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Storm victims in N.J. bet on Powerball - and vow to share winnings with shattered neighborhoods

VENTNOR HEIGHTS, N.J. - Luck and fortune are complicated things, and so are their opposites, and perhaps no places are more schooled in those lessons these days than in neighborhoods hard hit by Sandy.

Maurice Davis in A.C.: He'd share with storm victims.
Maurice Davis in A.C.: He'd share with storm victims.Read more

VENTNOR HEIGHTS, N.J. - Luck and fortune are complicated things, and so are their opposites, and perhaps no places are more schooled in those lessons these days than in neighborhoods hard hit by Sandy.

It was on those streets that people lost so much four weeks ago.

And where people arrived Sunday ready to place hopes on what appeared for the moment like a solution more powerful than even a check-writing FEMA representative: Powerball.

"You think of who would you help, and what would you do, how would you help and put it to use," Beth May of Ventnor Heights said as she bought one ticket for a jackpot expected to be a record $425 million by Wednesday's drawing. There were no winners in Saturday's drawing, which would have paid out a top prize of $325 million.

"There's people who don't have a roof over their heads," May said. "We're lucky."

Well, actually, May herself had about a foot and a half of water that ruined belongings including precious clothes she had saved from when her daughter, now 36, was a baby. May also had flood damage in a home she moved into just two weeks before the storm hit.

The reason she moved: to get a one-story house for her daughter, who is battling an aggressive, metastatic cancer. She went from feeling somewhat isolated in her personal misfortune to part of a neighborhood catastrophe.

"This is so terrible," she said as she held the ticket she bought at the Plaza Discount Liquor Store on Wellington Avenue in Ventnor. "Is it half-full or half-empty? I look at what people have gone through and how lucky we are. It's surreal. It's how you look at life."

Speaking of lucky, the store itself was fortunate, having moved to its location a few months before. The old location - near Pathmark across the street - suffered serious flood damage. Plaza Discount had none.

But the employees working Sunday suffered damage to their homes. To them, it seemed a Powerball jackpot expected to yield a top cash prize of at least $278.3 million could benefit a lot of local people.

"In Ventnor Heights, you could give to people who were devastated and their lives got ruined and had to up and move," said store clerk Loretta Cianci, 48, who was one of those people, now living with a relative in Egg Harbor Township. She said she had been too busy moving belongings out of her devastated home to buy a Powerball ticket for Saturday's drawing. (The elusive numbers were 22-32-37-44-50, and the Powerball was 34.) "Too busy with real life," she said.

Cianci would buy now.

She said two people at the store earlier had bought tickets, exchanged names, and promised to share any winnings. "If they win, they said, 'We'll both split it and rebuild our houses,' " Cianci recalled.

Nobody seemed to outdo the sharing intentions of the people behind @AtlanticCity911 on Twitter (a.k.a. Scan AtlanticCity on Facebook), who posted a photo of their ticket and promised to split winnings with anybody who "liked" the photo or retweeted it.

Over the last two Powerball drawings, they received 4,243 "likes" and 839 shares. The ticket they bought Sunday drew 956 "likes" in the first three hours of its posting. ScanAtlanticCity and @AtlanticCity911 were at the center of local Sandy updates before, during, and after the storm. The sense of community built up during that time would truly be put to the test if their ticket hit, but organizers were game to let everyone in.

"It would be an amazing thing if everyone from this town won such a large jackpot!" ScanAtlanticCity wrote. "Especially with the timing of Sandy rolling by here a few weeks ago and causing many people great pain and loss."

Some hard-hit vendors were unable even to open to sell tickets for the mega jackpot. The top prize to date was $365 million, won in 2006 by ConAgra Foods Workers in Lincoln, Neb.

In Atlantic City on Sunday, contractor Maurice Davis was finishing up repairs at the Raksha market, in a basement level on Ventnor Avenue that was flooded by Sandy. Davis said he thought the market would be ready by Tuesday, enabling its owner to open just in time to sell tickets for Wednesday's drawing.

Davis said he would share with storm victims if he emerged a winner.

"I'd set aside a good $5 million to help people at the Shore. I'd give every person $10,000 - people FEMA can't help out."

At the Arctic General Store, owner Mohammed Hosen was just back from a month in Bangladesh visiting his ill mother. He was staring at a FEMA flier and wondering whether it was too late to get help for losses. His lottery machines were not working.

"I had a lot of damage," he said. He hoped to get his machine working in time to dispense Powerball tickets. "Atlantic City people need it," he said.

In Brigantine, Harry Staley, owner of the Buck-IT dollar store (where a winning $20,000 Gold Rush ticket was sold over the summer), said he'd sold $1,000 in Powerball tickets Saturday.

He'd only just bought the store, in a sale that became final after the storm. Tough luck, but he was determined to ride out the aftermath. "If people are going through hard times," he said, "they'll come to a dollar store."

At nearby Joe's Seaside Market, employee Lauren Pizza, 18, said that although her family lost everything, she would not be indulging in anything as frivolous as a lottery. "I lost my house, pretty much," she said. "Instead of wasting my money on a chance, I can just work harder."

She sold five tickets to Don Bauman, 75, a retired military officer, who came straight from St. Andrew by the Sea Lutheran Church in Atlantic City to buy his tickets.

He said that he suffered only minimal damage to his home a block from the bay, but that houses on either side were hit hard.

"There's people from the church who lost whole homes," he said. "I'd buy them a new house. If a lot of people from barrier islands got together and purchased a ticket and won, that'd be great."

He and Pastor David McGettigan had a long discussion at church about - among other things - Powerball.

"We discussed it," he said. "I said, 'I'm going to buy the tickets. If I have the ticket, everything's OK.' "