BELMAR, N.J. — Of course the boardwalk had changed over the past 100 years: Carousels switched to electric from gas power, sunblock replaced baby oil, stuffed animals supplanted cigarettes as prizes at the booths where the barkers found new ways to wrangle dollar bills from the tourists who flocked to the Jersey Shore.
But mostly, it played the role of a constant, linking a century of summers. Just the word “boardwalk” evoked timeless images of warm breezes, dates walking arm-in-arm, the sticky sweet of Italian Ice — “our carnival life forever” as the state bard, Bruce Springsteen, sings in a song, “Sandy,” that local radio stations have turned into the anthem of the Fourth of July.
And in a stroke, it became a symbol of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction.
Superstorm Sandy left boardwalks shredded, buckled and gone from shore towns in New Jersey and on Long Island.
The bigger casualties were almost incalculable: the homes, businesses and lives lost to fire and flooding. But for many wading through the wreckage, the boardwalks summed up a ruined way of life.
These wood-plank promenades sustained businesses and tied together communities, serving as something akin to town squares on stilts. But blasted three blocks into town or dumped implausibly onto roofs of seaside retreats, their destruction served notice that for all the romance of the ocean, it can also wreak havoc — and in a warming world, increasingly does.
In Seaside Heights, south of Belmar, N.J., the 17-block Boardwalk settled in splintered heaps, the Star Jet roller coaster that once stood on it now ducking in and out of the waves like a skeletal serpent.
In the Rockaways, in Queens, some residents returned as soon as the storm had subsided to check on the planks clustered like a game of pick-up sticks, while others said they could not bear the sight.
In Long Beach, on Long Island, the police tried unsuccessfully to keep residents away from mourning over the ruins of the 2.2-mile Boardwalk, parts of which were whipped half a mile away.
“The first thing I had to do was check out the Boardwalk,” said Chris Cori, 19, a Long Beach native, looking down and biting his lip. “I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t expect it.”
With strips blown away from shore towns up and down the East Coast, it was the rare exception that the celebrated boardwalks in Atlantic City and Coney Island, where much of the wooden structure was recently replaced with concrete, remained largely intact.
In the less fortunate communities along the New Jersey and New York coastlines, longtime residents and seasonal faithful talked of what has become a sad seaside ritual, rebuilding a storm-damaged boardwalk. They generally were not at all ready or willing to question the wisdom of rebuilding on a ribbon of sand buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean and directed by nature to shift with winds and tides.
Perhaps it is because the Jersey Shore drives so much of the state’s $38 billion tourism industry.
Perhaps it is because they have seen this before: The Great Hurricane of 1938 and the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 struck the East Coast like freight trains, ripping up these beach-town boulevards from Virginia to New England. The boardwalks were built back, at great expense.
The destruction now seems faster and more severe; last year, the boardwalks along the Jersey Shore suffered damage from the one-two punch of an earthquake and Hurricane Irene in the same week. Here, the town merely continued, as it had over the years, replacing wooden planks with composite lumber supposed to last decades. The repairs were finished in May.
The Belmar Boardwalk served as the staging ground of summer for Matt Doherty, the mayor of this town, and his daughters, 5 and 8.
“I would come home from work, we would ride our bikes, go up to the boardwalk, get our ice cream if they were good that day, go play on the boardwalk, they would get all sandy,” Doherty said.
“They would always want to go down to the water, that would always be an argument, and they would go into the water because I would lose that argument. They would get wet. They would get back on the bikes. They would complain that they were wet. And we’d go home. And we’d repeat.”
Now, James Robinson, 46, who grew up here, sat on his bicycle, sniffing rot in the air and watching planks floating in deep pools of water.
“I’ve seen the Boardwalk get beat up back in ’70s but never to this point,” he said. “It’s just sad. It’s just completely sad. It will take years to get back to where we were.”
In Toms River, Dana Shanley stood by the water and recalled so many teenage rites of passage along boardwalks now obliterated, in Ortley Beach, Seaside Heights, Seaside Beach.
She looked out over Barnegat Bay to the bridge that had ferried generations to Seaside Heights, first by horse and buggy for 25 cents and later by candy-colored convertibles. Now police officers turned the cars away, telling people this was not the Seaside they knew, it was too dangerous to enter.
“I never gave it a second thought: ‘I’m bored. Let’s take a ride into Seaside,’ ” Shanley, 24, said. “I had so many dates in Seaside, just walking the Boardwalk.”
In Far Rockaway, near Beach 25th Street, Terrence Nottingham, 32, spoke of the boardwalk as a kind of talisman.
“If I’m ever going through something or feeling a certain way, I can come to the boardwalk and it’s very serene,” he said. “I just look out at the water and I can just clear my head and think about how to help myself.”
“I just hope that they hurry up and build another one, like this one but make it stronger,” he added.
That was the sentiment up and down the shore about rebuilding. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey called it resilience.
Christie, who is 50, had rented a house in Seaside Heights with high school friends after his graduation, and he returned to the rides and boardwalks here with his wife and four children in the summers.
“We’ll rebuild it,” he said last week. “There is no question in my mind we’ll rebuild it, but for those of us who are my age, it won’t be the same. It will be different because many of the iconic things that made it what it was are now gone and washed into the ocean.”