The clock started ticking when the cyclonic winds of Superstorm Sandy slowed to a breeze almost a year ago. In that grim countdown to recovery, many survivors appear to be closer to the beginning than the end.
Since the storm's suppertime landfall Oct. 29, untold tons of wreckage from splintered homes has been hauled away from the river shores and island beaches of New Jersey towns. A web of roads has been rebuilt, power poles and electric lines are replaced, and pile after pile of sand has been vacuumed out from the back bays where Sandy put it.
But there also are signs of stumbling along the state's saw-toothed shoreline. Disagreements among neighbors are delaying projects to expand beaches and build dunes, as some people's fear of storms collides with concerns about government land control.
Flood defenses are being built in other areas, prompting a warning by some planners that federal and state authorities should be doing more to help towns see the bigger picture: They say that raising homes and building sandy walls won't alone protect coastal residents against the hatching threat of rising sea levels.
The progress is tangible. But so is its absence, revealing a disjointed recovery that has helped some homeowners and not others. In one small town, hundreds of people are still out of their homes as they wait for federal grants. In others, thousands of houses still need to be razed, let alone be rebuilt.
Paul Shives, the business administrator of Toms River, said his town of 90,000 people has seen "tremendous progress." But it's in the way that striving toward zero after overdrawing your account might feel. The way he sees it, the town is about a third of the way through its struggle.
"We won't really see a sense of normalcy for three years," Shives said.
A measure of that progress can be found in the drawdown of the $50.7 billion Disaster Relief Appropriations Act signed into law exactly three months after the storm struck.
Through August, about $11 billion had been made available to the three states affected, in what federal officials informally describe as a kind of checking account. Of that, about $5.2 billion has been spent by New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, according to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. That's about 11 percent of the money approved by Congress.
There's 'not enough money'
Today's progress might also be compared to reconciling losses from an unexpected theft. For a store owner whose inventory disappeared overnight, finding half of it would still leave the shelves gaptoothed. The streets of Union Beach are similar to those shelves.
The borough of 6,200 residents was wracked by Sandy's surge. The ocean covered shoreline portions of the working-class town with 12 to 14 feet of water, ripping down 300 homes and flooding 1,500 more. About 75 percent of the borough's households were displaced. A year later, most of them have returned, but 400 families are still living in apartments or with relatives.
"Everybody's just trying to, like, hang on -- paying rent, mortgage, taxes. And a lot of people are falling into debt," said Jennifer Maier, the business administrator for Union Beach.
About 230 homeowners are expecting to receive $150,000 in federal funding through the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program to rebuild their homes. But that money hasn't come yet, and residents can't choose a government-approved contractor until it does.
It's also not enough to help everyone who's suffering financially after the storm, Maier said. About 650 town residents applied for the grant, meaning 65 percent were rejected. And those who do get it will face challenges: The grant might cover an average family's existing mortgage, Maier said, but it's unlikely that all the recipients, who tend to be low-income earners, will be able to afford to build new homes.
"There is not enough money to help everybody," she said. "It just is not there."
Forty miles down the coast, more than 1,000 homes in Toms River have been demolished and hauled away. But just as many ruined structures are still standing, and from here it figures to get harder.
Those who have razed their houses were eager to move forward, and financially able to do so. The town is now entering an "involuntary phase" in which owners of uninhabitable homes will be pushed legally to act, or face eminent domain proceedings.
Government skepticism delays dune
Town inspectors are sifting through the surplus of empty and powerless houses, adhering orange stickers to the front doors warning owners to stay out and to begin the demolition or repair process. A year is long enough to find a path forward, town officials figure.
"It has been almost a year, and there is a presumption that homeowners have done nothing or may not be in a position to do anything," Thomas Kelaher, mayor of Toms River, said in a notice to residents about the new phase.
Other delays are sparked by neighbors at odds rather than a lack of federal funding.
In Mantoloking, an affluent town on the barrier island that acts like a 100-mile fence between the ocean and New Jersey's mainland, seven owners of beachfront homes are holding up a federal project to double the width of the beach and build a dune. They are the last of 129 homeowners who need to sign an easement giving the Army Corps of Engineers access to the beach to renourish it with sand and maintain the dune before the project can proceed.
Similar opposition has persisted for years, and year-round townsfolk weren't shy to note that Sandy's damage could have been prevented had a federal dune been built before the storm. Many thought last year's disaster cured that skepticism. Sandy damaged all of the 562 buildings in town and swept away 60 homes, many of them luxurious summer getaways positioned on the waterfront.
"They don't like the federal government. I hate to say it," Chris Nelson, special counsel to Mantoloking's mayor, said of the seven holdouts. "It really boggles the mind why these folks won't sign it."
In exchange for giving the Army Corps control of the beach "in perpetuity," landowners would see the width of the beach more than double, extending 350 feet beyond the new dune. Supporters say it amounts to a 50-year insurance plan that's largely paid for by federal taxpayers. None of the seven homeowners in opposition could be reached for comment.
Town officials have given up trying to persuade them with the benefits of protection. Last week, the borough council approved a measure to take the beach property by lawful force through eminent domain.
Needed: 'Bigger, better' homes
Even as places like Mantoloking anchor their recovery efforts on building new defenses, many experts describe that as a pre-Sandy strategy. On fragile ribbons of sand, like the area of island hosting Mantoloking, more serious methods are needed to prepare for the next 50 years, some say.
"It appears that everything is pretty much going back into the same areas," said Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "If we continue all this development here, what's the cost of recovery during the next storm?"
The intense urgency sparked by Sandy to raise homes and build dunes is an improvement over the state's disaster plans, but that work is being done without any analysis of what the future holds, some experts say. Part of the problem is the hyper-local focus of New Jersey land planning, said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit research group that promotes sustainable development.
He believes that the state or the federal government should standardize certain rebuilding elements, so that towns would use, for example, the same tool to ascertain sea-level rise. Communities would also benefit from using the same life expectancy of infrastructure like roads, wastewater treatment plants and even homes.
So far, none of that is being considered -- nor is it being required as a condition of federal aid, Kasabach said.
"Some of these places may very well be underwater a lot -- and building your house on stilts when the area is going to be underwater a lot is not a long-term solution," he said. "Just because your sofa doesn't get wet doesn't mean it's not costing the taxpayer a lot of money every time one of these events happens."
Oftentimes, the promise of dunes and other defenses is seen by towns as an economic jump-start. In Toms River, where Sandy damaged 2,000 houses beyond repair, the focus is on building more. And Ortley Beach, a barrier island neighborhood that felt the shoulder of the surge, stands to be a top beneficiary of a proposed dune system.
"That project alone will, I think, be a huge boost not only to people's sense of calm but also more importantly, I think, to property values," said Shives, Toms River's business administrator. "There will be very little risk at that point to someone building, you know, a bigger, better home."