But seven months after Superstorm Sandy devastated hundreds of miles of shoreline, most of New York and New Jersey beaches are officially open this Memorial Day weekend.
After a cleanup effort that cost tens of millions of dollars, visitors from the Rockaways to the Hamptons to Seaside Heights to Atlantic City will be able to enjoy miles of seashores that have been groomed and cleaned up by volunteers and work crews.
In some places, two-story-tall sand dunes have been washed away. In other places, miles-long stretches of boardwalk still need to be replaced. In still others, sunbathers may have to squeeze their towels a little closer on beaches shrunken in some places by half its normal size by the effects of erosion.
"People are going to rewrite the formula for the beach," says Andrew Field, co-owner of the popular Rockaway Taco restaurant near Queens' Rockaway Beach, a 7-mile stretch of sand off the Atlantic Ocean that was perhaps the city's hardest-hit beachfront. Repairs at Rockaway Beach have so far cost about $140 million.
"They're going to stand in front of the beach, look to the left and look to the right, and say, 'Where do we go?'" At Rockaway Beach, about half of the 5.5 miles of boardwalk was destroyed by the storm. The city plans on replacing the stretch of boardwalk. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will work all summer to restore 3.6 million cubic yards of sand in a stretch of beach where, at high tide, what last summer was prime real estate for sunbathing is now part of the ocean.
The work to restore a 100-foot-wide beach from the boardwalk will occur periodically throughout the summer, prompting partial beach closures in work areas.
"It'll totally be different," says Field, whose beachside concession stand won't open until July, though his main taco spot blocks from the beach opened this month despite severe damage from the late-October storm. "It's going to take time, but people are just looking for some normalcy."
Still, after spending more than $270 million in repair costs, all 14 miles of New York City's beaches will be open for the Memorial Day weekend, including Coney Island, Brighton and Manhattan Beaches in Brooklyn; Orchard Beach in the Bronx; Midland, Wolfe's Pond, Cedar Grove and South Beaches in Staten Island; and, of course, Rockaway Beach in Queens.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg had promised soon after the storm that the beaches would reopen by Memorial Day, and he trumpeted the accomplishment Sunday in his weekly radio address.
"It took a tremendous amount of work to get our beaches back open ... But we're not done yet: We're going to continue working to make our beaches more resilient for the long term - and, most importantly, to protect nearby communities from future storms," he said.
Farther east at Long Beach on Long Island, officials hope a new $44 million boardwalk will be 20 percent constructed by mid-July, though the remainder of the beachfront appears intact, with dozens of volleyball nets arrayed down the beach and lifeguard stands placed high above sand piles.
Jason Schatzberg, owner of the eatery Paninis and Bikinis, says the key to this beach season will be patience.
"It's coming back. Everything takes time and I don't think people understand that," says Schatzberg, whose shop just blocks from the shore was submerged in 4 feet of water and won't be open until a couple of weeks after Memorial Day. "You can't expect a major devastation and all of a sudden everything's normal again."
But, he says, "the beach is beautiful, amazing."
Caitlin O'Connor, a waitress at The Saloon, a popular bar along a strip of nightspots in Long Beach, lost two cars and the downstairs of her house to Sandy. She was also out of work for seven months but recently returned to prepare for a grand reopening this weekend.
"Everyone's really excited. It's summertime. Everyone's ready to party, especially after such a long winter," she says. "The beach looks great. It's just the boardwalk. Everyone's still a little bummed out, but they're starting to rebuild it."
At Brooklyn's Coney Island, where 10 million people visited last summer, the flagship Nathan's Famous hot dog stand opened last week after suffering extensive damage from Sandy. The company says the annual July Fourth hot dog eating contest will proceed as scheduled.
And on Long Island, state parks officials say Jones Beach and Robert Moses state parks, as well as all the other state park facilities on the island, have reopened after a $90 million repair effort.
One of the weekend highlights at Jones Beach was the 10th-annual Bethpage Air Show, which organizers had hoped would draw 250,000 visitors over the weekend but was cancelled Saturday due to weather. About 70,000 people saw the show on Sunday. The repaired Jones Beach Theater will feature a full concert season starting May 31.
Workers have replaced 1.5 miles of damaged boardwalk at Jones Beach using more durable material, such as Brazilian hardwood "Everybody was devastated, the personal tragedies, it was just all bad. So now we're hoping we've turned the page and we go forward," says George Gorman, deputy regional director for the state parks department.
Fire Island officials announced weeks ago that the beaches there will be open this summer. In many places, gigantic sand dunes were washed away by the storm, but efforts are under way to rebuild them. Fire Island businesses are also funding their own $100,000 public relations campaign to encourage tourism.
A mile-long stretch of beach at Jacob Riis Park in Queens will be open this Memorial Day - but crews will be grooming sand and doing construction on some structures destroyed by the storm, National Park officials say. The beach at Fort Tildon in Jacob Riis Park will not open this summer.
"Honestly, it's all up in the air; we really don't know what it's going to be like," says Billy Murgolo, manager of Elegante Pizzeria, in Rockaway, of the coming season.
A six-foot storm surge ruined everything but the ceiling fans at Elegante's, a year-round business that relies on an uptick of business during the summer season. He said that while the pizzeria delivers to the beach, he might have to adjust delivery routes if beachgoers settle in less narrow parts of the sand.
"Unfortunately, that's all you can do," he says. "Wait and see and go from there."