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Snow keeps the Jersey Shore party going

ATLANTIC CITY - For many visitors to the Jersey Shore, the weekend nor'easter that dumped a near-record snowfall on the coast was a belated Christmas gift from Mother Nature.

The official accumulation of 19 inches at Atlantic City International Airport in Pomona was just an inch less than the all-time high set there in March 1947, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The snowfall easily broke the airport's 11.4-inch record for a December storm, set last year.

For those without sidewalks to shovel or commutes to worry about, the extreme conditions were a fine excuse to keep their vacation festivities going.

"Atlantic City is a party town and this was a holiday weekend, so you had a lot of people out looking for the next party even though the weather was really bad," said Tom Foley, Atlantic City's director of emergency management.

"We recommended that once people got to where they were going, they just stay there and not venture out anymore until the storm was over and could be cleaned up," Foley said.

Atlantic City hotel casinos reported a weekend occupancy rate of about two-thirds capacity, normal for a holiday weekend. But many more guests than usual extended their stays one or two nights, according to officials.

"I think once people are here, they kind of take the bad weather in stride. They just want to stay inside until the scary weather is over," said Marie Rivera, a reservations clerk at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.

About 100 casino patrons probably wish they had done that. They left in two buses late Sunday afternoon only to become stranded in a traffic jam on the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel. The last of the passengers, who were headed to Manhattan, were rescued around 11:30 a.m. Monday. Emergency vehicles would have gotten there sooner had it not been for all the abandoned vehicles and snow drifts of up to five feet, according to state police.

At the storm's height on Sunday, snow fell at the Shore at a rate of an inch an hour. Blowing snow made some roads impassible and scattered power outages in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties left about 8,200 homes and businesses in the dark and cold for a time. With wind gusts of up to 50 m.p.h. on Monday, officials recommended that people continue to stay off the roads. No injuries or evacuations were reported.

On Monday, Atlantic City International Airport was closed until 6 p.m. and the Cape May Lewes Ferry canceled its crossings between New Jersey and Delaware. Snow drifts caused the U.S. Postal Service to suspend delivery to a number of shore communities where carriers were unable to reach mailboxes, said Ray Daiutolo, a spokesman for the agency.

Despite accumulations of as much as 28 inches, reported for Toms River by the National Weather Service, the nor'easter brought nothing like the havoc wreaked by the successive ice and snow storms that closed roads and left residents without power for a week last winter.

"I think we learned a lot of valuable lessons" from that experience, said Lenora Boninfante, a spokeswoman for Cape May County, where the inland town of Dennisville was socked with 26.5 inches of snow.

"People here now realize we can get bad whether just like anywhere else," noted Boninfante of an area that historically has had little need for four-wheel drive vehicles, snow blowers, and plows.

But snow on the beach is still a novelty in Cape May, said Anna Marie McMain, who with her husband, Doug, owns the Queen Victoria Inn, a group of buildings in the town's historic area that offers visitors a stylish bed-and-breakfast experience.

About a dozen guests who were scheduled to leave Sunday extended their stays a few days because of the weather, McMain said.

Other off-season visitors said they were undaunted by the fact that the few restaurants and shops that had stayed open through the holidays were now closed due to the weather.

"I think it's beautiful here in the snow," said Cindy Barbato, of Lodi, Bergen County, who arrived to celebrate the holidays with three other couples and now plans to stay until Wednesday. "We weren't going to let the weather ruin our good time."

Being snowed in creates a sense of camaraderie, McMain said.

"People get very creative," she said, noting that her guests have gathered around the inn's fireplace more than usual, getting to know each other, playing board games, drinking tea, and telling stories.

"Even though it's freezing cold out, they've been going out and taking pictures of the snow on the beach," McMain said. "It really is like a winter wonderland along the streets of Cape May . . . very Norman Rockwell-esque."

On Sunday night, sections of Cape May lost electrical power for about an hour. Thinking ahead, McMain had assigned her guests to rooms with gas fireplaces so they could stay warm if the service was out for an extended time.

She had battery-operated candles and flashlights and had stoked up the gas stove in the kitchen, should the inn be required to feed guests beyond the requisite breakfast.

But that turned out not to be a problem, when John Karapanagiotis, the chef-owner of George's Place in Cape May graciously offered to remain open to serve Queen Victoria guests during the height of the storm.

"You have to band together in emergencies," Karapanagiotis said. "That's exactly what it means to be a part of a small town like this."