By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wyatt Earp was first into the water, followed by Captain America, the Statue of Liberty, a nun and a gorilla. As the surf barreled in, Superman, Beetlejuice and dozens of others followed, struggling through the white water, out to the waves.
The recovery from Superstorm Sandy's devastating passage a year ago is far from complete in New York City's Rockaway Beach, but celebrations like the annual "Nightmare on 90th" surf contest quicken the healing.
Watched by a crowd of spectators, costumed contestants paddled into the sunlit ocean last weekend accompanied by rock music blaring from speakers on the beach in south Queens.
In Rockaway and countless neighborhoods along the New York and New Jersey coastline, many residents remain displaced from their homes. Others have left the shore for good.
The gathering provided respite for tight-knit Rockaway, including many who have surfed here all their lives. It also gave them a reason to party.
"It brings some psychological recovery for the neighborhood," said Will Hallett, a stocky surfer who grew up in the area and organized the contest.
"This gives everyone an excuse to get out here and have fun," he said, standing between concrete pilings that had supported the beach's wooden boardwalk before it was washed away by the storm.
Around him, surfers prepared themselves for competition, making last minute adjustments to their costumes. A matador waved his red cape; Catwoman put on her mask.
Open to the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsular on the south shore of Long Island, Rockaway Beach is just 15 miles from downtown Manhattan, but feels like a world away.
Even before the storm, it had a ramshackle, beachside charm with its pitted streets, old clapboard houses and an elevated train track running through its middle.
In the summer of 2012, 7.8 million people visited the Rockaways to escape the heat of the city, swim in the ocean and stroll the old boardwalk.
But Sandy turned the area overnight into a wasteland of broken buildings and flooded streets. This summer, with repairs ongoing, only 3.3 million people came, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
"It was like a horror movie," said Rashida Jackson in the backyard of Sayra's, the new bar she co-owns on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, two blocks from the beach.
Jackson, raised in Rockaway, signed the lease on the property two months before Sandy struck. The space, submerged under 7 feet of water, needed gutting after the storm and eventually opened this summer.
One year on, much has been done to repair the damage. More than $140 million has been invested in Rockaway Beach alone since the storm, including works on the boardwalk, the parks department said.
But locals say it's still not back to what it was.
Ali Sala, who works at a deli on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, said two of his boss's other businesses remain closed. All in all, the hurricane cost the business $80,000, Sala said.
"Not many people are around anymore," Sala said. "People didn't come back."
'A SAVING GRACE'
Last year, "Nightmare on 90th" took place on October 27, just as Hurricane Sandy was churning north through the Atlantic. The waves in New York were already beginning to pick up.
Two days later, Sandy made landfall in New York and New Jersey.
The surfing community was instrumental in the immediate cleanup. The Rockaway Beach Surf Club became a gathering point for volunteers before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or Red Cross arrived.
Groups organized donations and helped allocate volunteers to gut or rebuild damaged homes in the Rockaway area.
"To have the surf club set things up was a saving grace," said Beth Perkins, whose bungalow was flooded during the storm. Despite the lingering issues, including homeowners waiting for city funding to rebuild their homes, Perkins remains positive.
"I do believe we will be back, but it will take some time," she said.
Evidence of Sandy's lasting impact was all around as the surfers gathered. But for that afternoon at least, few seemed to care. Spectators sipped on cans of beer, contestants posed for photographs. The master of ceremonies, dressed as Batman, got some people dancing.
The contest itself was hard fought. The waves reached 4 feet, sometimes higher. The nun lost her coif in the surf; Wyatt Earp lost his chaps.
Earp, with his thick mustache and silver sheriff's badge, was unperturbed. When he won the prize for best wave of the day, he made pistols of his hands and shot from the hip. The watching crowd, squinting into the falling sun, cheered him.
(Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jim Loney)