By Dave Warner
SEASIDE PARK, New Jersey (Reuters) – Two New Jersey beach towns devastated by Superstorm Sandy will once again need to rebuild, after a fast-moving fire reduced dozens of businesses along the towns’ boardwalk to rubble.
About 100 firefighters remained on the scene on Friday, putting out hot spots after containing a fire that started at a frozen custard stand in Seaside Park on Thursday and blazed out of control for hours, moving several blocks into neighboring Seaside Heights.
Governor Chris Christie said state agencies were ready to help residents rebuild again and praised local resilience after Sandy pummeled the New Jersey coast in October 2012.
“We have endured and begun to come back from the devastation of Sandy. We will not let these fires destroy those efforts,” he told a news conference.
The incident, including the cause of the fire, was being investigated by county and state agencies, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Christie said.
At least 30 businesses were damaged by the fire, Christie said, including such Jersey Shore favorites as Bubba’s Dog House, Kupper’s French Fries and Maruca’s Tomato Pies.
“It’s piles of rubble, it’s piles of just char and debris, caved-in buildings with no walls and no roofs,” said Brian Gabriel, chief fire coordinator for Ocean County. “It just looks like a bomb went off.”
Authorities said they did not yet know the cause of the fire and did not have an estimate of how many businesses had been damaged.
“I don’t have a handle on it,” Gabriel said. “It’s a lot.”
WCBS-TV reported, however, that witnesses said they saw electrical wires under the custard stand catch fire. The fire then burned through the stand and spread, the witnesses told WCBS-TV.
Seaside Heights was the setting of MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” and more recently became famous as the site of one of the most memorable images of Sandy: a roller coaster that fell into the Atlantic Ocean, where it stood, partially submerged by the waves.
The blaze destroyed businesses over a total of six blocks in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, officials said. Both communities were badly damaged during Sandy in October 2012.
“We’re going to go up and do an assessment and put everything back together as soon as possible,” Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said on CNN. “If there’s a silver lining, we just built it, we have the specs, we know what we’re doing and we’ll get it out to bid and we’ll get it back up.”
‘CALL THE GOVERNOR’
Officials on Friday were urging people to stay away from the towns as fire crews and inspectors finished their work.
“It’s unimaginable,” said Seaside Park city councilwoman Gail Coleman as she directed traffic on one of the town’s streets. “It’s heart-wrenching. All of these businesses borrowed money, rebuilt with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hope,” Coleman said.
Standing next to a large hose piping water in from nearby Barnegat Bay, Coleman urged motorists to stay out of town.
“You have to call your boss and tell him it’s an emergency,” she told one driver. “If your boss doesn’t like it, tell him to call the governor.”
Christie declared a state of emergency on Thursday after surveying the damage and declaring that it made him want to “throw up.”
Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, devastated the New Jersey coast. The state estimated the damage at $37 billion.
The blaze was fanned by wind gusts that reached 40 miles per hour, though the 400 firefighters who were fighting the fire at its peak were aided by an overnight rainstorm.
Crews tore up part of the boardwalk and a dug a 20-foot trench to keep flames from spreading through the closely packed buildings.