With the wind, rain ... & zombies

Posted: August 29, 2011

ASSIGNED TO cover Hurricane Irene from the Jersey shore, I kissed my wife and kids goodbye and left our Camden County home early Friday in my wife's SUV, expecting an apocalypse.

I chose North Wildwood as my base because my parents have a small condominium there, and I wanted to salvage something when Irene swept it all away. That didn't happen, but still it was a scary, surreal weekend:

Friday

4 a.m.: I play out unrealistic hurricane scenarios on the dark A.C. Expressway. Would I hear the zombies with the wind and rain?

5:15 a.m.: No roadblocks in North Wildwood. No Wawa. No coffee.

8 a.m.: The Hereford Inlet is calm just outside my door, like a sheet of glass straight across to Stone Harbor. I start tweeting that I'm here to stay.

10 a.m: Business owners all over the island are angry and anxious about Irene. I hear rumors that the power will be turned off at noon. I check on a relative's houseboat.

1 p.m.: Foreign-student workers wait on the Wildwood boardwalk for buses to Camden County.

I walk the empty boards and an eerie warning echoes on a public-address system. This place is part of my life: I came here with the VFW, when my aunt was their beauty queen, with friends and relatives now in the grave. I dyed Easter eggs at the table I'm writing on now, while my first son was kicking in my wife's belly. Years later, I took him to the boardwalk, on a bitter-cold day, to say goodbye to a cherished childhood ride. This all hangs in the back of my mind as the skies grow dark. It's why I feel for every person contacting me on Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of strangers asking if disaster is here.

7 p.m.: At Keenan's Irish Pub, in North Wildwood, 20 of us watch the Phillies, pretending not to worry. The Guinness is cold.

Saturday

8 a.m.: The skies are stormy and I have a headache when I wake up. I'm like a zombie for coffee, and doubt I'll find any.

9 a.m.: Gary Rutkowski brews a pot of coffee on the rainy Wildwood boardwalk. He owns a few businesses here, and says that people are broke. He has a farm in Clarion County, Pa. It sounds like paradise.

11 a.m.: I douse expired eggs in Old Bay and hope for the best.

1 p.m.: The North Wildwood Fire Department insists that I wear an unmarked fire helmet when I'm walking around.

2 p.m.: In the condo, I worry about where to park the car in a flood, and gaze in awe at a fake photo of a shark in the street.

3 p.m.: I put on the helmet and raincoat and find Ed Roach, a surfer, staring at monster waves in North Wildwood. He might go swimming, he says. I envy him, even though I shouldn't. I'm getting loads of tweets, asking about specific houses, specific streets.

5:30 p.m.: My condo is definitely the windiest place I've been. I make elbow macaroni with butter and salt for dinner.

7 p.m.: The waves start crashing over the rock wall, 50 yards from the door. I grab my dad's waders.

8 p.m.: Wearing my helmet, I run between condo buildings, ducking into hallways, skittish and panting as debris flies by, all to check on a set of stairs for a stranger. It feels like a movie, with zombies, the worst weather and scariest moment I will have experienced all weekend.

8:30 p.m.: The water is up to my calves near the same bar I visited Friday. It's pitch-black, except for the Hereford Inlet lighthouse. That makes some Twitter followers cheer.

9:45 p.m.: Tornado warnings are popping up at home. I'm frantic about my wife and kids, and I tell her to go to the basement "if it sounds like a jet outside." I feel terrible that I'm not there.

11:30 p.m.: My family is safe, and I head back out. The tides and my fears have receded. I take pictures of intersections and post them on Twitter for some of the people who've asked. I think of our little condo and apologize for all the pictures I didn't take.

Yesterday

12:30 a.m.: A North Wildwood cop pulls alongside my car on a street that's not flooded. He sees me wearing the fire helmet and asks who I am. Twitter followers listen in on scanners; one asks about his family home. The officer says that that area is "under 2 feet of water."

2:30 a.m.: I fall asleep texting my wife. My alarm is set for 5 a.m. to beat the next high tide.

4:44 a.m.: I'm up and walk around for a few hours to marinas and houses and high-rises. There's not much damage.

7:30 a.m.: My aunt's houseboat is safe, still bobbing in the swollen back bay in North Wildwood. I will be able to drink a beer and eat crabs on its roof again.

7:50 a.m.: Rutkowski says that he kayaked on the streets overnight. Then some words come out of his mouth - python, boardwalk - and I'm off. My God, there's a dead baby snake on the boardwalk. The police assume that it came from a nearby aquarium and dare each other to pick it up.

9:05 a.m.: All weekend, Twitter followers have asked me to check on the small, blue-collar community of West Wildwood. It has knee-deep flooding, but locals say it's nothing. One kind woman lets me use her bathroom.

10:30 a.m.: I show Daily News photographer Steve Falk my snake picture on my cellphone. He shows me dead seagulls on his camera.

Noon: I drop off the helmet at the NWFD, grateful that they cared enough to give it to me.

12:30 p.m.: I've made a bigger mess at the condo than Irene, thankfully. I'll be here again with my kids next weekend, next month and - I hope - for years to come.

4 p.m.: I want to thank all the strangers who voiced concerns about my safety. I never felt alone the entire weekend, even when I was out in the rain and wind, alone, with zombies.

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