By Philip Barbara
BELMAR, New Jersey (Reuters) - On this stretch of the Jersey shore known as the state's "Irish Riviera," workers with heavy equipment started at daybreak on Friday, pushing tons of sand, shattered bits of boardwalk and other debris up the avenues and back toward the beach.
From Belmar south to Spring Lake and Sea Girt, towns known for their million-dollar homes across the street from the beach, front-end loaders scraped up sand and debris and dropped it in huge manmade dunes along Ocean Avenue.
Given the November chill and the light beige color of the sand, the dunes could have been tall piles of snow.
Just days after superstorm Sandy ravaged the U.S. Northeast with deadly, devastating floods, this New Jersey seaside town about 60 miles south of New York City was already trying to look forward to next summer.
Sandy's huge storm surge pushed the Atlantic Ocean way above its normal level. Waves repeatedly smashed into Belmar's boardwalk and its hot dog, burger and pizza joints, destroying it all and carrying the debris over Ocean Avenue and up two blocks from the beach. The salt water reached as far as seven blocks away.
Power was still out in Belmar - power companies said some 1.5 million homes and businesses were still without electricity in New Jersey on Friday. But many of the expensive homes along Ocean Avenue appeared to have withstood the battering surprisingly well.
Work crews were busy in what officials said was the first step to help the town to rebuild the shoreline and its tourist economy.
"We're pushing everything back to the ocean," Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty said. "Then we'll have to sift through the dunes by hand to separate wood and nails from the sand, return the sand to the beach and cart the rest away."
Like other towns on the Irish Riveria - so named because the generations of well-established Irish Americans settled this stretch of shore at the start of the 20th century - Belmar's economy depends on summer tourism.
Its year-round population of 5,900 can swell to 60,000 on summer weekends, and the family-run businesses on Main Street - clothing boutiques, jewelry shops, restaurants, pubs and hair stylists - depend on the visitors.
"Without the summer tourist traffic, these families will lose everything. So it's essential we rebuild by Memorial Day," Doherty said, speaking of the traditional start of the summer vacation season at the end of May.
Belmar officials were trying to drain large pools of standing water off neighborhood streets using three large pumps they obtained from the federal government. The pumps were used in September 2005 to drain New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina smashed into the U.S. Gulf Coast.
But Belmar's mile-long stretch of boardwalk - which had run uninterrupted for miles into other towns like Spring Lake, Sea Girt and Avon - will be the focus of local officials until it is fully rebuilt.
Doherty acknowledged it will take time and outside money to accomplish.
"We'll need federal and state financial assistance," he said. "And we can't get bogged down in state regulations. We're not building anything that wasn't there already."
(Reporting by Phil Barbara; Editing by Frances Kerry)