable,” he says. “But I told the client: ‘You were planning on putting $120,000 into this house before the storm. So now let’s see if we can maximize our dollars out of the flood insurance, lets see if we can get FEMA’s Increased Cost of Compliance grant for raising the house — which we can legally use to demolish the structure and build a new house — and let’s design and build a brand new house so you don’t ever have to worry about flooding again.’ And they agreed to it, so we’re going to demolish the house and build a new house.”

Demolition isn’t a maybe for many nearby homeowners, however — it’s a given. Bay Head, where the job Borden described is located, is next to Mantaloking, one of the nation’s wealthiest towns (with per capita income well north of $100,000). Mantaloking is still under lockdown, says Borden: “You can only go on at 8 A.M. and you have to leave by 4. All the roads are blocked — state police presence.” More than 90% of Mantaloking’s buildings were damaged by flood. “There is one area where they just put a fence around the whole block,” says Borden, “because every house in that block is going to have to be demolished. Every house has moved, they’re all leaning. The wave came through right there, and everything from the ocean to the bay is going to have to be demolished.”

Amateur YouTube videos taken after the storm give a sense for the damage wrought in Mantaloking. New York City photographer Peter Hurley shot one video days after the storm, sneaking onto the beach by boat to visit his family’s vacation house. Another video was made by New Jersey power-washing contractor Ed Thompson when local authorities bused townsfolk in to view their properties in mid-November.

To the south, the barrier island borough of Ortley Beach is also not ready for repopulation, authorities say. A state of emergency is still in effect, reports the website for Toms River, N.J. (“Ortley Beach Still Not Ready,” staff report). At a meeting where townsfolk vented their frustration at the pace of recovery, Assistant Township Engineer Wendy A. Birkhead said that more than 80 Ortley houses are completely unaccounted for after the storm (“Ortley Beach residents question stalled Sandy cleanup,” by Michelle Gladden). On a January 6 visit to the barrier island, blogger Melissa Baratta documented some of the oceanside damage (below), writing, “Although it's been more than 2 months since the hurricane hit, the small towns look like war zones. Where there were once houses, there are now only empty foundations. Even whole streets are missing, and big sand dunes stand in their place.”

Nevertheless, Borden’s crew is working in Ortley, trying to get one retired couple’s house repaired and in move-in condition by February 14, when he hopes they may be allowed to return. This isn’t an upper-crust vacation house, Borden says: “It’s a 900-square-foot vinyl box.”

His retired elderly clients need their home back, says Borden. “She’s 82. He’s 87. He’s a World War II vet who used to own a service station. This is the house they built for themselves to live in until they die. And now they’re in a motel in Wayne, and they’re bleeding $1,200 a month of hard-earned cash because FEMA won’t pay to put them in a place with handicapped access. They can’t stay at his daughter’s house because there are stairs, and he can’t go up and down stairs. So I’m trying to get this place ready for them to move back.”

The old flood elevations were proved wrong at this location, says Borden: The house was built two feet above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) for the location, “and they got 14 inches of water on the first floor.” Still, the house survived. Not so for nearby homes: “I can walk six houses up the street to Grand Avenue, and then walk up one long block to Ocean Ave., on the beach — and that block is just blown up. Literally blown up.”

If his elderly clients can return to their home in February, says Borden, they won’t have neighbors. “In Ortley Beach, the oceanfront blocks are still blown out. There are areas up on the oceanfront that don’t have streets. There are a lot of houses gutted out that are still just sitting there. If I get these people to move back into their house on the 14th of February, it’ll be the only house on the street that is occupied. None of the other houses on the street are having any work done.”