By Philip Barbara
ASBURY PARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Asbury Park and Bay Head are two towns on opposite ends of the Jersey Shore's socio-economic spectrum - one with many poor people, the other with professionals in lucrative Wall Street careers. Superstorm Sandy has swept away many of the differences between the two.
Asbury Park is a faded dowager seaside resort, still struggling to recover from the race riots in the summer of 1970, white flight, a weakened tax base and, more recently, the great recession. Some storefronts facing the ocean were boarded up as Sandy closed in on the town. Other buildings were boarded up long ago.
Ten miles away, Bay Head is a much smaller community where financiers and hedge fund managers own multimillion-dollar vacation homes and make a 70-mile commute to Wall Street. A Hollywood studio chief with a Bay Head home captivated his neighbors for many summers with a party attended by celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey and Alex Trebek.
Sandy's destructive winds and epic ocean surge lashed New Jersey indiscriminately, killing 24 people and ripping up shorelines and close-in neighborhoods in hundreds of towns. Neither wealth nor social station protected anyone.
After Sandy, the famed boardwalk in Asbury Park serenaded by favorite son Bruce Springsteen needs major repairs. Its restaurants and arcades - doing well these past few years during a nascent revival - are shut indefinitely.
In Bay Head, many stately Victorian homes overlooking the beach were so smashed that dozens are condemned and cannot be reoccupied. Some just disappeared.
After the storm has come a silver lining. Like residents all over the state, people in Bay Head and Asbury Park were concerned mostly for one another.
"The storm has brought out the goodwill in everyone, an appreciation of the community," said Ed Johnson, mayor of Asbury Park, which has 16,000 residents. "We're all working together."
Alberta Smith, 61, who lives in Asbury Park on Medicaid and food stamps, said she was overjoyed on Saturday to get a hot meal a second day in a row, served at a community center in Asbury Park and prepared by an interfaith organization.
Friday's meat loaf "melted in your mouth," she said. The chicken vegetable medley and mashed potatoes served on Saturday were good, too.
Smith appreciated the meals because she had to throw out the perishable food in her refrigerator that spoiled when power failed. Her canned goods, she said, went only so far.
HELPING FAMILY MEMBERS
When Sandy knocked out power, Smith knew her aunt Thelma Wilson would be in trouble because the oxygen machine she uses would not work.
"I went to her house to keep her calm - been sitting with her everyday," Smith said as she placed a second hot meal in a bag to take to her aunt.
The Reverend Kevin Nunn, a pastor with the interfaith group, went from table to table handing out new socks. He gave Smith two pairs.
"The pastor's a fine man and this is a fine town," she said.
Ten miles south in Bay Head, a four-block-wide community of about 900 year-round residents between the Atlantic and Barnegat Bay, there was so much sand covering the town that several people said it looked like a moonscape.
Since Tuesday, dozens of small front-end loaders were busy scraping sand from the streets and piling it into 5-foot-high mounds.
Several blocks west of the ocean on Osborne Street, a front yard was covered by 4 feet of sand. A tall fence ringed the yard and airborne sand had evidently been trapped by it in the same way snowdrifts are formed.
In Bay Head, as in Asbury Park, ruined carpets, appliances like washing machines and water heaters, clothing and other household belongings were piled high on the sidewalk outside dozens of homes.
Brothers Chris and Mark Watson were walking along Bay Head's Main Street on Saturday to view a once-in-a-lifetime scene. They had time on their hands - National Guard troops had stopped them at a checkpoint, preventing them from inspecting their family home in Mantoloking, another well-to-do town to the south.
Too much flooding ahead, they were told. They would have to wait several more days.
During the storm, a fire fueled by natural gas and whipped by Sandy had destroyed million-dollar homes in Mantoloking. The wreckage saddened the Watsons.
"These homes have been in families for generations," Chris Watson said. "I feel sorry for the owners. Everyone feels just so vulnerable."
But what is physically destroyed can be rebuilt. It is the people that matter, Mark Watson said.
"Our prayers are with everyone facing a redefinition of their lives," he said.
At the intersection of North Street and East Avenue, the first block off the beach in Bay Head, three of four houses were either destroyed or seemed on the verge of collapse. One house teetered on its piles and another, with half its foundation gone, tilted severely. Gravity, it seemed, would eventually win out.
A six-bedroom home owned by the Green family had a quarter of its first floor blown away and state officials had placed an orange sticker on it, saying it could not be reoccupied until it was repaired and determined to be structurally sound.
DIGGING OUT A SPECIAL BOAT
James Green, 22, a currency risk specialist with the global bank HSBC, stood outside the home on Saturday, confident that the house would survive Sandy as it had two centuries of storms.
"Our house is the oldest in Bay Head," he said. "It was built in Point Pleasant in the late 18th century and used at one time as a morgue for shipwrecks. It knows bad weather. A previous owner moved it here in 1893. It has seen a lot of storms and is going to outlast this one."
When Green's mother had first returned to the house after the storm, it saddened her when she saw the bow of a small sailboat he had built in high school sticking from the sand in the back yard. She thought the boat was in pieces all around the place.
But James Green enlisted the help of five people, who dug around the bow and found the boat was intact in several feet of sand.
"I couldn't have dug it out alone," he said.
The boat, which he sailed in local regattas, will be handed down to his children when he has a family - just like he will someday inherit the house on East Avenue and pass it on to the next generation of Greens, he said.
(Editing by Bill Trott)