By KATIE ZEZIMA, MEGHAN BARR and HELEN O'NEILL
(AP) - It's been more than a month since Sandy, the superstorm combining a hurricane, a nor'easter and surging full-moon tides, tore through the Northeast, leaving billions of dollars in damage in the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut corridor.
Now as survivors dig out and try to regroup from the Oct. 29 storm even as wintry weather moves in, some are coping better than others.
There are those who can look ahead hopefully, even defiantly, vowing to "start fresh." Having lost everything, others see a grim future and brace for a long struggle back. "It's hard," many say, shorthand that understates their turmoil.
Some are questioning _ "How could this happen?" `'Do we sell ..., rebuild?" Some are prayerful. Some are simply numb.
Here, in the first part of an occasional series by a team of Associated Press reporters, is a look inside the world of a few families trying to find their way ahead after Sandy.
After Sandy hit and berms holding back the Hackensack River failed, sending a torrent into Little Ferry, N.J., Mayor Mauro Raguseo had a singular goal: to get his town back to normal, and his family.
He faced rebuilding a town that was 80 percent flooded and his own home, which was severely damaged.
After the river receded and residents started assessing the damage, heaping their mattresses, couches, children's toys and china cabinets on the sidewalks, Raguseo just wanted to move on from the storm as quickly as possible.
"I didn't want people feeling like they were living in a war zone," he said.
So, he and the borough council got debris removal companies in to quickly haul away destroyed belongings, he said. He let residents know of a FEMA recovery center and food and clothing distribution center in town.
And Raguseo insisted that a time-honored Little Ferry tradition go on: the annual Veteran's Day ceremony.
"I didn't want that day to go by without placing wreaths at the monument as I had done and previous mayors had done for over 100 years," he said. "And there is the sense that things are getting back to normal, and our town functions are the way they used to be."
For similar reasons, he insisted two weeks later that the town's holiday lights be hung.
Raguseo returned to his day job at the Bergen County Improvement Authority two weeks after the storm. He and his wife, Valerie, who moved into their home in April, are heading back next week, as soon as the sheetrock is hung for their new walls. They have been staying with Raguseo's parents in Little Ferry.
Now, when Raguseo finishes work and borough business, he heads to furniture stores with his wife. They've decided to purchase slightly different pieces than the sofas and chairs that were ruined.
"We wanted to start fresh," he said. They bought a black, bonded leather sectional sofa and plan to paint the new living room walls gray and the dining room walls tan.
One late night's errand: They ran out to pick up a vacuum cleaner, forgetting theirs was destroyed.
The Raguseos are the last family on their cul-de-sac to move back in to their home, he said.
While he and residents of the borough are inching back toward normalcy, Raguseo sees a lot of work ahead.
He's trying to find money to repair the firehouse and replace an ambulance that was damaged in the storm. He took a day off work to testify before a state senate panel about the storm, asking for an investigation into the berms.
He fears taxes will rise after the storm and wants to try to prevent it. The city council has already authorized a bond to rebuild.
"I know that this storm may have battered us, but it certainly didn't dampen our spirit," the mayor said. "When they say Jersey Strong, come to Little Ferry. You'll see Jersey Strong."
_ By Katie Zezima.
Finding a warm place to lay their heads at night has become a full-time occupation for the Alhadad family, who swam to their SUV in waist-deep water as the ocean roared down their block on New York's Staten Island during the storm.
They slept in the car at first, running the engine to keep warm. But soon the family of six resumed sleeping in their tiny two-room rental home, which was reduced to a soggy, mildewed mess after the water rose nearly to the ceiling on the first floor.