WASHINGTON D.C. (NBC) - When Superstorm Sandy barreled into New York and New Jersey a year ago, killing more than 160 people and destroying decades old landmarks as well as whole neighborhoods, few could have imaged that a year later the impact of that day would continue to be so real.
But thousands of residents displaced by Sandy are still fighting insurance companies, waiting for government aid or trying to recover from a lifestyle shattered. Others are celebrating their survival.
Babies just hours old when the storm darkened New York — forced to move to other medical centers — filled a Manhattan hospital room on Tuesday. Parents and staff lighted candles on cupcakes and sang: “Happy birthday, dear babies.”
Some survivors still shaken by the memories of that day came together in New York to share memories and recall the help they got from strangers.
With just under hurricane-force winds, Sandy slammed ashore on Oct. 29, 2012, a massive storm surge – nearly 14 feet high – plowed through the densely populated islands of Long Island as well as the Jersey Shore, where historic boardwalks were torn apart and a roller coaster was toppled and buried in the surf.
At least 162 people in the U.S. were killed indirectly and directly by the storm, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Property damage was estimated at $64 billion. More than 650,000 structures were damaged or destroyed across the impacted area, mostly in New York and New Jersey.
“Today, we remember our fellow Americans who lost their lives to that storm," President Barack Obama said in a statement. “And we comfort the families who grieve them still. And while there are still homes to rebuild and businesses to reopen, the last year has also served as a reminder of the strength and resilience of the American people.”
Indeed, out of the devastation also came amazing stories of survival and people coming together to help one another.
In New York’s Breezy Point, a tiny enclave of Queens where nearly 130 homes were incinerated after floodwaters sparked a fast-moving electrical fire, residents were still trying to recover from the disaster.
“It was a firestorm,” Kieran Burke, a Breezy Point resident and New York City fire marshal, told NBC News. “It was essentially like a fire you'd see out West — it literally, had grapefruit-sized things that were basically being ripped off the houses.”
Much of Breezy Point remains a construction zone, with the sounds of hammers, saws and heavy equipment filling the salt air. About 40 homes are currently being rebuilt out of the roughly 350 total that were destroyed, in a community of 2,840 homes in all.
“Until everyone is back, it will never be the same, but I’m here and I’m not leaving” said John Nies, a local firefighter and builder.
Sue Flynn, whose family has had a home in Breezy Point for three generations, was optimistic the community would bounce back.
“It’s really heartbreaking but Breezy Point is a really strong resilient community and always has been everyone wants to have their community back,” she said.
Ellen Bednarz of Sayreville, N.Y., whose family fled before Sandy hit but returned to find a destroyed home, remembered the kindness of debris haulers who carted away her family’s ruined possessions.
"I never saw more caring people," she told the AP at an event to thank firefighters who used boats to rescue scores of people.
Bednarz said she is renting an apartment as she is waiting for government buyout of her home to close.
On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie toured hard-hit communities, greeting residents, first responders and volunteers. He honored them for their strength and residents and the strides they’ve made to recover from the historic storm.
On NBC's TODAY show, Christie said his most vivid memory of the storm was in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he encountered a crying 9-year-old girl Ginger Doherty.
“I think seeing crying adults I kind of braced myself for, but seeing a crying, scared 9-year-old child, like my 9-year-old daughter at the time was incredibly emotional,” he said. “And to this very day is still evocative to me- and represents all of the children who were misplaced after Sandy."
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed flags to fly at half staff in honor of the 51 people who died in that state. A moment of silence was observed at 8 p.m. – about the time when the storm surge that flooded large swaths of the city made landfall.
Even a year later, however, the majority of the money earmarked for Sandy relief remains unspent, according to the organization Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The group’s vice president, Stephen Ellis, issued a statement saying only 11 percent of the $50.3 billion appropriated for disaster relief has been spent, though admitting it was hard to track. The “funding is haphazardly tagged” and scattered across agencies “instead of one-stop shopping at HUD, the coordinating agency for oversight.”
“We are concerned that delayed spending leads to individuals and communities to rebuild cheaply and very similar to what was there before,” he said. “Also, it becomes more likely the funds go to work that is not really Sandy-related and clearly not an emergency.”
Giuseppe and Innocenza Picheo were left with two New Jersey properties to rebuild after Sandy: their primary residence in Moonachie and a second home in Manahawkin on Long Beach Island.
"Even now, I still think about it at night before I go to sleep," Innocenza Picheo told the AP. "When I go downstairs to wash clothes, I still look around and think about the water rushing in."
Both properties have since been rebuilt with the help of volunteers from a church group. But Giuseppe Picheo knows others haven't been as fortunate.
"I'm back to normal, but I feel very sorry for those who aren't, especially now when you see all the images again," he said.
Indeed the recovery from Sandy has been uneven, which can be seen in places like the working-class Arverne section of the Rockaways, where many people are still living in damaged home they can't afford to fully repair.
"When you drive around, it looks as if everything is okay. But everything is far from OK," pastor David Cockfield of the Battalion Pentecostal Assembly Church, told the AP. "There is so much that is not being done."
Residents told the AP that while the city is constructing flood defenses on the wealthier side of the railroad tracks that split the peninsula, the mostly black neighborhood at the edge of Jamaica Bay has no sea wall or storm sewers, and it floods frequently with stinking water.
Moses Williams said the finished basement in his home is still wrecked because he doesn't have $50,000 to repair itl.
"You can smell the mold," he told the AP.
By Jeff Black, Staff Writer, NBC News. Brian Williams, Stephanie Gosk, Peter Alexander and Miranda Leitsinger of NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.