The season for booking a summer rental is in full swing and the Jersey Shore, still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, finds itself under the microscope.
Are would-be vacationers heading elsewhere? Or will they return to long-treasured vacation spots?
Greetings from Seaside Heights, N.J.
Seaside Heights, one of the hardest-hit resort towns, was a hive of activity on a recent brilliantly sunny day.
The calls of seagulls, wheeling and diving toward the beach, were drowned out by the steady pound of hammers and whine of drills as repairs continue.
Seaside Heights was the site of the now-infamous roller coaster, batted into the ocean by the storm. A brand-new boardwalk has been growing up there now as workers have driven dozens of pilings into the sand.
Some shop owners were clearing debris while others are already back in business.
And a few tourists, bearing binoculars and cameras, were inching up to the red cones and caution tape set up to keep them out of harm's way.
Anne and Kevin King said they are Shore-goers from way back.
"Oh, it's heaven!" said Kevin King.
"Memories, memories galore down here," chimed in Anne King.
"There's no place like it!" added her husband.
Anne King acknowledged that the ongoing reconstruction is "going to take a while. It's going to take a while, but they'll get there."
She said she expects the end result will be a different Shore.
"It will be a little different," she said, but still the Shore.
Vacationers keeping tabs on progress
Many longtime vacationers have been asking Mike Loundy, the director of community improvements for Seaside Heights and the owner of Seaside Realty, what exactly will be ready in time for the summer.
"Will the boardwalk be open? Will your beaches be open? Will the rides be open? Will the stores be open?" he recited the rough litany he's been hearing from clients.
"And our answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes," he said.
There will be houses and condos to rent, although the number of units available is down significantly from this time last year.
"We feel that we're about 70 percent," Loundy said. "We have to make sure we go through these units at some point, before we actually have people occupy, and make sure they meet with basic standards that we always wanted them to be."
Challenges facing property owners
Tom Partyka, who owns three properties in Seaside Heights, was working with friends and family to rehab one of them.
"We had 18 inches of water in this house, and the refrigerator was flipped over, everything was destroyed, the Sheetrock, the insulation — all had to be taken out," he said. "We had to de-mold it, and put all new tile down, all new cement board, so it was basically rebuilding the whole doggone house again!"
Partyka said he has been hearing from past tenants calling to see how the work is going and whether they can lend a hand with the reconstruction.
"And I'm telling everybody that, by April 1, this'll all be done," he said. "We'll be ready to go, like, 'Sandy who?'"
'Not to be ready' is not a choice
Loundy estimated that all 1,400 hotel rooms in the town will be available for the Memorial Day weekend kickoff to summer.
"Seventy-five percent of our municipal budget is tourism-driven, so it's absolutely critical," he said. "We don't have a choice, not to be ready."
Michael Carbone, who owns the Beachcomber Bar and Restaurant, reopened a mere six weeks after Sandy hit.
"You do whatever you have to do. Go borrow it, whatever you need to do, you have to do, so you can feed your family and get back to normal," he said.
It was a while, Carbone says, before people came back to Seaside Heights following the storm.
"They were afraid to come into town, but now that they realize we're open, they're just asking me how long before it's totally finished," he said.
Seaside isn't alone. On Long Beach Island, Lisa Henson of Island Realty reported that lease rates are off by 20 percent from last year. Henson said negative news coverage has hurt more than anything, and that many businesses and most rentals are now up and running.
In Ocean City, Bergen Realty's Frank Shoemaker called his town "very fortunate." He said the rental rate is about the same as it was in March of last year.
Some longtime N.J. visitors consider Delaware
Some resorts along the ocean are reaping the benefits of uncertainty. In Rehoboth Beach, Del., Realtors are reporting double-digit increases in requests for information about rentals, said Carol Everhart, head of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"No one wants to take advantage of anyone's misfortune," said Everhart. "However, beach people are beach people, and they're going to be looking to go to a beach that has been unharmed, and was spared the damage."
Back in Seaside Heights, Loundy offered a different perspective.
"I think it's premature of those folks to jump ship and give up on us," he said. "If there was ever a time that we want and needed them it's now, and they won't be let down if they come to us."
Managing to get back on their feet after such a knockout punch from Sandy, Shore business owners and residents are "all getting an education," Loundy says.
"There's no hurricane handbook that washed in with this hurricane," he added. "We none of us knew what to expect, and we're learning every day, but we're very optimistic about the future."
And, Loundy said, at least for this summer, rental rates will probably remain about the same.