Emergency management crews spent much of Monday rescuing people on barrier islands who thought they could weather Hurricane Sandy but realized they were in danger as flooding intensified.
Many Cape May County residents were skeptical of the government's warnings about the storm and said on Saturday and Sunday that they were not planning to evacuate. Dozens of people, if not hundreds, changed their minds Monday but were then trapped by waist-high waters blocking roads in most coastal communities.
The only vehicles that could pass some of the flooded streets were the National Guard's two-and-a-half ton cargo trucks, which were used to get people off flooded islands in Ocean City, Strathmere and Wildwood as late as an hour before Sandy made landfall.
At 4 p.m., one of the camouflaged vehicles unloaded about 20 people picked up in Ocean City, some with dogs and cats and plastic bags of clothing, at the Upper Township Middle School. The shelter was one of five in the county that had more than 500 people by Monday night.
That truck was the last to go onto the islands, crews at the shelter said, and anyone else who wanted to get off after that point would likely be trapped during the worst part of the hurricane.
"We have people calling us now, but if they're on the island at this time those [rescue] operations have been stopped," said Upper Township Emergency Management Director Robert Spiegel at about 6 p.m., roughly when the storm made landfall in Atlantic City.
Nicola Langley and her family were planning to wait out the storm, but when their first floor started filling with water they chose to flee. They trudged through knee-high water four blocks to the police department where they were picked up and taken to the mainland.
"We were waiting and then we just couldn't wait anymore," she said after signing in with the Upper Township Rescue Squad at the shelter.
As the storm approached Gov. Chris Christie and other officials warned that people refusing to evacuate put themselves and emergency responders in jeopardy.
There was at least one accident on Monday morning when a car apparently cut off a National Guard vehicle in Upper Township that then ran off the road and took out a utility pole. Spiegel said the crash caused no significant injuries.
Some of the people who were least intimidated by reports of Sandy's strength were Cape May residents, some who lived less than a block from the beach. On Monday they took pictures of ferocious waves pounding the shoreline and flooding that extended to at least New York Avenue, two blocks from the beach.
A Press of Atlantic City reporter said the canal that cuts through the tip of Cape May County looked like a whitewater river Monday afternoon, and much of Cape May City was under water.
About 14,000 Atlantic City Electric customers in Cape May County lost power before Sandy made landfall, and the company requested 3,700 field personnel from as far away as Alabama to come in and restore utilities once the storm has passed. The southern tip of the county and Ocean City were most thoroughly affected by outages.
All the shelters in the county had emergency generators. The shelters in Upper Township still had power as of 6 p.m.