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Ever since Hurricane Sandy ripped through New Jersey, some hard-hit towns on the coast have been closed altogether. Gas leaks and unstable buildings make them too risky. But each day this week, residents of the town of Seaside Heights were allowed back for a few hours to look at the damage. NPR's Jim Zarroli went there as well and found that many people are struggling with whether to rebuild their homes.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When Connie and Robert Giallella came back to Seaside Heights a few days ago to the house the family has owned since 1948, they didn't know what to expect.
ROBERT GIALLELLA: And then we pulled up and said, oh, it doesn't look too bad. Then we went around the back and saw the water line was about 40 inches high, and we said, well, water got in the house. And we went in, and it still doesn't look too bad, except the rug looked a little funny. And that was it: muddy, damp, smelly.
ZARROLI: This week, they came back with their contractor. He said there was mold in the insulation. To remove it, they had to rip out walls. But the house itself is structurally sound.
CONNIE GIALLELLA: It's salvageable, yes. Yeah.
ZARROLI: So what are you thinking about now? Do you think you'd want to try to salvage it?
GIALLELLA: I don't know. You know, my husband and I are retired. It's like, do we want to do this?
GIALLELLA: It's a matter of how much money you want to pay. The question is: Is it cheaper to knock the house down? We don't know.
ZARROLI: The house is only 700 square feet, but repairs will cost 40 to $50,000. They have no flood insurance because Seaside Heights never flooded. This is their second home so they have to weigh how much they're willing to spend to rebuild. For many Seaside Heights residents, the decision is as much emotional as financial.
Wayne Duszczak and his son live in Seaside Heights full time in a small house near what was once the boardwalk. A widower, Duszczak had spent $30,000 renovating his place recently.
WAYNE DUSZCZAK: Well, you know, I have a girlfriend now, you know? She looked at my house. It was a man cave. And she went, oh, my God, so, you know, she got me going on it, got me throwing out stuff because I guess I'm bit of a hoarder.
ZARROLI: He doesn't want to think about how much he's lost. It would make him sick. For now, he's living with friends. He hasn't decided whether to try to sell the house.
DUSZCZAK: Walking away, I don't know. My son has lived here his whole life. He's got some kind of sentimentality about it. I could leave, but, you know, you got to at least pick up everything and put it back in order.
ZARROLI: Like a lot of longtime residents, Duszczak says the town has changed recently. A lot of investors have built along the shore on what used to be dune land. It's made the town more vulnerable to flooding and it's brought in more renters. The hard-partying cast of "Jersey Shore" rents a house around the corner.
DUSZCZAK: They charge you more on your taxes up here because you're near the ocean. But 2:00 in the morning, when somebody comes down the street singing at the top of their voice "You Can't Always Get What You Want" because he's drunk, he wakes me up, you know?
ZARROLI: Duszczak points out five or six houses on his block that are rented out, some year-round. The owners have taken a hit as well. Their properties are no longer inhabitable. Jared and Jennifer Drogose lived in one of those apartments until Sandy struck. Yesterday, they came to clean their place out. They had just a few hours to work. The police make everyone leave town at 3:00.
JENNIFER DROGOSE: It's really hard to get this stuff out, and the time limit, and it's sickening.
ZARROLI: Jennifer says their landlord came by to see the apartment one day and cried. He's talking to FEMA and his insurance agent and doesn't know when or if he can rebuild. Meanwhile, the couple have had to find a new apartment.
DROGOSE: Moving forward is so important for everyone right now. I don't know what it's going to look like a year from now. I don't know if people will permanently not be able to live here if they lost their homes. It's day by day at this point. It's day by day.
ZARROLI: A lot of people here say Seaside Heights will be rebuilt, even the amusement pier that suffered so much damage. But it's also true that since Sandy, the town itself has changed in ways that residents are only beginning to reckon with. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.