Ronnie Rinker’s Suffolk Avenue house in Ventnor was swamped by more than 3 feet of water during Hurricane Sandy.
As he waits for construction crews to repair his gutted home, a process that could take months, Rinker bides time in a room at the Courtyard by Marriott in Atlantic City.
“It’s comfortable and cozy, but it’s just not Ventnor. I’d like to be at my home,” the 51-year-old said.
He’s not alone. Up and down the New Jersey shore, hundreds of residents displaced by the Oct. 29 hurricane have been finding refuge at local hotels, relying on vouchers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The misery and damage inflicted by Sandy have been huge, but the hurricane has given some hotels a surprising boost in business during a normally slow time of year.
“Although we were really hurting in November, we’re starting to make it up in December,” said Deneen White, director of sales and marketing at Courtyard by Marriott, a 206-room hotel.
White said 25 rooms at the Marriott are filled by displaced residents who have FEMA vouchers. Additional Marriott rooms have been occupied by FEMA employees or utility workers who are helping with hurricane repairs or relief efforts.
However, the latest FEMA vouchers are scheduled to expire Wednesday. Last month, FEMA said about 800 people in Atlantic County were living in hotels. Once the vouchers expire, evacuees may have to use FEMA rental assistance, insurance benefits or their own money to stay in hotels, the agency said.
Howard Bacharach, executive director of the Atlantic City Hotel & Lodging Association, said FEMA contacted his group immediately after the storm for a list of hotels that could accept evacuees and FEMA workers.
“I know it was the case during the storm,” Bacharach said of the extra hurricane-related business generated for Atlantic City’s hotels.
Some of the hotels in Atlantic County’s offshore communities have also benefited from the storm by housing evacuees, White said.
John Cooke, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May, said he was unaware of any Cape May hotels getting a bump in post-Sandy business. Cooke also is the manager of the Victorian Motel in Cape May.
Gary McGhee, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Hotel & Motel Association, could not be reached for comment.
The Courtyard by Marriott lost electricity and was closed for a week after the hurricane slammed into the New Jersey coast. Slowly, the Marriott limped back into business. Now, the hotel is starting to recoup its losses by putting up FEMA guests and utility workers.
“So right after Sandy and in November, it hurt us in a bad way. Then we had a few big utilities come in and spend a couple of nights to soften the blow,” said Brian Sena, sales manager for the Marriott.
Shortly after reopening, the Marriott had guests in about 10 percent to 15 percent of its rooms. Lately, the occupancy level has climbed to about 50 percent, although room rates remain depressed, White said.
Facing the prospect of a bleak winter, The Chelsea hotel in Atlantic City scaled back operations in early October so that it was open only Thursday through Sunday on most weeks. But after the hurricane, the Chelsea resumed a full schedule to accommodate guests displaced by the storm.
“The Chelsea was happy to welcome New Jersey residents who have been displaced following Sandy,” said Francesca Santoro, the hotel’s general manager. “What these people have been through, losing their homes and possessions, is heartbreaking. We are glad the Chelsea was able to back up the state and help our neighbors by providing temporary shelter as they try to rebuild their homes or find other housing.”
Rinker was a guest at The Chelsea before his first FEMA voucher expired. Lacking the money to stay, he left. By chance, Rinker met White at the Atlantic City Bar & Grill, which is across the street from the Marriott.
“I saw a tear running down his cheek, and I said, ‘You’re coming with me,’” White recalled of Rinker’s story of becoming homeless.
At first, White said she allowed Rinker to stay at the Marriott for free.
“She’s a sweetheart,” Rinker said of White. “I’m very appreciative. Everyone at this hotel has been very good to me.”
Later, FEMA extended more than 2,800 housing vouchers to Dec. 12, giving Rinker the ability to pay the Marriott.
Now, Rinker is waiting to see what will happen after the most recent vouchers expire Wednesday. A bartender, Rinker said he has been struggling financially ever since his employer, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, cut back on his hours.
“It’s been a very rough road,” he said.
Rinker said he is waiting to meet with his insurance company to discuss an estimated $140,000 in damage to his house. He expects to be homeless until work crews complete the repairs, possibly months from now.
White, however, told Rinker not to worry about having a room at the Marriott.
“I’m not kicking him out,” she said.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: