ATLANTIC CITY – Businesses slowly began to reopen Tuesday, hours after Hurricane Sandy pummeled southern New Jersey with what many people described as unprecedented flooding.
At The Walk, the city’s premiere retail attraction, security guards stood watch on the sidewalks to guard against looters such as those who they said shattered a front window at the Ralph Lauren Polo store.
The guards, who did not want to be named, said floodwater apparently did not get into any of the stores, despite more than a foot of standing water swamping the Midtown section on Monday night.
The retail corridor along with most of the city remained closed to business on Tuesday. But there were some signs of activity.
People lined up inside Pizza Di Roma, where a full kitchen staff prepared hot pizzas and calzones.
Owner Red Zepalili, of Margate, said he had no intention of opening when he came to inspect his store. The wind caused tens of thousands of dollars of damage to his property, he said, and blew over his illuminated marquee sign, which dangled dangerously over the sidewalk.
“When we started to clean up, customers started coming in, so we decided we’d open,” he said.
Zepalili said he spent an anxious night waiting out the storm at his home in Margate, where floodwater crept up his porch stairs and into his garage.
“But when I saw it start to recede, I went to bed,” he said.
The storm stranded some visitors, such as New Yorker Ragu Reddy, 53, who waited out the hurricane in a city hotel. Reddy said he had come to Atlantic City to gamble and did not heed the call to evacuate. He was in Atlantic City last year when Hurricane Irene threatened the coastline as well.
"It's not my fault," he joked. "I'm stuck now. There's no public transportation."
He found a local market that was open near The Walk and stocked up on snacks. Nearby, a line 12-deep formed outside Ducktown Liquors, which let customers shop one at a time.
The U.S. Army National Guard’s 253rd Transportation Company based in Middle Township used heavy trucks to evacuate stable patients from AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s City Division.
Police would not let people return to the islands in Atlantic City, Ocean City and North Wildwood. Tons of marsh debris covered the Atlantic City Expressway, where workers used front-end loaders to gather it.
Stranded residents parked their cars at the Pleasantville exit of the expressway while they waited for authorization to return to their homes.
Many businesses remained closed in mainland communities, such as Linwood and Northfield, hampered by power outages and travel difficulties.
China May in Somers Point was a welcome sight for many diners who created a lunchtime rush, manager Wen Lu said.
Lu, 28, of Somers Point, said he lost power at his home but was relieved to find little serious damage on his way to work.
“So far we’re pretty busy making delivers. Everyone is hungry,” he said.
Ocean City saw flooding that some people likened to the 1962 storm that changed the geography of the island.
Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Director Michele Gillian said the damage to businesses on Asbury Avenue and the Boardwalk was hard to fathom.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “It has been devastating for Asbury Avenue and parts of the Boardwalk. We really got hammered on the beach. The length of the storm was hard for Ocean City to take. I know Atlantic City and Sea Isle had similar concerns. But we got consistently hit for 24 to 48 hours.”
Cape May County businesses were crippled financially by Hurricane Irene in 2011, which caused little property damage in southern New Jersey but forced evacuations that cut into two prime tourism vacation weeks in August.
But Gillian said this storm’s physical damage will eclipse the losses that businesses on the island incurred last year.
“It’s going to be a trying process for them. They’ll need to rebuild their businesses,” she said. “Small business is the backbone of the country, but it’s the most vulnerable. They’re not guaranteed an income when it washes out the door.”