"It's just an exciting day; a wonderful day, a new beginning," said Mayor Bill Akers.
Three and a half months after Sandy tore the popular beach community apart, a large group of people gathered Friday for an important event: they watched as the first pile was driven into the sand to replace the Seaside Heights boardwalk that was torn apart during the storm.
Heavy equipment including a gigantic drill and a pile-driving machine were brought onto the sand in the south end of town Friday morning. They quickly began drilling holes in the sand and pounding wooden pilings into them, shaking the ground for blocks around.
"It's a big step," said Michael Carbone, owner of the Beachcomber Bar and Grill. "First with electricity, then gas, and now we have the boardwalk back. It is bringing back business and bringing back people into town."
The $3.6 million project will replace about a mile of boardwalk, and by using heavier bolts, hurricane straps and huge 25 foot piles, builders say it will be much stronger than before.
"The boardwalk used to have piles that used to be 4 feet to 8 feet in, these piles are going to be almost 21 feet in and round," said builder Jay Siddiqui.
"It's amazing," said Madeline Auriemma. "You know the shore is going to come back, and that's what we want."
Rebuilding the boardwalk is a must for Seaside Heights. The borough depends on tourism for 70% of its annual budget, so without people coming to spend money for beach badges, parking, restaurants and rentals, officials say Seaside Heights would be out of business.
"It's like oxygen," said Chief Tom Boyd, Seaside Heights Police. "Try breathing without oxygen. If Seaside Heights doesn't have this boardwalk up and running, that's our oxygen; that's our supply line. Everybody comes to Seaside to be on the boardwalk and our beautiful beach."
Mayor Akers says the initial work - restoring the boardwalk so that it can be walked on safely - should be done by May 10.
"It's a huge day for us, a new beginning for the town," he said. "It's the culmination of a lot of hard work, starting with the rescues, the cleanup, the planning, culminating in the actual rebuilding of Seaside Heights."
The entire length of the mile-long boardwalk is being rebuilt. It is the most famous of the numerous boardwalks destroyed by Sandy, known for its pizza and ice cream stands, its games of chance, arcades and bars with cheap beer specials.
As for that iconic Jet Star roller coaster that washed into the ocean off Casino Pier, contracts are about to be signed, and then it will be dismantled and pulled out of the water within 50 days.
Railings, lighting and ramps will be part of a second contract that has yet to be awarded. The project is also likely to include a protective seawall, and cost between $6 million and $7 million, the mayor said.
Seaside Heights was famous long before MTV came to town, but Snooki, The Situation and Pauly D presented it to the world in a fist-pumping, hard-drinking blur. It angered some and delighted others until the show ended last year.
Michael Loundy, a real estate agent who rents out the house where the "Jersey Shore" cast lived while filming, could not overestimate the importance of getting the boardwalk back. (The cast's house was not seriously damaged in the storm.)
"This is a proud moment for all of us, after everything we went through with Sandy," he said. "We're excited about rebuilding. We loved Seaside the way it was and we'll love it again."
He said potential tourist want to know if Seaside Heights will be ready in time for vacation season.
"Our phones are ringing," he said. "People want to know: 'Is the town open? Will you be ready? Will the beach be ready?' We absolutely will be ready."