By Victoria Cavaliere and Dave Warner
NEW YORK/SEASIDE PARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Victims of Superstorm Sandy returned the waterfront where their neighbors and loved ones were killed a year ago Tuesday, honoring the dead while many are still struggling to rebuild their damaged homes.
The former Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the U.S. East Coast on the night of October 29, 2012, killing 158 people in the United States as surging seawater inundated low-lying areas, mostly in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
As the sun set on Tuesday, people in New Jersey shore cities from Ocean City to Jersey City gathered along the coast with flashlights in an event, called "Light Up New Jersey."
In the New York borough of Staten Island, several hundred people gathered on the waterfront to mark the time the storm made landfall. On a clear and cloudless night, blocks from where many homes were destroyed and are not yet repaired, people held plastic candles, hugged and cried as they recalled the progress since the storm and paid tribute to those who lost their lives.
Theresa Kehoe, 44, said the home she rented was destroyed and she and her six kids lived in a hotel until February.
"It's heartbreaking for the people who lost loved ones. At the same time I'm so thankful to those who helped and supported us," Kehoe said. "This is a way of saying thanks."
In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie visited the beach town of Seaside Park, where homes were flooded by 2 feet to 3 feet of water when the storm roared ashore.
It was hit again by disaster in September when wiring damaged by the flooding sparked an enormous fire that destroyed several blocks of boardwalk that had been rebuilt after Sandy.
Christie recalled how, in the immediate aftermath of the storm that damaged about 650,000 homes, he had estimated it could take two years to recover.
"We're about halfway there," Christie told firefighters and local officials on Tuesday. "We all have to acknowledge that there are still thousands of people out of their homes."
Throughout the U.S. Northeast, people in storm-battered neighborhoods are still coping with damaged homes and waiting for $48 billion in federal aid pledged for rebuilding, which officials have acknowledged has been paid out slowly.
Federal officials on Monday unveiled plans to release a second $5 billion round of funding from the Sandy relief fund, for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Rhode Island. The money is aimed at rebuilding and repairing homes damaged by the storm.
Sandy, a rare, late-season tropical storm, made landfall at high tide. Though slightly below hurricane strength, its winds extended over 1,000 miles, causing a storm surge that flooded downtown Manhattan and long stretches of the New Jersey shore, leaving millions in the dark, some for weeks.
At the Hammel Houses, a public housing project on New York's Rockaway Peninsula, Shaveeka Davis, 36, recalled riding out the storm in her seventh-floor apartment with her two daughters and her mother. While the family was high enough to escape the flooding, it still had to endure weeks without power.
The lights have come back on, but many former residents of the building have departed, Davis said.
"The first floors here, they didn't come back," Davis said.
FOCUS ON PREPAREDNESS
While this year's Atlantic hurricane season has been the quietest in 45 years, with only two storms reaching hurricane strength, regional leaders said shore communities need to remain ready for similar high-powered storms.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city is making progress on his $20 billion plan to prepare for future storms, with measures ranging from new flood walls to building up beaches, which can be natural barriers.
The Army Corps of Engineers has already replaced 600,000 cubic yards of the estimated 1.5 million cubic yards of sand washed away from New York City's Rockaway Peninsula.
Another 2.9 million cubic yards will be added by May to build taller, stronger dunes that could better protect the low-lying coastal community, Bloomberg's office said.
In Rockaway's Breezy Point, where about 135 homes burnt to the ground during the storm and another 220 were damaged by the storm surge, dozens of volunteers fanned out on Tuesday to plant beach grass to strengthen newly rebuilt dunes.
In Mantoloking, New Jersey, there are still empty lots where houses once stood.
Sandra Witkowski recalled seeing a neighbor's house floating in Barnegat Bay after the storm. Now she and her husband are thinking of leaving the shore.
"I get nervous," she said. "You keep an eye on the weather for the next storm that is going to come. We always wanted to live on the water, but it is too scary now."
(Additional reporting by Hilary Russ and Curtis Skinner in New York, David Jones in Newark and Deborah Zabarenko in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Lisa Shumaker)