EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Sunny Patel holds a handkerchief to his nose as he walks the perimeter of the Golden Key Motel, each door he opens revealing a diorama of destruction.
“We lost everything, everything,” mutters Patel, 68, who lived at the West Atlantic City motel he has owned since 1975.
Using his shoulder for leverage, he forces his way through one of the crimson doors whose lock was broken amid the chaos of Hurricane Sandy. Inside, floodwaters did their own redecorating: The night stands huddle together in the corner, the bed is perpendicular to the door, the TV rests screen-down on the floor.
A pair of blue jeans sits on the edge of the bed, laid out waiting for its owner to return. Moldy shirts and sweaters hang in the closet. The remnants of a McDonald’s meal — wrinkled, sun-faded bags and a jumbo paper cup — are strewn across the soggy floor. They are the remnants of a life interrupted, a guest who missed check-out.
“I have no idea where they went to,” Patel says of his guests, some of whom lived there long-term because $20 a night was all they could afford for shelter, even before the storm uprooted them.
Some left before the storm, and some were rescued in the middle of the night by firefighters when the waters of Lakes Bay crossed the Black Horse Pike and rose 5 feet inside the old motels.
None is likely to return.
The storm displaced potentially hundreds of low-income tenants who lived in the motels on a semi-permanent basis. Despite being an area known for drug use and crime — the bodies of four prostitutes were found near there in 2006 — the old motels doubled as affordable housing in an area with few alternatives.
Their closing means that about 250 potential rooms are off the market, which could cause a ripple effect across the region.
“It’s certainly going to increase the pressure on the shelters that are available,” said Tom Davidson, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission’s director of development.
Since the storm, Davidson said, people who were displaced from apartments have used the mission and similar shelters as a “landing point” as they search for alternative housing.
At the time of the storm, Atlantic County was funding about 25 people in the West Atlantic City motels through the various housing assistance programs it administers.
County Administrator Gerald Del Rosso said the four families in that group have since been placed in permanent housing through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Finding shelter for the other 13 single people has been more of a challenge, because housing is scarce and more support programs are geared to families, he said.
Some have been put up in motels on the White Horse Pike. Others may end up in motels in Atlantic City that weren’t affected by flooding.
“That’s what happens when there’s not much housing,” Del Rosso said. “We use the best resources we have at the time.
“What happens when you lose a potential source of housing, that makes it a bit more difficult to place (people),” he added.
Del Rosso said it’s more difficult to track the other low-income people who lived in the West Atlantic City motels. The ones who already qualify for general assistance would know to go to the county, he said.
Sandy could have the indirect effect of cleaning up what has been a high-crime area of Egg Harbor Township.
Officials have long pushed for redevelopment in the area between Atlantic City and Pleasantville, but those efforts have been hampered by the recession.
“You have crime, a lot of narcotics arrests and prostitution arrests,” said Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough. “That’s not an atmosphere you want a family around.”
McCullough said he’s unaware of any developers lining up, but it is possible the storm could clear the way for that.
“(The current owners) would have to get fair market value for their properties,” he said. “But, if they’re not habitable, they’re not going to bring in a very good dollar.”
One recent change that could clear the way for redevelopment is the state’s redesignation of 160 acres of West Atlantic City.
Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the previous map erroneously designated the land — most of which was already built upon — as “environmentally sensitive.”
The change means undeveloped tracts not subject to DEP regulations could be developed with less stringent impervious-cover requirements, he said.
For now, many motel owners are unsure when they’ll be able to reopen or how much their insurance policies will cover. Construction commenced almost immediately after the storm at many of the motels, but they are still deemed uninhabitable by the township due to electrical and other problems.
“I have no idea what they’re going to give for the recovery,” Fortune Inn owner Haresh Mak said. His insurance will not cover the furnishings inside the rooms, he said. “I can’t say anything about damage, what they count for depreciation. I don’t know right now.”
Mak, who has overseen the motel for 13 years and also lived behind the office, said he’s applied for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency but hasn’t heard back.
“Right now, the building is closed completely,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re waiting for the next step. But we have family, we have a place to stay. It’s not like we’re on the road.”
Patel said he had 10 people at the motel when the storm brought the highest water he has seen in 29 years. All of them are safe, he said, but he doesn’t know where they went. He’s living with family in Galloway Township.
Like many of the motel owners, Patel — who also owns the neighboring Star Motel — can only clean the rooms and throw away the water-logged furniture, and hope that insurance will help him start anew.
“We have insurance,” he said. “We don’t know how much they are to give us, but we need help.”
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