In downbeach towns, if you leave, you can't come back

Tom Hewitt of Ventnor Heights with wet mattresses and beds he cleared out of his home. He is unable to get off the island.
Tom Hewitt of Ventnor Heights with wet mattresses and beds he cleared out of his home. He is unable to get off the island. (AMY S. ROSENBERG / Staff)
Posted: November 01, 2012

VENTNOR, N.J. - They are calling it the Downbeach Lockdown.

"I think it's terrible that people on the island are being held hostage," said Carla Glass, 50. "You're running out of food, running out of gas for the generators."

With roads clear and the sun out Wednesday, residents of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport who had ridden out the storm found themselves up against a surreal new challenge that began to feel almost as daunting as Sandy.

It seemed that a de facto police state had descended on Absecon Island overnight, one that yielded to nobody - except some doctors, radio DJs, media, contractors, and people with friends in law enforcement who were waved past fuming residents at the Margate Bridge in Northfield.

Residents who had stayed could leave the island but not return. With no stores open and power out for most, they were unable to go for doctors' appointments, to jobs, to get gas for generators, for medical supplies, food, and coffee, to check on businesses or get pumps for their flooded basements.

They were stopped by sheriff's deputies at checkpoints set up on the borders between towns on the island. Tuesday night, four homeland security officers - dressed in elaborate water rescue gear - went door to door ordering people to leave, taking inventory and noting who was left, telling them power would not return for weeks.

Curfews and driving bans prevented even a drive to the intrepid Ducktown Tavern for a hot meal.

"They stopped us on the Jackson border of Atlantic and asked for proof that we lived in Ventnor," said Mary Siracusa, who is the Ventnor Municipal Court judge but who dutifully showed her driver's license to get back home.

Others were warned they would be arrested. "My friend wanted to go to her home and get clothes," said Jill Cakert of Ventnor. "They said we would be arrested. I said, do they at least have warm showers in prison? They didn't crack a smile."

Those who dared to leave the island, like Glass, had to resort to subterfuge to return home. Glass and her husband were stopped in their car by police who "showed up in SUVs and got out with their batons and were threatening people with their batons: 'Move your vehicle, move your vehicle.' "

"It was absolutely horrible, like a weird, surreal movie," she said.

Instead, Glass and her 16-year-old daughter, Mary, got out and walked four miles home along the Black Horse Pike, leaving husband Andrew on the mainland.

"I can tell you, Mary and I felt we were in a spy movie because whenever we saw a police car, we ran over to the bay," Glass said.

Some people who had urgent medical needs had to find friends who were in law enforcement to escort them over city lines to meet with physicians, who could then supply them with medications. Others simply could not get back to see President Obama on their block.

Some begged for escorts from town officials, or got letters saying they were essential personnel or municipal employees. Some managed to talk their way through.

Peggy Siganos, who owns Yianni's in Ocean City, said she and her husband John (Yianni) were not allowed at first to simply travel from Margate, where they live, to check on their restaurant.

When they finally managed to get through, they found the Asbury Avenue store flooded with mold that needed immediate attention. "This is beyond frustrating," Siganos said. "They should use their discretion. If it's five teenagers with surfboards, the answer's no."

"We have a foot of water in the restaurant," she said. "We need to get to it before it starts molding out. You can assess your damage and start getting things rolling. Otherwise, the $30,000 damage becomes $100,000 worth of damage."

Tom Hewitt of Ventnor Heights, whose home was flooded, was upset that he was unable to get off the island to get a gas tank for his generator and other supplies and be allowed back on.

He was spending all day clearing the house of wet mattresses and beds.

"We're simply trying to take care of ourselves," he said. "I understand there might be times when you need to do this. This is not a police-state situation. Some of the people who didn't have damage to their homes are out raking their leaves.

"The roads are clear. Any true impediment to leaving and returning doesn't exist. If you live here and you leave, you could get a blue card or a green card or a slip of paper to use as proof to get back on."

Late in the day Wednesday, Ventnor City issued a statement saying access would be restricted as a matter of public safety. Officials said they were worried about overwhelming a sewage system running on generators. But there was still no explanation for why people who were already here could not simply leave and return.

In Atlantic City, three friends who built a little "Boy Scout campfire" in a parking lot near their condo on the Boardwalk to cook their defrosting meats got busted by the Fire Department, which first ordered them to stop but then reconsidered, 10 firefighters in a circle watching John Tregilges and Josephine Bossert finish up grilling burgers.

"The people of Atlantic City are barbecuing," a unrepentant Jenny Ryder said from her balcony. "Tell them Jenny Ryder will do it again!"

Even families that tried to take their children to dinner at Tony's Baltimore Grill on Wednesday night were turned back by sheriff's deputies at the Ventnor-Atlantic City border. "I think they're purposely doing it to drive us insane," Debbie Devlin of Margate said.

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-576-1973 or Follow on twitter @amysrosenberg.

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