Iconic Jersey shore reels after Hurricane Sandy
Home to Snooki and 'The Sopranos', Americans lament destruction of beloved seaside enclave
It is an American icon, the backdrop to 1,000 stories - where Tony Soprano's nightmares unfolded, where Snooki and The Situation brought reality TV to the ocean's edge, and where Bruce Springsteen conjured a world of love and loss with a girl named, incongruously, Sandy.
But after the storm of the same name passed through last week, the seaside towns of the Jersey shore have been upended, and some of the boardwalks have been pushed into the sea.
Those who live there, those who spent their childhood weekends there and those who experience its stories from afar are asking different versions of the same question: What happens now?
All along New Jersey's 204-kilometre coastline, the storm wrecked communities rich and poor, from multimillion-dollar homes in Bay Head and Mantoloking to working-class bay-front bungalows.
Boardwalks were trashed and a roller coaster was dumped into the ocean. The worst damage was nearest the sea, but winds and water wrecked thousands of homes several kilometres inland as well. Damage assessments are still being made.
"Who ever thought they'd see a roller coaster in Seaside Heights in the ocean?" New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said. He vowed to help rebuild the shore, while cautioning it might not look exactly the same.
For many people, the Jersey shore is much more than a place; it's an identity, a brand, an attitude. It's where Christie, while on a stroll with his family, lashed out at a heckler last summer.
It's also the economic engine that powers New Jersey's US$35.5 billion tourism industry.
The real Jersey shore is the setting for MTV's Jersey Shore reality show about a group of foul-mouthed, hard-partying, 20-something Italian-Americans, which has enshrined big hair and fist-pumping as part of New Jersey pop culture.
A young Jon Bon Jovi shot one of his first music videos atop a restroom pavilion on the Seaside Heights boardwalk in 1985. Richie Sambora played the guitar solo to In and Out of Love in a Seaside Heights lifeboat.
"It's gone. The entire Jersey shore that I knew is gone," Bon Jovi said on NBC's Today show, hours before he and Springsteen headlined a televised concert on Friday to raise money for hurricane victims.
Atlantic City built the world's first boardwalk as a way to keep guests from tracking sand into beachfront hotels. A small portion of that Boardwalk - now a formal street name - was destroyed in the storm, although the Boardwalk in front of the nine oceanfront casinos were intact.
In Wildwood, the widest beaches in New Jersey (almost a kilometre from the boardwalk to the water in some spots), helped protect the famous boardwalk amusements in what is routinely voted as the Jersey shore's most popular beach.
Will Morey, president of Morey's Piers, said his amusement park rides sustained some electrical damage from flooding, but that they would be fixed well before the next summer.
"This is a part of our culture; it's deep in the soul of Jersey," he said. "
The pounding surf wrecked part or all of the boardwalks in Belmar, Sea Girt, and Point Pleasant Beach. Walkways in Asbury Park, about which Springsteen often wrote, and Ocean City sustained lesser damage.
"It's like someone washed my childhood away," said Kimberly Blackburn, who grew up at the Jersey shore. "That's how it feels. It's like this storm literally just came and washed it all away."