LONG AFTER HE'D sandbagged the doors to a bar that's been a second home for decades, Joe Rullo tried to sandbag Hurricane Sandy on Sunday with superstition, laughter and a cold beer.
A $1 bill he'd placed on the cash register at Echo's, in North Wildwood, was the "Hurricane Dollar" that had helped thwart Hurricane Irene last year. Outside, in black and orange spray paint, Rullo had written Go Pound Sandy on the fresh plywood that covered the doors, alongside a makeshift jack-o'-lantern and ghost.
"It's just a little whimsy to ward off the fear," Rullo, 46, said Sunday afternoon, dressed in a yellow raincoat and camouflage waders.
A creaky ceiling fan in the dark, quiet bar sounded like a ticking clock.
Then Rullo got a phone call from a North Wildwood official, and the numbers he heard brought a deadly serious look to his face.
"That means it would be at least a foot into my house," he said, staring into the floor. "My God, you really sunk my gut with that one."
With a storm as big as Sandy, there's only so much you can do to protect buildings, the wood and mortar that hold so many memories. Rullo said that he'd close up the bar, park his car somewhere a little higher in North Wildwood, then hunker down in a house away from the bay. He won't be able to stay in his home by the bay. His wife and twin sons have long left, taking their Halloween costumes with them to Gloucester County.
"Who knows when Halloween will be?" he asked.
Last year, when Hurricane Irene hit on Aug. 28, Echo's was still open, as were other bars in North Wildwood's entertainment district, all looking to mine a few more weekends out of the summer. Although the hurricane never did the physical damage some had expected, it killed summer, he said.
With Sandy, Rullo is expecting more damage. What worried him most, he said, was that folks might be more hesitant to evacuate, after many heeded the mandatory evacuation for Irene, which proved a bust.
"It was a cry-wolf situation, but it worked. [Saturday] night, there was a lot of balking at the evacuation, saying they weren't leaving," he said. "People do foolish things."
Rullo said he also knows that the real monsters of the Jersey Shore, the storms that locals worry about, are the Nor'Easters, and Sandy could become one of those over New Jersey.
"That's the funny thing about hurricanes," he said. "They get all the media attention, but the Nor'Easters are what really beat us up. I've woken up at night here with a Nor'Easter shaking the whole house."
Rullo grew up in South Philly and, like many residents there, he spent summers in the Wildwoods. He was a longtime bartender at Echo's until about five years ago, when the owner asked him to take over as general manager. He knew the consequences if he were to say no: The owner might have sold the building, and a place filled with characters for more than 100 years would have likely become a condomomium. "I knew if I didn't stay, this place will go up," he said, sitting on a pool table.
Echo's isn't fancy or trendy. It's a place for cheap brews, where thousands of revelers have raised their beer bottles and sung in unison to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer." The green linoleum floor is worn white from dancing.
"It's like everyone's basement," Rullo said of the place.
A weekend earlier, Echo's hosted a bonfire on the beach nearby. It was the last party of the season, and if and when things pan out, Rullo said he'd like to open the day before Thanksgiving.
"We've had water up to the front steps before, but never in. Hell, there's been so much beer spilled on this floor anyway, it might not make a difference," he said with a laugh. "This one might be different, though. I've never seen a storm like this."