Signs of normalcy are slowly returning to Long Beach, five weeks after superstorm Sandy devastated the waterfront community and upended thousands of lives.
On Monday, the Long Beach post office and Long Beach Middle School opened their doors for the first time since the storm struck 36 days before. Supermarkets and restaurants also have begun to reopen, LIRR service has resumed and even nursing home residents have returned.
"I love it. It's home," said postal worker Deborah Fournier, a mail carrier who lives in the oceanside city of 33,300 people, as she and her co-workers sorted mail while music from a radio played in the background. "The atmosphere inside is lively. Everybody is singing."
A mile and half east, hundreds of sixth- and seventh-graders hopped out of yellow school buses and were greeted by administrators who welcomed the students' return to the Long Beach Middle School for the first time in more than a month.
"I'm pretty happy to be back in my old school," said sixth-grader Daisy Willard, 11, who was dropped off by her mother, Judi.
Long Beach was ravaged by the storm, particularly the city's West End, and its canals and the oceanfront. Sandy knocked out the city's water and sewage-treatment plants; flooded schools, businesses, homes and high-rises; and destroyed hundreds of automobiles and its boardwalk. City officials estimated the total damage exceeds $200 million.
The majority of the city's 9,500 properties -- about 70 percent -- suffered some damage, but heat, electricity and hot water have been restored, said building Commissioner Scott Kemins. The more severely damaged houses -- about 100 -- have been slapped with red tags, which mean they are unsafe to live in until they are repaired.
Residents were delighted to see the middle school and the post office reopen Monday, even though students only have access to a third of their space and service at the post office was limited mail pickup and drop off. The post office's computer network is still down, which prevents postal workers from selling stamps or processing credit card transactions.
"Just to see it open -- feels so good," said Maria Basmas, 58, who stopped by to buy stamps. "This gives you hope."
Patricia James came to pick up her mail instead of driving to Garden City, where her mail had been forwarded. "It's one more sign that things are getting back to the way it was," she said.
Postmaster Francis O'Neill said carriers make 16,979 deliveries daily to Long Beach, Lido Beach and the eastern part of Atlantic Beach. Only 5 percent of the mail is being held for pickup at the post office, he said.
In the weeks since the storm, as repairs proceeded at the middle school, its 900 students attended classes at Long Beach High School, where a third of its students -- about 300 eighth graders -- remain.
Monday marked an end to weeks of uncertainty about whether the middle school could be restored after it was battered by the storm.
"It's been a lot of stress on everybody: teachers, kids and parents," said Daisy's mother, Judi Willard, 46. "I am relieved it's all moving in the right direction. We didn't think we would have a school at all."
About 20 seventh-graders gathered Monday for Spanish instruction in a classroom set up to teach science. Although the sixth-graders are back at their school, they won't be able to return to their classrooms for several more weeks. "In three weeks we should be able to move our whole building back," Principal Michele Natalie said.