The vacation destination where names such as Snooki, JWoww, and The Situation became pop-culture icons has been swallowed by the sea, leaving a beach town known for revelry awash in tragedy.

New Jersey’s Seaside Heights was the backdrop for Jersey Shore, the popular MTV reality television show that cast a group of mostly Italian-Americans as muscle-bound, fist-pumping “guidos”. Packed with amusement park rides, beach bars and sprawling nightclubs, Seaside was a playground of debauchery and endless summer fun.

That was until this week, when Hurricane Sandy dumped six feet of water on its shores, packing forceful storm surges that pummelled its boardwalk, levelled businesses and sank a rollercoaster.

“This is a devastating blow,” says Thomas Boyd, Seaside’s police chief. “These businesses are destroyed.”

Seaside has about 3,000 residents during the year and as many as 100,000 on summer weekends, flocking to night spots such as Karma and Beachcomber. Now much of the island resembles a war zone, with store fronts blown apart, roofs flattened and buildings covered in black soot.

Mr Boyd says about 50 residents have remained in town and he has dispatched teams of police to conduct door-to-door searches for dead bodies and pets that may have been left behind. “We don’t want the stench of dead animals to complicate the search for human bodies,” he says.

The town remains otherwise locked down, as police fear gas leaks could create explosions and worry that vacant homes could be susceptible to looting. Residents are angry that they cannot survey the damage, while business owners strike a defiant tone. “We have the equipment and the willpower and we have to move forward,” says Peter Pascarella, part-owner of the Casino Pier.

Moving on could be more difficult now that Jersey Shore has just finished filming its final season.

The show generated controversy in the Italian-American community and among New Jersey residents, who felt that it created a caricature that was unrepresentative of their cultures. However, as Seaside looks to rebuild, it will probably long for the days that the Jersey Shore cast frequented the town’s gyms, tanning salons and laundromats, with legions of fans in tow.

“People can say what they want about the show, but it brought in millions of dollars to my borough,” says Mr Boyd, whose police department arrested several cast members. “It was a good thing.”

Meanwhile, Jersey Shore’s stars have said they plan to raise money to help with the reconstruction efforts, which could take years.

“Seaside Heights suffered bad from the hurricane and my prayers go out to everyone affected,” Nicole Polizzi, also known as Snooki, said on Twitter.

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