On the Jersey shore, some opt to wait for Sandy

Posted: October 29, 2012

NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. - Sitting in his house in North Wildwood on Saturday, John Hearn, who describes himself as "a young 67," said he had stocked up on water, peanut butter, and tuna fish, filled his gas tank, and fired up the generator. His wife, Gloria, had already left town, to stay at the couple's second home in Bucks County, but Hearn wanted to stay behind to keep an eye on his boats and "experience what we're going to experience."

"We have a pretty high elevation," he said. "I feel fairly safe here. I've got my little boat in the driveway - a 17-foot Carolina skiff - so I can float out of here."

Hearn was not bothered that Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard and that Gov. Christie had just announced a mandatory evacuation of New Jersey's barrier islands.

He was among the hardy who, with the sun shining at the Jersey Shore on Saturday afternoon, said they planned to stay home and simply ride out the hurricane nicknamed "Frankenstorm."

With the storm expected to hit a wide swath of the East Coast, some at the Jersey Shore said they did not see the point of evacuating - everywhere from Washington to Philadelphia and northward was expecting severe winds, rain, and flooding. Why, they said, would they bother leaving?

"If you live here, you should be used to it," said George Lowry, of Rio Grande, north of Cape May, just outside the governor's evacuation zone, which only applies to the barrier islands. He said he worried about leaving his neighbors behind to face the storm alone. "I'd feel really bad if I came home and found my neighbors' house gone," he said. "You feel kind of obligated to stay."

Christie, speaking to a small crowd at a North Wildwood fire house Saturday, said he could not force people to leave but wanted to make sure they understood the damage Sandy could wreak. He ordered residents of the state's barrier islands to leave the area by 4 p.m. Sunday and declared a state of emergency for the entire state Saturday afternoon.

"I am not going to tell somebody to leave home unless absolutely necessary," he said. "If I need to have broader evacuations, believe me, I will order them."

He said some residents might feel complacent after Hurricane Irene caused billions of dollars' worth of damage in inland states last year but left the Jersey Shore largely unscathed.

"I know we get cynical about this stuff, but we can't afford to be," he said. "It is simply unsafe for people to be here."

Local officials chimed in. In North Wildwood, Fire Chief Jeff Cole said the city planned to use surplus military vehicles it had acquired in the last year to maneuver around flooding - and warned that residents who stayed behind might not receive a swift response from swamped emergency crews.

Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford urged residents to evacuate. Billboards along the Atlantic City Expressway and over the Pier Shops at Caesars were removed Saturday.

On the beach in Atlantic City, residents carried sand off in bags and buckets to use to shore up their homes. On the Boardwalk, tourists milled around and planned to cut short vacations.

"I just got here this morning from Rhode Island," said Al Ditri, 59, who was staying for one night at the Tropicana with his wife, Judy, but planned to leave early Sunday. "At this point, it's not worth it. I'm going out of the casino tomorrow morning, making a right turn, stopping at Dunkin' Donuts, and I'm out of here."

He said he was sorry to leave - he was running about even at the slot machines.

Some locals had already heeded Christie's warnings, packing up and leaving even before the official evacuation order was set to take effect at 8 a.m. Sunday. Victorian bed-and-breakfasts in Cape May boarded up their windows and sent guests home. Outside the city's new Convention Hall, a bulldozer shoveled eight-foot piles of sand in front of the hall's deck, which faces the ocean.

Drilling boards into a window of a bed-and-breakfast on Jackson Street, Burt Myrick, of Wildwood Crest, said his wife had left for Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was staying behind to check on his company's properties - mostly hotels - around Cape May.

"You almost have to get out to Oklahoma to get away from this storm," he said, laughing. "My wife said she couldn't stay once the voluntary evacuation was issued. This time around, you're really pretty stupid if you stay."

Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 215-854-2771, awhelan@philly.com, or follow @aubreyjwhelan on Twitter.

Staff writers Suzette Pamley

and Amy Rosenberg contributed to this article.

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