N. Wildwood volunteer rescuer: 'You can't force 'em to go'

Waves crash along the shoreline near homes overlooking the beach in Longport, N.J.
Waves crash along the shoreline near homes overlooking the beach in Longport, N.J. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 31, 2012

ROSE HAD 100 questions for the man in the rain slicker and police hat, and he listened to them all as the ocean swirled by her front steps.

He only had one question for her.

"I said, 'Will you please, please leave here with us?' " said George Greenland, a retired North Wildwood police officer, after hauling himself back into the 10-wheel military tow truck known as the "Wrecker."

Rose - Greenland didn't know her last name - is an elderly woman who lives on the 17th Street canal, on the bay, in the city's most flood-prone area. There was water in her house already, Greenland said, but she just wouldn't leave.

"I can't make her leave, but I told her I might not be able to come back later," Greenland said, as the Wrecker pulled away.

Greenland, 58, and Mike Lederer, another retired North Wildwood cop, were volunteering with the city's Office of Emergency Management, driving the vehicle where almost everyone else couldn't go. It was 4 p.m. Monday, and the eye of the storm was closing in on the four municipalities that make up the Wildwoods.

The morning high tide brought water even higher, over the top of fire hydrants, onto front porches and, for some, right into their living rooms. Monday night's high tide was expected to be worse, and even when the Wrecker was blocks away, Greenland was still thinking about the woman in that bay home alone.

"You can't force 'em to go," he said.

For Greenland, a North Wildwood lifer, Hurricane Sandy didn't top the great nor'easter of 1962, when his family chained the cars to the front railing so they wouldn't float away.

"I love this town," he said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Lederer, who grew up in Olney and became a North Wildwood policeman in the late 1970s, said Sandy is the worst storm he's seen

Lederer, 55, sent his family to Bucks County. Greenland's wife went to Havertown. Still, both men traveled past their Shore homes in the rain, and Lederer jumped out to turn off the electricity in case of a fire. They did the same for a friend back at the Office of Emergency Management building.

"I gotta grab a wrench out of my shed to turn off the gas," Lederer said, water dripping from his face.

At little Wildwood Catholic, a small high school that barely survived budget cuts in recent years, electrical outlets and power strips caught fire when hit by the water. Firefighter calls echoed through the dark basement as the wind whistled through the windows.

Across the street, at the 15th Street firehouse, water gushed through the garage doors, across the floor where fire apparatus should have been. Early Monday morning, when a house caught fire at 18th and New York avenues, the fire company did something unique: They put a fire pumper on a flatbed truck and hauled it to the scene through knee-deep water to fight the blaze.

"We need it up there so we can still fight fires," firefighter Bob Davis said.

A jet-ski, unmoored from its dock, was slamming against a front porch in the water, not far from the burned-out home.

Most of the apparatus and most of the cars in North Wildwood were parked on Surf Avenue, a high point a few blocks from the ocean. Lederer and about two dozen other people had parked their vehicles at McDonald's, another location that usually doesn't get swamped.

By 6 p.m., after hours of wiping the fog off the windshields of the 30-year-old vehicles and responding to emergency calls, the men headed back in for a break and a change of clothes.

High tide was on its way, and the two-way radio on the dashboard of the old truck crackled with life.

Contact Jason Nark at narkj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5916. Follow him on Twitter @JasonNark.

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