At Shore, many who stayed fared better than those who left

Eastbound motorists wait on Route 72 to return to Long Beach Island after the hurricane. "It looks like we dodged a bullet," Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi said. "It could have been a lot worse."
Eastbound motorists wait on Route 72 to return to Long Beach Island after the hurricane. "It looks like we dodged a bullet," Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi said. "It could have been a lot worse." (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 29, 2011

VENTNOR, N.J. - Locals who stayed at the Shore barrier islands for Hurricane Irene found themselves in a funny position Sunday: They were in better shape than many of the people who evacuated.

Even Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, whose office participated in the decision to evacuate 1.2 million residents and vacationers in four coastal counties, acknowledged as much.

"The irony is, many of the areas we told people to go to got hammered," he said, standing on the Ventnor boardwalk while waves crashed majestically - but politely - under the Ventnor Pier. "Some of our evacuees got hammered."

Major roads reopened, and tolls will be reinstated Monday. Atlantic City's 11 casinos, which reported little hurricane damage, are scheduled to reopen at noon Monday after going through a long checklist of approvals from state regulators to ensure the integrity of the games.

By contrast, mainland communities such as Linwood, Egg Harbor Township, Buena, and farther-in places like Turnersville, to which many Shore people escaped under mandatory evacuation orders, endured 10-hour power outages, worse flooding, and tornado warnings similar to those issued at the Shore.

"If people had been allowed to stay, this all would have turned into a spectator sport," said Jim Eberwine, director of Emergency Management for Absecon, a small mainland city across the causeway from Atlantic City.

Eberwine, a former National Weather Service meteorologist, said that without thousands of tourists immediately clamoring to get back to the beaches, officials would have time to assess damage. "With or without a lot of damage, had people stayed, it could have quickly turned into folly," he said. "It was a very prudent call on the part of the county and state government."

Levinson said that the unfortunate part about the storm's outcome was that the next time people might be wary of reports and become reckless. "It's almost like people are disappointed their roofs didn't blow off," he said.

Evacuating was the right thing to do, Gov. Christie insisted Sunday. "For those folks who say now, 'Well, there wasn't abject destruction up and down the coastline, therefore we shouldn't have left, let me tell you, those type of second-guessers will not be tolerated. The fact is, by moving a million people off the Jersey Shore, we saved lives."

Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica added: "For all the people saying we overprepared, be thankful you didn't come back to damaged homes and businesses."

And they were thankful, with "Whew" status updates from such local institutions as Jagielky's candy in Ventnor and Margate. Some, like Annette's in Ventnor, rushed to reopen.

"It looks like we dodged a bullet," Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi said. "It could have been a lot worse."

In Atlantic City, lights were still on around the casinos, and downtown streets were clear though largely empty early Sunday morning.

At the View apartments, one of the high-rises Atlantic City police spent much of Saturday trying to evacuate, residents relished their civil disobedience.

Blue sky began to peak out through the clouds, and birds drifted overheard, heralding what's forecast to be a beautiful week leading to Labor Day.

Oscar Ramirez waited out the storm in Atlantic City with his brother, but most of their family evacuated to Philadelphia.

"It sounded much worse there," Ramirez said. "There were trees coming down around the house. They haven't had power since last night. It was windy here, but not so bad."

Lenora Boninfante, a spokeswoman for Cape May County, the first Shore county to issue a mandatory evacuation order on Thursday, said the decision to move nearly 800,000 residents and visitors to higher ground was not taken lightly - especially one week before the lucrative Labor Day weekend, traditionally the last big blast before the end of summer.

"The safety of our residents and visitors is our number-one priority," Boninfante said.

The county - and the entire Shore region - learned some valuable lessons from such a weather event occurring at such a high-density time. National emergency management coordinators list Cape May County as the sixth-most-difficult region to evacuate in the nation. With water on three sides, the cape has limited exit routes.

"The main thing that we learned from all of this is that Cape May County is capable of evacuating at the height of the tourist season, and that's a valuable lesson," Boninfante said, noting that few problems with accidents or other issues were reported during the 36 hours it took for the evacuation, which began Thursday evening.

In the aftermath of the storm, the county had few issues remaining with flooding, debris on beaches and road, and power outages.

By Sunday afternoon, many business owners had begun removing plywood from windows and cleaning up to welcome back tourists. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry will resume operating Tuesday.

"This is a very big weekend coming up for them, financially a very important one for the economy of the area," Boninfante said.

The storm surge pushed a lot of sand, including a lot that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had replenished at the south end of Ventnor, up toward the boardwalk in Ventnor and the seawall in Margate. By late morning, crews were pushing the sand back toward the ocean.

Overnight, the ocean roared like a freight train and pushed up to the dunes in many places. But there was little sign of the powerhouse that forecasters predicted would lead to islands where the "ocean meets the bay."

"All that worrying," said Chris Ireland of Ventnor, who stayed with her husband, Jim, even as everyone around them evacuated. They were among the few to lose power overnight.

Terry Steen, a Ventnor and Philadelphia resident who stayed for the storm, said his wife, who left, had a tougher time in Philadelphia.

"This was just a regular nor'easter," Steen said. "In Philadelphia, part of our roof was lost. My daughter in Hammonton lost power."

Ted Sobieski, 52, of Voorhees and Ventnor, sent his family back home but stayed in Ventnor to see the hurricane.

"This was on my bucket list," he said.

Alas, Sunday morning, he was wondering what had happened to his epic event.

"I expected much more," he said. "I've seen nor'easters with more erosion."

Meanwhile, in Voorhees, his family had been without power for 10 hours, he said.

Over on 11th Street in Longport - the ominous end of town since a series of storms in the early 1900s washed away the first 10 streets - Irene had pushed boulders from a seawall into the street sometime during the early morning high tide.

Bob Subranni, who has a house on the block but rode out the storm in Somers Point, said that was not unusual for his precarious location. He declared the area free of any real punishment.

"We got away with murder," he said. "We wouldn't have gone if we'd known it would be like this. We played it safe."


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or @amysrosenberg on Twitter.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

 

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