Ravaged region continues cleanup

At Lil' Acres farm in Salem County, Paul Italiano, 73, clears a tree. "It looks like a bomb went off . . . even weeks later," his wife said.
At Lil' Acres farm in Salem County, Paul Italiano, 73, clears a tree. "It looks like a bomb went off . . . even weeks later," his wife said. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 30, 2012

PITTSGROVE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - A month after a destructive super storm called a derecho exploded over Anna Italiano's 12-acre farm, her once lushly shaded property still bears the scars of the scary night: Dozens of oaks and pines that once stood 70 or 80 feet lay strewn across the property like fallen soldiers.

In one corral alone, high winds yanked 43 trees from the ground by the roots, still encrusted with clay and marl.

Piles of cleaned-up debris now form an ugly fence of dead foliage and logs around the Salem County property. Still spooked by the storm, Italiano's nine miniature horses stick close to their barn most days.

Located about a mile from the campsite at Parvin State Park where two children were killed when a tree fell on their tent during the June 29-30 storm, Italiano's "Lil' Acres" farm looks like a battlefield.

Down the road at Parvin, a swimming beach and concession area finally reopened last weekend, but the rest of the 1,300-acre park remains closed to the public as crews continue to clean up hundreds of damaged or downed trees in the camping area, along walking trails, and in picnic groves. The damage is so extensive that the state Department of Environmental Protection has no cost estimate for cleanup or timetable for reopening. The area was without power for nearly a week after the storm.

Nearly four weeks after the derecho ravaged the region, piles and piles of debris still line major arteries and country roads across Salem, Cumberland, and Atlantic Counties, where they were pushed aside by hand or machine so vehicles could pass.

Just when public works crews and private contractors will remove the brown biolitter formed from remnants of former woodlands and suburban yards is anybody's guess. The debris likely will become wood chips and mulch, officials said.

"It's been sitting here for weeks - it looks horrible - but there are only so many trucks to pick it up, I guess," said Eleanor Burris, 68, who lives along Sherman Avenue in Vineland, where story-tall piles of brown leaves, sticks, and logs cover the shoulders for miles.

Insurance covered about $5,500 of the cleanup bill at Italiano's farm, but fully restoring the property will cost much more - and take quite a bit of time, Italiano said.

"You really just can't believe what you are seeing. It looks like a bomb went off . . . even weeks later," said Italiano, 58, as she drives her all-terrain golf cart over land littered with branches and sticks where her family operated horseback and hayrides as part of their children's-party business.

"We've worked day and night . . . but you just don't know where to start," said Italiano, noting that both she and her husband, Paul, 73, are disabled.

Exhaustion and frustration are sentiments being echoed throughout central South Jersey, where the powerful storm made an impact so great that on July 19, President Obama declared the storm a major disaster for New Jersey.

The monster convective storm began in the Ohio Valley, causing 22 deaths and knocking out power for five million people from Chicago to the Mid-Atlantic Coast. It cut a 300-mile-wide swath as it raced east, whipping wind gusts up to 100 m.p.h. and disrupting electrical power and phone service for days from the Washington metropolitan area through central South Jersey.

National Weather Service meteorologists said the derecho was a fast mover, traveling about 700 miles in 12 hours. The northern end on the convective system strengthened as it moved into South Jersey after 10 p.m. Friday, June 29.

In this region, the storm produced continuous damage that extended east across Delaware Bay all the way to Atlantic City, where a 74-m.p.h. gust was reported. The system finally weakened when it encountered cooler maritime air, off the Delaware and New Jersey coast about 2 a.m. Saturday, June 30, according to a report prepared by weather service meteorologists Rich Grumm and Steve Zubrick.

"That storm caused destruction like we haven't seen around here before, nothing like any of the recent hurricanes or nor'easters we've had," said Vincent J. Jones III, director of Atlantic County's Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The federal disaster declaration will bring funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to supplement county and local recovery efforts to help municipalities in Salem, Cumberland, and Atlantic Counties. The money will help repair infrastructure and other damage caused by the storm and the unrelenting straight-line winds that accompanied it.

The hardest-hit areas of Atlantic County were in Hamilton Township, Egg Harbor Township, and Northfield, where residents are still cleaning up, Jones said. The ultimate cleanup costs remain unclear.

"The scope of the destruction of this storm is so widespread that I think it's going to take years before these areas can fully recover from the impact," Jones said. "There's just so much of a volume of trees and debris to be cleaned up. And the size of the trees that have come down . . . we've never seen anything like it before."

FEMA is expected to tour the area again this week to determine whether funding should be made available to individual homeowners, Jones said.

"I think it's important for them to come back and really see the damage that individual homeowners have experienced," Jones said. "We have houses where there are huge trees leaning over the roof, where they are going to need to get cranes in there to properly remove the trees so they don't fall on the houses. It's crazy."

Throughout Atlantic, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, the restoration of "normal" for residents continues on a daily basis, said Lou Monte, an insurance-claims adjuster based in South Jersey for Crawford & Co., an Atlanta-based independent insurance management firm.

"When you drive around and really see the destruction and what people are going through, it really is astounding," Monte said. "I've been in this business for years, and I've never come across this much destruction in such a widespread area before."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo

at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

Read the "Downashore" blog

at www.philly.com/downashore.

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