Shore towns face daunting rebuilding task

An Atlantic City resident watches the cleanup of beach sand from streets in the resort.
An Atlantic City resident watches the cleanup of beach sand from streets in the resort. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 01, 2012

Sandy roared through Ocean City, knocking century-old summer cottages off their foundations, swamping the quaint downtown under two feet of floodwater, and giving the iconic 59th Street fishing pier its final blow.

The town that bills itself as "America's Greatest Family Resort" took a beating, but relieved officials reported that most of the Cape May County beach town's boardwalk and its beloved Music Pier remained intact.

"But we're going to need a lot of help," Mayor Jay Gillian said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference, where he called the storm a "once-in-a-lifetime" event.

Many Jersey towns will need help; estimates are that Sandy caused from $10 billion to $20 billion in economic damages across the Northeast, with $5 billion to $10 billion in losses covered by insurance, according to a California company that uses modeling to estimate insurance damages.

President Obama is scheduled to tour storm-ravaged areas with Gov. Christie on Wednesday.

Gillian said it was unclear when residents and homeowners - in the community that has more dwellings owned as second homes than any other along the Shore - would be allowed back on the island to assess the damage, warning that Ocean City, like many Shore towns, "is not safe right now."

Despite dire warnings Monday from Christie that thousands in Atlantic City were in peril for failing to evacuate, local officials there reported only one death: an elderly man who died of a heart attack. Statewide, six died, most from fallen trees.

Sandy did little physical damage to Atlantic City's dozen casinos, shuttered since 4 p.m. Sunday, according to the head of the Casino Association of New Jersey.

Along the southern coast, damage to homes appeared to be mostly from flooding, with minor wind damage to some rain gutters and storm doors.

Ventnor, Margate, and Longport were hammered with flooding and heavy winds into early Tuesday, and some blocks looked like rivers after fast-moving currents of rainwater had backed up in the streets.

Ocean waves surged over some dunes, carving out hollows but leaving them largely intact, and damage to beaches was less than expected. Both the Ventnor and Margate piers remained standing.

In Longport, however, borough officials said that about three dozen beachfront homes sustained significant damage. Parts of Atlantic Avenue and the beach blocks were covered with a foot of sand, and in many beachfront homes the ground-floor glass doors and windows had been torn away, leaving rooms wide open to the surging sea.

In several homes, the water had carried furniture to the far end of the house, plywood and deck fragments sloshed about, and curtains and broken doors shuddered in the wind.

"The first floors are toast," said a fire official.

But City Engineer Dick Carter said that despite the devastation to individual properties, the city had "dodged a major bullet."

Homes with dune protection, a feature resisted by many homeowners because dunes block views, escaped relatively unscathed. "All these people who don't want dunes - those dunes saved us," said Lynne Baumgardner, who lives year-round in a beachfront home in Longport. "We lost half our dunes, but it saved our house."

Access to the Point, the narrow southern end of the island, was cut off because it was submerged.

Only one homeowner stayed in a home on the Point: Marvin Ashner, 76, who lives in the home with the Blues Brothers statues nearby. He said his first floor was ruined by surging tides Sunday night, well before the storm's landfall.

"Plywood over double-pane glass doesn't mean anything," he said. "The water knocked out the plywood, the glass, the interior glass, and everything on the first floor has been ruined. But nobody got hurt."

Ocean City's two sewage-treatment stations were still not operational late Tuesday, many streets were still flooded, and there had been massive beach erosion.

Public-works crews were driving the streets and collecting debris, which included landscaping railroad ties, flower urns, barbecue grills, and lawn chairs. Gillian said that ocean waves had met bay currents overnight and flooded the entire island with two to seven feet of water at the height of the storm.

Most of the town's 10,000 year-around residents had evacuated the eight-mile-long barrier island. More than 100 went to a county-operated shelter set up on the mainland in Upper Township and about 30 stayed in a city-run shelter at Ocean City High School.

The wife of former Flyers star Rick MacLeish reported that she and her husband stayed in their Ocean City home through the storm without incident, but that when she opened a ground-floor door Tuesday morning, about four feet of water poured in along with "a big minnow."

Christie's decision that access to barrier islands would remain closed at least until Wednesday rankled some residents waiting to get back into Stone Harbor on Tuesday.

Several decided to leave their cars on the side of the road and walk across the bridge to their homes.

"We were told by the town we could get back in," Dianne Wade said. "I don't understand what the problem is."

Both Avalon and Stone Harbor saw little damage, which local officials credited to an Army Corps of Engineers project that rebuilt the dunes more than a decade ago.

"It did what it was supposed to do," Cape May County Emergency Management Director Marin Pagliughy said. "The waves never got over the dunes and into the streets."

Sea Isle City was not so lucky. The storm surge washed over the beach, putting some sections under four feet of water. "A whole fishing pier got moved 50, maybe 60, feet," said Mayor Leonard Desiderio.

In Margate, which has no dunes or boardwalk, Sandy left some beach blocks covered with sand. Public-works crews used a bulldozer to clear sand from Atlantic Avenue, leaving it in piles.

Members of the public-works crew said the Atlantic met the bay in Margate on Monday night, and debris from decks, fencing, gutters, and trash cans was scattered along beach blocks.

Shopkeepers reported a foot or more of water in stores along Ventnor Avenue, but the main roads through both towns were dry Tuesday morning.

On Newport Avenue, Fire Chief John Hazlett cleared dune fencing from the Boardwalk and opined that the storm damage was not as bad as feared. "The beach looks pretty good," he said. "The dunes worked."

Hazlett said his firefighters responded to two car fires overnight in flooded Ventnor Heights, and traveled the streets in open aluminum boats and a front-end loader typically used to shape dunes.

Firefighter Joseph Callahan said he had to dive into waist-deep floodwater to hook up a fire hose at the scene of one fire. "All those years of body surfing come in handy," Hazlett joked.

Towns along the eastern shore of Cape May were still flooded Tuesday morning as authorities began to assess the extent of the damage.

Middle Township Mayor Dan Lockwood said storm surges and high winds had knocked down homes on both sides of the peninsula and neighborhoods remained under as much as three feet of water.

"It was as bad as we thought it was going to be," he said.

In Ocean City, despite the mess - the yards of some homes were covered in piles of sand, seaweed, and debris left by the receded floodwaters while houses next door seemed unscathed - some longtime residents put the event into perspective.

"It's worse than the 1992 storm, but not as bad as '62," said Mary Anne Johnson, 60, who has lived in the south end of the Ocean City her entire life. She said she remembers well the infamous Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 - the yardstick by which most modern weather events along the Shore are measured.

"Homes floated out to sea and it was very scary. This wasn't like that at all," said Johnson, recalling how homes and big hotels looked like tipped-over wedding cakes as they toppled and slid under the waves then.

And it was that storm, which struck March 6, 1962, that left only the long deck of the fabled 59th Street fishing pier extending at the water's edge like a tall spider skeleton for decades. It was never rebuilt. By the time Sandy had finished her work, a few pilings sticking out of the waves were all that was left of the old pier Tuesday.

"That was one of the reminders of '62 - an icon, really. Lots of people took pictures of it . . . artists painted it. But it's just gone," remarked Laurie Howey, a spokeswoman for Ocean City.

Mariann Storr, who evacuated from Brigantine with her two girls and two boys but said her husband stayed behind, said the island was devastated by water damage.

"The neighbor's floating dock was in the yard between us," she said Monday morning. "A lot of water damage. A friend said her whole downstairs was devastated with water. There was water up to the mailboxes. The water in Brigantine is unbelievable."

She said authorities were telling people it would 10 to 15 days without power in Brigantine. Storr said she was told authorities had turned the power off at the substation to prevent transformer fires. "It's a mess," she said.

Still, as the eye of the storm passed over Brigantine there was an unannounced calm. Her husband, Scott, she said, "took a picture of what he said was the eye. The moon was out, the stars were out. It was incredible."


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers James Osborne, Suzette Parmley, Aubrey Whelan, and Sam Carchidi.

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