With bagpipe musicians playing "Amazing Grace" and dozens of people watching, the first pile of the new Seaside Heights boardwalk was driven about 20 feet into the sand this morning off Dupont Avenue. Local residents and officials clapped and cheered as they witnessed an important milestone in the rebirth of Seaside Heights – the beginning of the reconstruction of the mile-long boardwalk that was destroyed three and a half months ago by Superstorm Sandy.

"It's an exciting day, a wonderful day, a new beginning," said Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers. "I'm giddy." Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said everybody comes to Seaside to be on the boardwalk. "It's like oxygen. Try breathing without oxygen," he said. "That's our supply line."

With tourism dollars comprising about 70 percent of Seaside Heights' budget, borough officials are eager to ensure the boardwalk will be ready before the unofficial start of summer Memorial Day weekend. The target date for completion is May 10.

To meet that ambitious goal, construction will take place five to six days per week, 10 to 12 hours per day according to Jay Siddiqui president of Sidd & Associates, the Millstone, NJ firm awarded the $3.6 million contract to rebuild the promenade. Pressure-treated wood will be attached by screws rather than nails, and the piles will be driven deeper to make this new boardwalk stronger. "The boardwalk used to have piles four feet to eight feet in," said Siddiqui. "These piles will be almost 21 feet down."

To protect the new walkway and the properties behind it, officials said phase two of the project includes the construction of a sea wall on the east side of the boardwalk. But the Seaside experience won't be complete unless the t-shirt shops, pizza joints, cheese steak stands and amusements that line the boardwalk open too. Mayor Akers said he believes nearly all will return. "Everybody's hustling. They're on schedule," he said. "We anticipate as many as 85 to 90 percent to be back in business."

Michael Carbone, who owns the Beachcomber Bar and Restaurant adjacent to the spot where today's construction began, welcomes this next step in Seaside Heights' return to normalcy following the October 29 storm. "First we got our electricity back, then we got our gas and heat back, then we got the people coming back, and now we're getting the boardwalk," said Carbone. "I've been open since December 17. We're just getting back to more and more the way it was before the storm."

Ocean County Freeholder Joseph Vicari, who said tourism brings in about $4 billion a year to the local economy, wants this year to be no different, despite the storm. "We're looking for a fantastic summer this year," said Vicari. "We want the perception to be if you want to go on a vacation, come to the Jersey Shore. Spend your money in the state of New Jersey."

When Sandy crashed onto the New Jersey shore, the boardwalk here – like others along the coast – was badly mangled and had to be removed. As soon as officials allowed access, people flocked to the borough to see what was left of Seaside's popular boardwalk, which became known worldwide through MTV's Jersey Shore. What curious visitors found was surreal: only sand where normally wooden planks separated the beach from the businesses. Carol Davis whose Toms River home was flooded by Sandy says watching the boardwalk construction begin today is helping her move forward with her own recovery from the storm. "I have faith that I'll walk with my grandchildren on the boardwalk this summer," Davis said. "It brings me happiness to be here to see these pilings being put in."

Another phase of Seaside Heights' recovery involves removal of remaining debris, including the Jet Star roller coaster which still sits upright in the sea after plunging off Casino Pier. Mayor Akers said he expects a contract for that work will be signed next week, which calls for the ride to be dismantled and removed within 50 days.

As Seaside Heights prepares to celebrate its centennial this year, Mayor Akers acknowledges today marks just one of many steps in getting the borough back on its feet after Sandy knocked it to its knees. "This is the first step to ensure our financial stability here. This is the lifeline of our community," Akers said. "Now let's rebuild the rest of the community."

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Sandy Levine is a freelance writer and television producer who was born and raised at the Jersey Shore.