By Dave Warner and Victoria Cavaliere
SEASIDE PARK, N.J./NEW YORK (Reuters) - A year after Superstorm Sandy inundated the East Coast with record flooding that left 159 people dead, residents of hard-hit New Jersey and New York shore communities still have a ways to go in rebuilding damaged homes.
New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, began his day at the beach town of Seaside Park, where homes were flooded by two to three 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 along the coast - with New Jersey, New York and Connecticut the hardest hit - he had estimated it could take two years to recover.
"We're about halfway there," Christie told town 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, residents in storm-hit shore communities 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 State and City, 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 slightly below hurricane strength but 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.
The floodwaters breached New York City's subway system, which was partially out of commission for almost a week, and left many residents struggling for weeks to find adequate supplies of gasoline as power outages left homes dark and cold and filling stations closed.
Residents of New Jersey shore cities from Ocean City to Jersey City plan to stand along the coast with flashlights at sundown Tuesday in an event, called "Light Up New Jersey."
FOCUS ON PREPAREDNESS
Sandy also prompted officials across the region to rethink storm 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.
In Seaside Park, Gary and Monica Vernick were working on their vacation house, which they have had elevated 13 feet on concrete pilings to protect it from future storms.
While jacking up the house and upgrading its utilities cost $275,000, part of which will be paid for by flood insurance and funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 59-year-old Gary said it was worth the expense compared with the $18,000 per year increase in insurance premiums had the couple left the house at ground level.
"We spend our whole summer here," said Monica, 58. "If this house comes down, the world is coming to an end."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June proposed a $20 billion plan to prepare the city to better handle future storms, with measures ranging from new flood walls to building up beaches, which can be natural barriers.
"As we continue working to help families recover from Hurricane Sandy, we're also working to make New York climate-ready so we can protect our most vulnerable communities and strengthen our economic future for generations to come," Bloomberg said on Tuesday.
The Army Corps of Engineers has already replaced 600,000 cubic yards of the estimated 1.5 million 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.
Arthur Lighthall, general manager of the private community, said he was encouraged by the pace of rebuilding.
"There was a period of time a lot of us were concerned with the how, the what, the when we were going to get things under way," Lighthall said. "Now here we are, it's October and there's just a tremendous amount of construction."
(Additional reporting by Hilary Russ and Curtis Skinner in New York, David Jones in Newark and Deborah Zabarenko in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Kenneth Barry)