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For 20 ferocious seconds, a tornado came to a paradise on Long Beach Island

A tornado was taking aim at High Bar Harbor, a sliver of LBI paradise. On Arnold Boulevard, 104-year-old Bunnie Bellotti, and her neighbors took cover.

A light fixture hangs in front of a happy home that was damaged on Arnold Boulevard. in the High Bar Harbor section of Long Beach Twp. on N.J.’s Long Beach Island on July 30, 2021. Violent storms, that included tornados, left their marks in both Pa. and N.J. the previous evening.
A light fixture hangs in front of a happy home that was damaged on Arnold Boulevard. in the High Bar Harbor section of Long Beach Twp. on N.J.’s Long Beach Island on July 30, 2021. Violent storms, that included tornados, left their marks in both Pa. and N.J. the previous evening.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP — The tornado warnings had become incredibly specific. “It got down to the point where they said, it’s coming through that location, High Bar Harbor, and Arnold Boulevard,” recalled Chief Ken Mahon of the Long Beach Township Police.

If most people don’t know where or what High Bar Harbor even is — it’s a peninsula community built around lagoons near the tip of Long Beach Island, you have to know where to make the left as you drive through Barnegat Light — the July 29 tornado pinpointed it with a ferocious 20 seconds of accuracy.

The National Weather Service in Mount Holly concluded it was an EF2 tornado with winds of 115 to 120 mph, and a circulation width of 75 yards, that began in the mainland town of Barnegat about 9:03 p.m., crossed over the bay as a waterspout and took aim at High Bar Harbor near a neighborhood playground where Antioch Road meets Arnold Boulevard.

Eight people staying at a home across Antioch Road, facing west/southwest, took shelter in an interior closet as the tornado ripped off the roof of their house, blew out doors and windows, and sent the front door crashing through the house and out the back, toppled a boat, totaled their car.

A two-by-four piece of wood flew into the side of the house, embedding like an ax.

From his home on the bay side of Antioch, where the incredible sunsets night after night are what usually define life in High Bar Harbor, George Leonhardt may have felt it first.

His son got a heads up from a friend in the High Point Fire Department in Harvey Cedars: There was a water spout headed across the bay right at them.

“It only lasted like 20 seconds,” Leonhardt recalled, standing under sheared siding of his house, which otherwise was mostly undamaged. “It didn’t last long. It starts blowing all of a sudden. The noise and rumble. It’s very loud. The wind was so much that the house was shaking a little bit. My wife and I went into the bathroom.”

Afterward, police went door to door, and found one person who had a cut from broken glass. A man on oxygen was taken by ambulance to another location. Otherwise, nobody was injured. About three dozen homes were damaged, 11 of them now with bright red stickers declaring them uninhabitable. Power was restored by 5:15 a.m. the next morning.

“Our experience,” Leonhardt said, “was something we don’t want to re-experience.”

‘I said, ‘Mom, now.’

Nearby on Arnold Boulevard, 104-year-old Bruna “Bunnie” Bellotti headed for an interior alcove at her daughter’s insistence as the tornado approached, just before going to bed.

From next door, Stan Haviland’s wooden shed broke apart and flew into the side of Bellotti’s home, making the walls shake, and breaking the windows. Someone’s flagpole ended up floating in the water behind their house, American flag and all.

“Well it was a terrific bang, like as if the house fell,” said Bellotti, a retired dancer and regional stage actress who has now lived through two pandemics, but only one tornado.

“So she put me in the little alcove there. And we had the winds, and there was a lot of noise. The winds were blowing, the trees were going. But we lived through it.”

“We were hearing a pretty intense lightning storm,” said her daughter, Linda Fischetti. “And then you heard this completely different noise, and I said, ‘Mom, now.’ "

Bellotti has owned her home since the 1960s, buying from the original owner, after seeing an ad in a paper in North Jersey. It’s a lovely place, she said, with unique charms, undiminished in the aftermath of a tornado. In spring, aspiring lifeguards swim back and forth in the lagoon, trying to qualify for the township’s beach patrol. “It’s yes you can, no you can’t,” she says.

Leaning forward from her sofa, Bellotti confided the most lovely High Bar Harbor thing of all:

“I can go swimming any time I want to,” she whispered.

‘Happy home’

Nearby on Arnold, two moms and their young children, ranging in age from 7 to 4, had just come back to the house they were staying in after attending a memorial service up the block for their friend Duke Pepper’s father, who died in December.

The service had lasted later than the kids’ normal bedtime, recalled Pepper, who lives across from the home with the roof blown off, and so everyone was awake when the tornado roared through. That allowed them to huddle in a bathroom as the tornado tore up part of the roof of the home labeled “Happy Home,” now condemned with a bright red sticker.

Pepper, a retried environmental lawyer from Harrisburg, noted his late father’s boat was named the Lemon Twister, and pondered the tornado’s timing.

“We were calling it the Miller Twister,” after his father, he said. “The thing that was, you could say his presence or just happenstance, was all these kids were here with their moms, and they would have been in bed at 8 p.m. and they weren’t that night. We didn’t even see the reports because we were cleaning up.”

High Bar Harbor was developed in the 1960s on land that had filled in with sand after the construction of a sand dike near what is now 20th Street in Barnegat Light. This allowed a connection to what was once an island and home to the High Bar Gunning Club, according to LBI historian and writer Chris Gaydos, writing in Bay Magazine. (And now you know where to turn to get there. )

A county road led to the swampland being filled in, lagoons being dug, and a 400-house development created, marketed, and sold.

At one point, there was an idea to build a casino at the end of the road, said Haviland, whose house shook on its concrete foundation as the tornado blew in off the bay, down the lagoon, turning east/northeast to move, according to the National Weather Service, “over an open salt marsh, before intersecting a few houses on the corner of Collier Road and Sunset Boulevard.”

It toppled power lines and damaged boats at the High Bar Yacht Club, then entered the cove and basically faded.

Haviland, 79, who is also a captain with the Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Co., had eight family members staying at his house when the tornado moved through. He was in an upstairs room. Others, staying downstairs, headed for the basement.

The storm blew apart his shed (sending most of it into Bellotti’s house), ripped up railings, broke glass, and shook the house down to its foundation. As with 10 other houses, officials stuck a red condemned sticker on it, rendering it uninhabitable. Nobody was injured.

“As far as the movement of the house, I would say this moved three times as much as [Hurricane] Sandy,” Haviland said, recalling that Sandy sent 18 inches of water into his foyer. “Houses on a foundation generally speaking don’t move much. We moved.”

‘Who would have thought, New Jersey?’

Andrea Ferrari and her daughter Alyssa were supposed to drive down Thursday from Bergen County to celebrate Alyssa’s 23d birthday.

“I’m packed up, I was leaving work, I said let’s head down the Shore,” Alyssa recalled. “My dad’s like don’t go, there’s a tornado warning.”

They were skeptical, but stayed. Her dad grew up in High Bar Harbor, after all.

Andrea said: “Who would have thought, New Jersey?”

The tornado tore off the roof of their home and rendered the home a sure demolition, leaving a gaping hole in Alyssa’s pink-painted room. Pink insulation still is twisted in the bushes.

“We took a very serious hit,” said Andrea. The family owns a roofing business.

Still, it hasn’t changed the family’s love of the community. The tornado toppled so many trees that they now have a view of the bay from their front door.

“Our house shifted and twisted,” she said. “Not only did it take our roof, the shingles, it took the plywood and the rafters.”

News about a dog, delivered from a boat

The charms of High Bar Harbor seem undiminished to its very close-knit community, where 104-year-old Bellotti swims whenever she wants, and where neighbors deliver sad news about a local dog as they glide by in a boat along the lagoons that border most of the houses.

For his part, Haviland has some advice, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, for any future buyers looking into the now not-so off-the-radar idyllic peninsula community, which, it must be said, turns out to have some vulnerability to tornadoes.

“It was only on this side of the lagoon,” he noted. “So if somebody wants to buy, just buy on that side of the lagoon. You’ll be safe.”

Not that anybody is leaving any time soon. Pepper spoke for many when he said, while staring at the two-by-four still wedged in his neighbor’s house across the street, “We’ll be here until the house floats out to sea.”