TOMS RIVER, N.J. – It may be January, but Jim and Joanne Murphy are excited to get back to the beach — Normandy Beach, the community they call home.
They were among the few residents who returned to the area Monday, the first day of so-called "repopulation" plans in certain areas of the Jersey Shore towns of Toms River, Brick and Seaside Heights that were flooded by Superstorm Sandy.
Few others have returned because their homes still are too damaged nine weeks later. The slow pace of return helps illustrate the difficulties in recovering from the historic storm, which swamped the shorelines of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut on Oct. 29.
The Murphys count themselves lucky. They built their home in May, employing tough building standards that called for, among other things, a higher elevation than their neighbors. Aside from a caking of mud on the outside, their home is fine.
His wife said: "We are happy — no, we are exuberant — to be back home," Joanne Murphy said. "We may even go to the beach (Tuesday). It's supposed to be 50 degrees."
They'll be lacking in neighbors, though. Many of the houses on the barrier island with the most devastated communities are populated only in the summer, and of those, few homes are inhabitable.
In the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, only 60 of 2,600 homes escaped damage, and residents still can't return. In nearby Brick, even fewer residents appeared to have returned to an area defined by more than 100 bungalows that burned after the storm.
Residents of Lavallette, a shore town north of Toms River, were permitted to return home last month, but even there, most homes remain vacant.
Public access was restored Monday to the southern section of Mantoloking, another hard-hit town.
But motorists had to detour onto a bridge leading out of town unless they were residents or contractors working on one of the hundreds of storm-damaged homes. There are still police checkpoints, and town-issued photo identification cards are needed to get into the community's northern half.
In Seaside Heights, a roller coaster still sits in the ocean after plunging off a collapsing amusement pier a few blocks from the home of retired Police Commissioner Guy Mazzanti, who was allowed back Monday.
Even now, Mazzanti isn't in his permanent home. That building took on more than 2 feet of water and still needs major repairs. But he rented a condominium, and on Monday greeted friends he hadn't seen for more than two months.
"It's paradise, being home," Mazzanti said.
"I still can't believe how 24 hours can make such a difference in our lives," he said, referring to the storm.
Tony Vaz, a Seaside Heights councilman, also has not been able to return to his house. He, too, rented a condo until repairs can be made to his home.
"The feeling of being back home, in our own town, that's a feeling we all missed," Vaz said. "You can't imagine how good it feels."
Wearing a fleece New York Jets top, Vaz joked about having withstood two disasters last fall: the storm and the beleaguered football team's season. He is looking forward to normalcy in a neighborhood where there still are few people.
"I'm looking forward to the 7-Eleven reopening, so when you need cigarettes or a cup of coffee, you can just walk around the corner and get it," he said. "Little things like that are part of everyday life in a town."
In Toms River, the Murphys spoke of "euphoria and relief" as they carried boxes of belongings inside to the home they weren't even sure they still had.
"There was a lot of anxiety," Jim Murphy said. "We weren't allowed into the area at all for 15 days; we didn't even know if we had a home to come home to."
Bill McEnery came to his house Monday but still could not move in because the gas, water and electricity have yet to be restored.
His landlord promises they'll be turned back on soon. And when that day comes, McEnery knows exactly how he'll celebrate.
"The very first thing I'm going to do is turn the heat up full blast, get naked, and run around the house," he said. "It's going to be so great to be home."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC