A steady rain Saturday made the volunteers' grunt work in the mucky waters even more laborious: removing tons of debris—by hand—that had been swept into a marsh in Ocean County by Superstorm Sandy. The normally pristine wetlands south of St. Lawrence Boulevard in Brick Township became littered with lumber, dressers, siding, paint cans and much more, endangering the ecosystem and leaving an ugly, depressing reminder of the October storm.

"After the storm, I couldn't believe the amount of debris that was back there, said 27-year-old Phil Vitillo, who grew up near Baywood Swamp and spearheaded its cleanup. "I was speechless when I saw it. A lot of burnt debris washed over from Camp Osborn."

Camp Osborn (map) was an enclave of small beach cottages in the Brick Township section of the barrier island, where some 60 homes burned to the ground the night of the storm. Dozens more washed away, with much of that debris traveling more than a mile across Barnegat Bay and settling along the mainland. For Bill Reick, participation in the marsh cleanup was deeply personal: He was searching the wreckage for bits and pieces of his life.

"My house got washed into the bay from the ocean, and now it's over here in pieces," said Reick, after finding a section of his home's flooring and a tennis racket. "I felt that I needed to help clean up and hopefully find things that I can take home with me."

In fact against the odds, Reick found a narrow, metal "Captain's Quarters" plaque that belongs to his 92-year-old neighbor whose home also washed away. For people who have lost everything in the storm, once common items become priceless mementos. "I found one thing today that's very valuable," Reick said, as he held the plaque that had been attached to a screen door. "My neighbor said if I ever came over here, he'd want that one thing, and I actually found it today."

The marsh cleanup was coordinated by Sandy Hook-based Clean Ocean Action as part of the nonprofit group's Waves of Action initiative, helping storm-damaged coastal communities in New Jersey and New York. Program Manager Tavia Danch said about 1000 volunteers scoured nine sites this past weekend.

"It's incredible that despite the weather, and in the middle of winter, masses of people turned out for this community effort," said Danch, who noted several cleanups called off due to the weather have been rescheduled in March. "It's important to clean up as best we can before the spring comes, because once the plants grow back it will be harder to access these areas," she said.

Part of the marsh off St. Lawrence Boulevard is federal land, a tiny section of the 47,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Virginia Rettig who is the refuge manager said a request has been made for federal funds to pay for the cleanup of about 22 miles of impacted coastland in Ocean and Atlantic counties. "We recognize we have a large problem that can't be solved through volunteer efforts alone," said Rettig, who added it's not clear when a decision about the funding will be made.

Cleaning up all the waterways here is a monumental, ongoing task, critical for a safe and successful season in shore towns dependent on tourism. During a recent interview, Brick Township Mayor Stephen Acropolis said New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection is removing debris from the tidal waters in the region.

"The DEP has really taken the lead on this," said Acropolis. "They've awarded contracts to three companies, and they'll be using side-scan sonar to identify debris fields and come in with specialized equipment and take that debris out." The entire cleanup, which is expected to continue through the summer, will stretch from Bergen County south into Delaware Bay, and north to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

At Baywood Swamp, after five hours of backbreaking work, drenched volunteers took off their heavy gloves and waders and quit for the day. Even after filling at least six dumpsters with tons of debris, there's still more garbage to clear. Phil Vitillo said he won't be satisfied until the unspoiled beauty of his beloved marsh is restored.

"We made a huge dent," Vitillo said. "There's still a lot to do and I can't wait to get back and finish it. My neighbor and I want to work until we get it all out," he said. "We want to get it back to the way it was before the storm."

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