Like many others with property held hostage on New Jersey's storm-ravaged barrier islands, Acme Markets operations honcho Dan Croce had to wait until Friday before gaining access to stores that had been inaccessible on Long Beach Island and in Sea Isle City.
When he finally made his way to the supermarkets - with an escort, in the case of badly destroyed LBI - what Croce saw could be described only with a single word:
Both 20,000-square-foot Acmes had been sacked by floodwaters. Millions of dollars in refrigerated cases, freezers, shelves, tiles and more would have to be trashed. Spoiled food valued at up to $380,000 at each store would also be thrown away.
"All products will be removed, discarded into Dumpsters," Croce said. Food, fridges, drywall, even ceiling tiles to guard against mold.
Outside, Croce saw even more that gave him pause. On the streets of Beach Haven on LBI, he saw mangled houses littering an idyllic getaway. And people along the coast who were, simply, at a loss over what had been lost.
In a telephone interview from a parking lot in Ocean City Friday afternoon, the vice president of operations for the 117-store supermarket chain conveyed his impressions not in dollars and cents, but in the prose of human suffering.
"It's heart wrenching - especially Long Beach Island," said Croce, who in seven years with Acme said he had never encountered as big a crisis, with power outages or flooding affecting so many stores, as he had since Sandy struck Monday. Fourteen stores were still operating on backup generators Friday.
"Many people up through the Red Bank corridor in New Jersey," he said, "they're in need. They need a lot of help. . . .. It is heart-wrenching to see people devastated the way they are."
"It was very humbling. We saw houses collapsing, we saw very alarming structural impact to people's property and homes."
Croce cleared his throat: "Our hearts and our prayers go out to them."
Acme shut down all of its stores during the peak of the storm overnight into Tuesday morning. Spokesman Steve Sylven said at least 40 had lost power.
Parent company Supervalu Inc. shuttled refrigerated trucks and giant generators to those that had not already received the emergency gear as part of the company's dayslong storm preparation efforts.
Extended power grid failures across the Mid-Atlantic chain's core market, however, exceeded the chain's capacity to cope fully. As a result, there could be spoiled food valued at $50,000 to $100,000 in every 50,000-square-foot store that lost power for two days or longer, Croce estimated.
Acme worked hard to monitor food temperatures in shuttered cases and move perishables to refrigerated tractor trailers in parking lots or to smaller storage refrigerators inside stores.
Over the weekend, Croce said, officials would continue to assess the damage. Meanwhile, trucks full of new merchandise will barrel toward stores from Acme's distribution center near Lancaster.
A goal, he said, was to resume operations as fully as possible, with the needs of residents in mind, "to partner with them on their road to recovery."