Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On New Jersey barrier islands, grim scenes for the resilient

Two days after Sandy sent the ocean surging across Long Beach Island, those who stayed behind looked out over the wreckage in shock.

An Atlantic City resident takes a photo of a destroyed section of the Boardwalk. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
An Atlantic City resident takes a photo of a destroyed section of the Boardwalk. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff PhotographerRead more

Two days after Sandy sent the ocean surging across Long Beach Island, those who stayed behind looked out over the wreckage in shock.

Sylvia Sorino, a waitress at a hotel, went back to the ground-floor apartment she shared with her boyfriend and wept.

"Look at this place. All this stuff is wrecked. Our whole lives are in here, and it's gone. We don't have insurance," the 53-year-old said Wednesday. "I ran out of here with the clothes on my back."

In the aftermath of the storm, authorities and residents alike tried to come to grips with a scene unlike any they had ever seen. Drifts of sand lay where roads once were. A small watercraft perched atop a fence. The contents of multimillion-dollar beachfront homes were strewn across neighbors' yards.

A low-lying barrier island prone to flooding even in mild storms, LBI was among the hardest-hit locations on the Jersey Shore - to the point that the best estimate on reopening its link to the mainland is at least a week.

"It's carnage," Long Beach Township Mayor Michael Mancini said. "This is going to be a very long cleanup."

President Obama and Gov. Christie toured some of the most damaged areas Wednesday and promised immediate help. All along New Jersey's 127-mile coast, property owners pushed for access as officials worked to ensure areas were safe.

Beyond the property damage to homes, cars, and boats, a number of towns were dealing with gas leaks posing a fire danger, roads made impassable because of piles of sand - and, on LBI, 750 people who rode out the storm and refused to leave.

National Guard troops, who arrived Tuesday, were going door to door telling people still there that when electricity and water would return was anyone's guess.

"Our guys are telling them, we can't guarantee your safety," Lt. Eric Shaw said. "There are a lot of gas leaks down at the southern end. It's very dangerous."

In Brick, in northern Ocean County, emergency crews had trouble reaching multiple homes Wednesday that caught fire after gas lines ruptured.

Mancini said a representative for New Jersey Natural Gas told officials that the utility could not shut down the main, which forced a house-by-house approach.

"It's going to be a while. They have two or three trucks out here. We need 200 or 300 trucks," he said.

A company representative said no one was available for comment.

Among the island's ravages, not the most grave but surely among the most weirdly beloved was "the shack," a small building that had survived for nearly 80 years on its sandy ground. As Shore towns developed, it became the local beach bum, greeting vacationers off eastbound Route 72 on the causeway.

"It's gone," said Chet Atkins, who owns the land where the collapsing pile of sun-bleached cedar and pine planks stood defiantly for decades. "I saw it with my own eyes. There are some pilings sticking out, but it's gone."

Two days after Sandy's arrival in Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City, residents said they were slowly but surely cleaning up.

Nearly 70 percent of the town ignored a mandatory evacuation order, with many locals saying they figured they could ride out the storm. They did - but not without many houses sustaining significant damage.

Residents said many first floors were seriously damaged from flooding. On the north end of the island, where the seawall was breached several times, houses sagged amid piles of debris in the streets and two feet of sand around some of them. Siding and shingles littered the streets.

"Monday afternoon, when the bay came flying down the street, that was the scariest part," Jody Turner said. "We've never had water ever come that high. It was close, but we made it."

Turner's neighbor Nikki Schwendemann said floodwaters were inches from the first floor of her house, but she was more worried about her 23-year-old son, who evacuated to the mainland to stay with his girlfriend and some friends and had not yet been able to return to the island, thanks to a travel ban.

The rest of the family, she said, decided to stick it out in Brigantine.

"It was bad everywhere. We heard New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland - all saying get out. Where were we going to go?" she said.

Jerry Pierce, who has lived in Brigantine for four years, said, "It was scary, not something we'd do again."

He and his wife, Kathy, called 911 around 1 p.m. Monday when their storm door blew off and winds and rain swept through the house. But police were unable to reach them, and the couple "went upstairs and rode it out." The next morning, Pierce found a minnow swimming in his front yard.

In Atlantic County, emergency management personnel say it's still unclear when residents of the barrier island cities - which include Atlantic City, Brigantine, Margate, Ventnor, and Longport - can return to their homes.

"It could be a couple hours; it could be a couple days. At this point, we don't have any estimate," said Linda Gilmore, a spokeswoman for the county Office of Emergency Management.

"We understand people want to get back to their homes and want to see for themselves what damages they may have incurred," she said. "But our top priority is to protect safety."

In Atlantic City, officials said all streets had been cleared by Wednesday morning. Emergency Management Chief Tom Foley said he was optimistic that the city would soon be back on its feet.

"Did we take a beating like everyone? Of course," he said. "But our crews are out there. They have every street open - every one of them. We're ready. We're just hoping to get power back."

Foley said he was trying to dispel confusion that the Boardwalk was destroyed. While a section of the Boardwalk's north end did collapse, it was a damaged section already slated for demolition.

"We're ready to go back to business. We've been working like crazy," he said. "The only thing we need is power."

Long Beach Island, which balloons to a summertime population of more than 100,000, was desolate Wednesday, as patrol cars and military trucks rolled up and down the roadways.

Those who stayed on found solace where they could.

At the Engleside Inn, residents had been holed up since the weekend. They waited together through the worst of the storm and comforted each other in the grim aftermath.

On Wednesday, they trickled in and out of one another's rooms, trying to pass the time with a book or a DVD. While the hotel had a generator, their cable had been out since the weekend and their cellphone service was spotty, and they were curious how the rest of the coast fared.

"We've been trying to reach our families. There's all sorts of rumors going around that all these people died on the island, and we don't want them to worry," said Dawn Healey, 48.

No fatalities were reported on LBI, but statewide, the number was up to 12 by Wednesday.

After days of hunkering in candlelit houses, those still left on the island were happy to get out and walk around in what turned into a sunny Shore day Wednesday.

They checked out the mansions hanging into the ocean and marveled at how a large cabin cruiser was washed down the street, but a bench on the same block sat undisturbed.

The process of figuring out the extent of the damage has only just begun and is expected to take many days. That confounded property owners, who waited Wednesday on the mainland with hope that someone would let them cross to the island despite a flashing sign that said the bridge would be closed for five to 10 days.

Oral Williams, who owns a dry cleaning and tailoring business on Long Beach Island, was eager to assess the damage.

"I'm just hoping for the best," he said. "I hung the clothes from the ceiling rafters. I hope they're up there. Hopefully, they didn't get wet."

For those on the other side of the bay, seeing the destruction of Sandy firsthand provided little comfort.

Tom Hughes, who owns the Sea Shell Resort, said the waves had come in through his front windows, rushed through his lobby and bar, and gone right out the back.

"We'll be lucky to be ready by Memorial Day," he said.

Outside the Long Beach Township municipal building Wednesday, National Guard troops helped some residents into military trucks bound for shelters on the mainland.

Among them was Carol Michaelovich, 68, who after days without power was heading to her brother's house in Pennsylvania.

"I'm ready to get off," she said. "Staying here was the worst decision I ever made."