“Oh, it’s good to be outside. God really blessed Atlantic City,” Sonja Estrada said Sunday afternoon as she took her first breaths of fresh air outside the school that had been her shelter the night before.

Estrada, an Atlantic City resident, was one of about 170 people who called Galloway Township’s Roland Rogers Elementary School home Saturday night as Hurricane Irene passed by. Having nowhere else to go, Estrada said she was grateful for the assistance and even more grateful that she would get to return to the city sooner than she expected.

http://pressofac.mycapture.com/mycapture/enlarge.asp?image=37427280&event=1310755&CategoryID=7628"> Click here for a photo gallery of the evacuees and the hurricane

“It was an experience,” she said. “I’m glad we left, and I’m glad it’s over.”

Shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday, the mandatory evacuation in place for Atlantic County’s barrier islands — including Atlantic City and all areas east of Route 9 — was lifted.

In an afternoon news conference, Gov. Chris Christie said the process of returning residents to their homes would begin with the evacuees taken to Rowan University in Glassboro, Gloucester County. Some of the county’s residents were bused as far away as Rutgers University.

At Roland Rogers, a mix of school buses and county vehicles arrived shortly before 1:30 p.m. Within 15 minutes, volunteers began helping disabled evacuees onto shuttles. Soon, others toting backpacks, duffle bags and rolling luggage began boarding the buses.

Those who evacuated from Atlantic City would be brought back to the city’s Convention Center and from there would board school buses and jitneys taking them back to their homes, police Sgt. Monica McMenamin said

“Hallelujah! Praise Jesus, we made it,” one woman said throwing her hands in the air as she boarded a bus.

Art Masker, Roland Rogers shelter director for the American Red Cross, originally expected evacuees to be based at the shelter for as many as three or four days. Things went exceptionally well in the one night the shelter was used, he said.

“There were no emergency incidents. We never lost power, and people remained calm,” said Masker, of Brigantine. “It was a best-case scenario.”

The only disruption came around 9 p.m. Saturday when Galloway was under a tornado watch. Masker said the evacuees, who were spread out across classrooms and the gymnasium, were gathered into a single room away from windows until the warning passed.

None of the commotion bothered Atlantic City resident Joan Smith, who drove herself to Roland Rogers School when she evacuated the city. She said the evacuation effort was well organized and the volunteers kept everyone informed of what was going on.

“I lost a hat I brought here somewhere along the way, but that’s all,” Smith said.

On Sunday afternoon, another 400 evacuees — primarily from the Atlantic City Rescue Mission — were also preparing to return to the city, Rescue Mission President Bill Southrey said. The group evacuated people Saturday afternoon to the Bethel Christian School on N. Genoa Road in Galloway.

Not all evacuees were able to return home Sunday night. Residents of Meadowview Nursing Home, Atlantic County’s nursing home located in Northfield, would not return until Monday morning, administrator Michelle Savage said.

About 175 nursing-home residents were moved to the Atlantic County Special Services School in Mays Landing on Friday morning with plans to stay there until Monday morning.

“We thought it would be safer to wait until everything passed, so this was our plan from the start,” Savage said.

County emergency management officials surveyed the nursing home Sunday and assured Savage it would be safe for the residents to return, she said.

Contact Jennifer Bogdan