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'Please leave,' urges Cape May official

Emergency management officials made a last ditch plea Monday afternoon to thousands of Cape May County residents living in the barrier islands towns to evacuate.

The view in ocean-flooded Atlantic City at the north end of Boardwalk on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. (Amy Rosenberg / Staff)
The view in ocean-flooded Atlantic City at the north end of Boardwalk on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. (Amy Rosenberg / Staff)Read more

Emergency management officials made a last ditch plea Monday afternoon to thousands of Cape May County residents living in the barrier islands towns to evacuate.

"This is a large storm of epic proportions, like we've never seen before . . . I'm begging you: Please, please leave the islands tonight," said Martin Pagliughi, Cape May County's director of emergency management. "You still have time to get out."

Of the estimated 35,000 people living in Cape May County's barrier island towns - including Ocean City, Strathmere, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Cape May, only about 60 percent of residents had left, officials said.

Recent weather events like last summer's derecho and Hurricane Irene in 2011 have lulled some residents into a false sense of security, officials said, making them think that if their life, limb and homes survived those events, they can make it through Sandy unscathed.

But Pagliughi made it clear to holdouts that once Sandy hits, first responders will not be sent out to help them evacuate then.

"We can't put their lives at risk," Pagliughi said.

Some, though, had dutifully heeded the evacuation order and left.

"If it's this bad now, I can't imagine what it'll be like tonight," said Renee Saunders, 27, who rents an apartment in Ocean City's downtown but left Sunday night to stay at a mainland shelter set up at the Upper Township Middle School.

Cape May County Freeholder Jerry Thornton said that by midafternoon Monday, more than 7800 Atlantic City Electric customers already had lost power in the county.

Some of the outages were caused by fierce wind gusts that had downed trees and power lines, while power was out in some areas like in Stone Harbor because flood waters exploded the electrical box in a condo complex and caused a three-alarm fire, Thornton said.

In northern Atlantic City, floodwaters rose swiftly in Tuesday afternoon as first responders worked to remove stragglers who had stayed behind despite the hurricane impending landfall.

Emergency personnel said flooding had gotten so bad in some places that they were using lifeboats to evacuate residents.

Atlantic City Electric left the city around 11:30 a.m., with a lineman saying two of the three trucks serving the city had been damaged by water and were unable to get around.

The White and Black Horse Pikes already had been closed as had large swathes of the Garden State Parkway and residents feared that the Atlantic City Expressway would be next.

Gov. Christie, speaking at a televised news conference around noon, said people remaining on the barrier islands had made a "bad decision" and should get out while they still could, adding that flooding already had reached 5 feet in some parts of Atlantic County.

"We already have rescues ongoing in the barriers, and we're putting our first responders in danger," he said. "When it comes in tonight, we're not going to be able to respond to you."

As of 2:30 p.m., about 44,000 New Jersey residents had lost power; 24,000 were in Atlantic County. Ocean City was essentially under water, and there was flooding inside Ocean City High School.

At an emergency shelter on New York Avenue in Atlantic City, a few residents in wheelchairs lingered while waiting to be bused out of the city. They said the shelter recently had bused dozens to a shelter in Pleasantville and were waiting for their ride out. Floodwaters there were cresting the sidewalks. Just a few blocks away, water had crept up to car windows.

Flooding was worst in Atlantic City near the inlet between Atlantic City and Brigantine, officials said. One section of the boardwalk near the inlet collapsed. although the 50-foot portion was old and already damaged. That section of the Boardwalk sustained similar damage in the storms of 1962 and 1944, when residents in the inlet recalled sections with benches still attached winding up on their front steps.

And at one point Monday, officials said, flooding near the convention hall had gotten so bad that ambulances stationed there were unable to leave.

Stranded residents nearby wandered the streets stopping firefighters for assistance.

One man, Billy Bui, held a baby in his arms, a friend's child whom he had driven in from Mays Landing to help find shelter, along with five members of her family.

"Please help us, the baby is on the fourth floor," his wife had asked a passerby. The street had two feet of water in it, but they managed to get to the family and help them down.

Bui said he could not take them to his house, because he already had 20 people staying there. The firefighter tried to help but got called away to a reported fire in City Hall. Bui said he would take the family to a shelter in Mays Landing and drove off in his truck.

A short time later, Atlantic City firefighters said they had been called back to stations and headquarters at the Convention Center and told to stop responding to all the calls coming in. They would now be prioritized.

"We've been responding to electrical fires, odor of gas, people who are sorry they stayed," said one firefighter. "There's not much to do about it at this point."

The streets at the north end of Atlantic City were under considerable water. Tanek Murray and Pat Greene stuck their heads out the front door of their building on Atlantic Avenue, water covering the front steps all the way to the entrance. They said their apartment was on the third floor and they would be staying.

"We've got provisions," Murray said. "We'll be alright. I didn't think it would be this bad, though."

In Ventnor, houses in the heights were already flooded by morning, unmoored Hobie cats were floating down the beach and newly installed dune fencing was being washed away by the crashing surf. Emergency management director William Melfi was urging residents to get out while they still could. "I had people call me at 2 a.m. hysterical saying they wanted to leave," he said.

Beach blocks in Margate were under water at high tide, and houses by the back bay had water several feet around them. In Longport, the narrowest part of the island, the surging ocean met the bay in some spots at high tide.

Melfi said only essential rescue personnel remained on the island, but that many residents had stayed. "Too many," he said.

In Brigantine, meanwhile, an estimated 70 percent of the island's 9,500 residents had stayed. By midmorning, there were reports of mass flooding, covering the golf course and streets.

Three shelters are reported full as Atlantic Avenue was already flooded with three feet of water at 7 a.m. and it was increasingly impossible to drive.

Most of the damage early on was toward the inlet. By 11 a.m., waves were seen crashing over the boardwalk, with big gaps missing in the iconic walkway.

Much of Atlantic City was underwater by 1 p.m. Power outages were being reported and emergency responders struggled to evacuate homeless shelters.

Cars on Atlantic Avenue were half-submerged and the city's back bay areas, all of the beach areas and much of Baltic Avenue is reportedly already heavily flooded.

Strong winds battered the boardwalk making it hard to stand. Emergency workers tried to get some of the homeless to leave but a few stubbornly stayed on their benches, at least until the worst of the storm arrives later today.

The Atlantic City Fire Department was responding all morning to various fires, complaints about gas odor, and just people wanting to get out.

But fire officials eventually decided they could no longer respond to all calls and were urging people to get to shelters. Some of those staying at the Old Soldiers' Home in Atlantic City were evacuated to a shelter in Pleasantville.

Several thousand residents of Atlantic City were said to be without transportation.

A convenience store on Pacific Avenue remained open early in the morning, and a few customers stopped by, nearly blown through the front door by whipping winds.

"We're just trying to help people out," said Lucky Kang, whose father owns the store.

Miguel Duran, who lives on the fifth floor of a nearby apartment building, stopped by for groceries. He said he hadn't lost power yet, but was running out of food.

He wasn't too worried about the hurricane but he did make one special purchase just in case: an inflatable raft.

"Maybe I should have bought a scuba diving suit," he said, before leaving the store to go outside where streets were like rivers.

In Ocean City, Cape May County, officials were telling those who thought they would ride out the storm that there was no way out at the moment.

Remaining residents - and they have no head count on how many people still remain on the island - will have to wait until low tide this afternoon for rescuers to determine whether they can use National Guard vehicles to transport those people to shelters in Upper Township on the mainland, according to Laurie Howey, a spokeswoman for Ocean City.

Storefronts along Asbury Avenue, Ocean City's downtown main street, are already under about three feet of water. Officials expect that flooding to deepen as Sandy arrives on the Jersey Shore's doorstep and the tide gets higher.

"Our greatest concern right now are the people are beginning to panic, realizing that they really should have gotten out," said Howey, noting that they bussed hundreds of the town's 15,000 year-around residents to the mainland shelter.

And in the Wildwoods, the Hereford Inlet was bursting at the seams in North Wildwood. The inlet, which sits between North Wildwood and Stone Harbor, was rushing through rock walls, bringing piles of dead sea grass, plastic bottles and other debris far up onto lawns.

North Wildwood Mayor Bill Henfey said the morning high tide brought major flooding to back bay areas along Maryland and Delaware Avenues and the tide wasn't following normal patterns.

"It just keeps coming," Henfey said. "It's pretty deep already in some parts of the city."

Many backstreets in the Anglesea section of the town had ankle-deep water, with only a few cars passing through. Water was reaching the top steps of many homes and people who didn't move their cars to higher ground had the sea lapping at their doors.

One man in a white pick up truck said he was out scouting the road to see if he could "still get out" along the Route 147 bridge.

"You wanna ride?," the man said.

Elsewhere in South Jersey, Burlington County officials declared a state of emergency to give its Office of Emergency Management the authority to whatever it needs to protect residents and their properties. The government offices will be closed through Thursday.

The county has been hit hard by storms in recent history. Ralph Shrom, spokesman for Burlington County, said Sandy is expected to be the "fourth major event" to cause serious flooding in the areas surrounding the Rancocas Creek over the past eight years.

In 2004, more than 13 inches of rain fell in parts of the county, causing extensive damage. That was followed by a major storm in 2007 and then Irene last year.

So county officials do not take storms lightly. Shrom said the county has closed Centerton Bridge, located on the border of Mount Laurel and Willingboro, due to flooding. The bridge is located on the North Branch of the creek.

Currently, only nine people in Florence and two in Medford have reported to emergency shelters. Officials are watching the Rancocas Creek, which historically floods land in Northern Burlington County during major storms.

Lumberton residents along the Rancocas Creek were being asked to evacuate. The area is prone to serious flooding.

Check back for more details as they develop.