POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. – Bill Goldberg's first reaction upon entering his flood-damaged home in this popular Jersey Shore resort community was unprintable.
His second was that life as he knew it had just been turned upside down — along with his refrigerator, freezer, and kitchen and dining room furniture.
"Now it's a matter of figuring out whether I have anything left," he said Thursday, as he scraped a thick layer of mud from his home.
Similar scenes were playing out up and down the Jersey Shore and along New York's beachfront communities as residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods for the first time since Hurricane Sandy hit Monday night. Some were relieved to find only minor damage; others were wiped out.
"A lot of tears are being shed today," said Dennis Cucci, whose home near the ocean in Point Pleasant Beach sustained heavy damage. "It's absolutely mind-boggling.
"The worst part is the mental damage from not knowing what comes next," he said. "We're ready to start doing something, but what? What do you do first? When should you start doing it? Where can you put damaged stuff? When can you put it there? We're just waiting for someone to say something."
In the meantime, the shock from the storm was wearing off and the realization that this would be a long, sloppy slog was setting in.
"We're running out of clean clothes," Cucci said. "This is the last pair of dry shoes I have. It took the storm two days to wreck all this, and it's going to take well over a year to recover from it."
Barbara Montemarano drove with her husband Robert to see how their condo near the ocean in Point Pleasant Beach had fared. They dragged their waterlogged possessions to the curb, hoping to dry them in the first sustained sun the region had seen in three days.
"It's just sadness," she said. "It looks like a bomb went off here. There's almost nobody here; it looks like tumbleweeds are rolling down the street."
As for Goldberg, he said he had just completed a total renovation of his kitchen six months ago. The hardwood floors he had lovingly installed were now coated with slippery, smelly mud. A new dishwasher was trashed. A new refrigerator and heating unit were both wrecked.
Salt water was already starting to buckle the interior walls, leading Goldberg to fear he would have to gut the house down to the wooden frame and rebuild it from scratch.
"I don't see where I have much choice," he said.
About half of Point Pleasant Beach's famous mile-long boardwalk was either destroyed or seriously damaged by the storm. But a large central section of the boardwalk, lined with prime tourist attractions, including beachfront bars and restaurants, as well as custard stands and pizza joints, emerged unscathed. And most of the boardwalk's kiddie rides, the heart of the family-friendly appeal of Point Pleasant Beach, had already been dismantled for the winter before the storm hit, raising hopes of at least a semblance of summer tourism in 2013.
Martell's Tiki Bar, however, did not fare as well. The bar, which jutted out over the water on a pier, lost the section nearest the ocean. Also washed away was the bar's garish neon-orange plastic palm tree, a local landmark that could be seen from a mile away at night.
Public works crews were dealing with the aftermath of the storm much as they would a major snowstorm: Plow trucks and bulldozers plowed the sand to the curb, where front-end loaders picked it up and deposited it into huge dump trucks that carried it away. Crews were particularly busy removing sand from the intersection of Water Street and Ocean Avenue, whose names until recently invoked no irony.
While some residents were able to start assessing damage, others were still being kept away from their homes.
On Thursday afternoon, officials announced that residents of Brigantine Beach, Margate and Longport could go home. But Atlantic City and Ventnor, on the same barrier island as the others, remained under a mandatory evacuation.
About 400 people were sheltered Thursday at the high school and middle school in Pleasantville, on the mainline just in from Atlantic City.
Tracy Jones, 51, a casino cook and his wife, Konnie, 47, were anxious to get back into their Atlantic City apartment.
He said he'd seen one group of men claim to be a tree crew to get back to their homes.
"We're not essential personnel or lying about it," he said. "So we can't get on the island."
The Ocean County road department used rocks and concrete to fill in an inlet created by the storm to get to another barrier island north of Long Beach Island. The path — "I would not under any circumstances call it a road," said county spokesman Rich Peterson — has allowed gas utility workers to access the community and work with firefighters to shut off leaks.
As New Jersey residents faced the storm's wrath, others in coastal areas of New York did the same.
In Staten Island, teams of municipal building inspectors made initial sweeps of homes in the worst-hit areas, checking for structural integrity.
From South Beach to Midland Beach and other parts of the New York City borough, mounds of discarded belongings grew up to 6 feet high at many damaged homes. "Everything has to go, otherwise you start getting mold very fast," said Dianne Hague, who had two houses in Ocean Breeze destroyed.
A few U-haul trailers or vans could be seen in the neighborhoods, but most people could save little more than could fit in their cars.
On New York's Long Island, bulldozers scooped sand off streets and tow trucks hauled away destroyed cars while people tried to find a way to their homes to restart their lives.
Sodden couches, mattresses, soiled carpeting and furniture littered the front lawn of Frank Hladky's two-story home on a canal in the Long Island community of Island Park as he cleaned up Thursday. Strewn across a deck were utility-pole-size pylons and other debris from some unknown dock that the storm deposited there.
"Look at the devastation," said Hladky, a court officer in Nassau County Family Court, who added he's grateful that family members, who left before the storm hit, are safe.
Still the destruction was hard to process. "There's 40-foot boats, not their boats, parked in people's backyards," he said.
It left him recalling "that blank expression" on the faces of Hurricane Katrina's victims in New Orleans. "I know the feeling. The only thing I can do is just keep on moving, working, cleaning up just to keep my mind away from it."
Though Hladky reluctantly left during the storm, his neighbor Nora Kelleher, a retired NYPD detective, stayed with her 7-year-old son, Charlie.
But remembering the smoke from a brief fire sparked when her water heater was inundated and the way the tide raced in, she said she learned a lesson. The next time authorities say evacuate: "I'm leaving."
In Long Beach, City Manager Jack Schnirman said 500 portable toilets were being placed throughout the city of 35,000 people after 4-foot-high water soaked it in the storm. He said water would not likely be back on until early next week, though sewage might be working before then. He did not know when power would be restored.
As residents returned to assess damage, pick up others who want to leave or begin cleaning up, images of the storm's fury remained fresh.
Schnirman said three lingering images in his mind were of cars seemingly bobbing in the water, sections of the boardwalk landing several blocks away in a supermarket parking lot and a lifeguard shack floating out to sea.
Long Beach City Council President Len Torres said the city lost seven homes to a fire that started when a submerged car exploded and burned.
"We always knew this was a danger," he said of the unusual storm. "We just didn't think it would happen this way."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale in Pleasantville, N.J.; Lawrence Neumeister in Long Beach, N.Y.; Frank Eltman in Mastic Beach, N.Y., and Eileen Connelly on Staten Island, N.Y., contributed to this report.