SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. – New Jersey rolled out some of its big guns Friday to proclaim that the shore is back following Superstorm Sandy, using Gov. Chris Christie and the cast of MTV's "Jersey Shore" to tell a national audience the state is ready for summer fun.
In fact, they even hired fun. -- the rock band whose anthem "We Are Young" captures the spirit of this blue-collar oceanfront playground that was devastated by the Oct. 29 storm and has been furiously rebuilding ever since. The band played a free concert on the beach.
"This is known as a happy place," said Paul "Pauly D" Del Vecchio, one of the cast members of "Jersey Shore," which was filmed here until wrapping up last year. "Right after the storm, it was the exact opposite: dead, silent. To see this place being rebuilt makes me happy."
Christie, who has been racing up and down the shore opening boardwalks and talking up shore tourism all week as the summer kickoff approached, appeared on the "Today" show Friday, giving him a national pulpit to preach his message of recovery.
"Anybody who lives in New Jersey, the Jersey shore is in your heart," Christie said. "This means everything to our state."
The show was broadcast from Seaside Heights, where the storm swept a roller coaster into the ocean, making for one of Sandy's iconic images. The roller coaster was taken away this month, but Casino Pier, the seaside amusement park where it used to sit, plans to have 18 rides open this summer.
Christie said about 80 percent of the shore will look as it did last summer, and acknowledged more work needs to be done to fully recover. He is to tour parts of the storm-hit shore next Tuesday with President Obama.
Declaring the shore officially open for the summer, the governor cut a 5-mile long ribbon symbolically linking some of the shore towns that were hardest hit by the storm. He and organizers said they hope it will qualify for the Guinness World Records title for the longest ribbon-cutting.
Tourism is a $38 billion industry in New Jersey, and shore towns are counting on a good summer to help them recoup major losses they incurred after the storm. A storm that parked itself over the shore and was expected to bring rain through Sunday morning didn't exactly help.
But Kevin Stewart, owner of JR's Ocean bar & Grill on the boardwalk, led a Champagne toast with his bar employees right after Christie cut the ribbon.
"Here's to a great summer!" he said as they clinked plastic cups that would normally be filled with beer.
JR's only put up its new sign at 5:30 a.m. Friday, about 90 minutes before Christie arrived for his broadcast. The business was devastated by Sandy, with 6 feet of water in it that left behind 5 feet of sand. It lost all its inventory and signs, which cost about $300,000 to replace.
But Stewart said he is optimistic about this summer at the shore.
"If we get good weather, the people will still come here," he said. "Ninety percent or better of this town is rebuilt and ready to go. At the end of the day, this just might work."
Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, of "Jersey Shore," said crowds will be back this summer.
"You just come here to have a good time," she said. "It's a great place. You come here with your friends. Everybody's here, it's getting rebuilt; it's just amazing."
Her cast-mate Deena Cortese urged tourists to patronize Seaside Heights as it recovers.
"It's kind of like a family on the boardwalk here," she said. "Everybody needs to come this summer, especially for them."
Mark Romanowski, a bartender at JR's, said the "Jersey Strong" slogan that has adorned T-shirts, bumper stickers and sweatshirts for fundraising efforts since the storm is not a cliche.
"It really is the mentality we have here," he said. "People in Jersey, we may have our differences but the one common denominator is we have each other's backs."