Life on Atlantic County’s barrier islands Wednesday mixed scenes of devastation and restoration.
In both the north end of Brigantine and in the island town farthest south, Longport, sand was piled 6 to 8 feet high in main streets. Whole blocks of Longport’s Atlantic Avenue were lined by banks of sand. In Brigantine, part of Brigantine Avenue was cut down to one lane by mounds of sand on both sides of the street.
A few blocks toward Atlantic City, sand was also piled up all over the floors — and the windows, and the bars — of the Laguna Grill & Rum Bar.
Co-owner Tony Bruno walked out a door that used to go six steps down toward the beach. As he and his partner, Rip Reynolds, looked at their place Wednesday, the floor of the bar and the beach were right at the same level.
“We bought it last year, and we spent a ton of money remodeling,” said Bruno, estimating the total cost at more than $400,000. “That’s all shot now.”
Bars and serving stations were knocked over and bottles were tossed around the floor, but the owners said they couldn’t clean anything up until after insurance adjusters get there to see the damage too. But parts of their equipment got moved farther still.
“I think they found one of our stools down at City Hall,” Bruno said — a long block and probably a few hundred yards away.
Next door to City Hall, water from Monday’s storm surrounded but didn’t flood the Brigantine Fire Department’s firehouse. Capt. Joe Maguire remembered “water rushing like a river this way,” down Brigantine Avenue, past the firehouse. “And then the tide switched, and the water was rushing like a river the other way.”
Acting Fire Chief Jim Holl gave a reporter a tour of the island — which was preparing for a rare visit from President Barack Obama.
At both the north and south ends of the island, Holl showed off mounds of sand that the storm called Sandy had pushed off the beach and into the streets. Some streets were still covered in water in places where Holl had never seen flooding in 50 years of living in Brigantine — and that was after a day and a half of heroic work by the town’s public works crews, he said.
“They’ve been working hard to get this all cleaned up,” he said, later showing off places where snowplows cleared the sand, and street-sweepers had even come by to clean up the leftovers.
The chief said he stopped counting Monday after his firefighters rescued 107 people who had decided to ride out the storm on the island — until after they saw how serious Sandy actually was. Then, they called for help.
But not long after he called off any more rescues because it was putting firefighters’ lives in danger — and Atlantic County’s Emergency Management Office did the same — two fires broke out at opposite ends of the island, but in the middle of the storm.
The cause of both was the same, Holl said: Saltwater got in the wires of cars that were parked too close to houses. And when the water sparked fires in the wiring, the cars caught the houses on fire.
The chief said his department lost two trucks that were heading to those fires. But he defended the decision to go out in the storm to fight the fires, saying that the houses were so close to their neighbors, firefighters were concerned that they could lose two entire blocks of the city if they didn’t get the fires out.
If he sees a bright side in Sandy’s pass through his hometown, it’s that Holl believes that more people will believe warnings about future storms.
Hurricane “Irene did not help us” last year, with its near-miss after days of warnings and a mandatory evacuation of all local barrier islands. “The public perception (of Sandy) was, ‘We’ve heard this all before.’ But the upside is that there’s another generation of people who will have a memory of, ‘Here’s why we have to get out.’“
That skepticism about the evacuations extended to his own family, he said.
“My parents didn’t want to go. My wife and kids didn’t want to go. My sister didn’t want to go,” he said.
But the fire chief overruled all those votes. And when a 40-foot-plus tree was uprooted —despite roots almost half that size — and fell on his parents’ property, the family understood why evacuating was necessary.
On Sixth Street North, Barbara Wiener stayed through the storm and saw something she’d never seen before.
“There was no Brigantine Avenue,” she said, because the whole main drag was covered with sand. “It’s just like the whole beach came over Brigantine Avenue. So we were joking we now have beachfront property.”
She and her father, Norm, were cleaning the beach off their neighboring properties, and off the street in front of the homes of neighbors who couldn’t get there to help themselves. Barbara picked up a 10-foot piece of siding that blew off a friend’s house and took it out to throw away.
“The neighbors are all working together now,” Norm Wiener said, adding that compared to people just a block or so away, their damage was minimal from Sandy.
On some houses down the street, the water line was at least 4 feet up onto the outside walls. The street itself was covered and coated with a thick, mucky mess of sand and mud and water.
But over in Atlantic City, a bit of normal life was returning. Tony’s Baltimore Grill still had its windows boarded up — but it had signs spray-painted on them, “We’re open.”
A few blocks away, near the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, the 7Eleven was open for business — with one small but disappointing caveat.
“They told us, ‘Don’t make coffee,’” said Jay Patel, an owner. So food was the big seller, added Patel, who was able to open his convenience store about 7 a.m. Wednesday.
And right across the street at Dunkin’ Donuts, the lights were on — which fooled a steady stream of unhappy customers, because the doors were also locked up tight.
Very few businesses on the islands were open, though. While the 7Eleven was doing a steady business all day, the Wawa in Margate had its parking lot lined with yellow emergency tape. The only people going in and out were cleanup workers in high boots.
And at Casel’s Marketplace in Margate, Howard Seiden, the supermarket owner, said he can’t even start to clean up yet, because he can’t get workers onto an island that’s still an emergency zone.
“It’s a mess — a worst-case scenario,” he said of his store.
“I have to clean up, throw out and restock,” Seined said Wednesday. “The earliest I expect we’ll be able to open again is maybe a week from Friday.”
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