Hurricane Irene made a historic landfall in South Jersey Sunday morning, but the category 1 storm left minimal damage throughout the area.
Irene’s 5:35 a.m. landfall near Little Egg Harbor was the first such landfall since 1903, with the National Weather Service estimating winds to be about 75 mph at the time.
The eye of the hurricane began passing through the region by about 4 a.m., with the strongest winds and rain rocking the area at low tide. Previous forecasts brought the storm’s eye by the coast during high tide and with stronger winds. While the storm was technically a hurricane when it made its pass and crossed onto land, the strongest winds were offshore, with only a small area of the coast estimated by the National Hurricane Center to have experienced hurricane-force winds.
The highest wind gust reported in the region was a gust of 71 mph just after noon Sunday in Cape May. Winds nearing 70 mph were recorded in Tuckerton and Ocean City, the National Weather Service said. No data for downtown Atlantic City was available Sunday.
The hurricane warning that had been in effect since Friday afternoon was canceled about 11 a.m. and replaced with a tropical-storm warning as the last bands of wind and rain moved through the area. By early afternoon, the sun had re-emerged in most places, although heavy winds still buffeted the area.
National Hurricane Center Director Bill Reed said during a news conference that forecasters expected the storm would maintain its strength and even increase in intensity as it left the Bahamas late last week because the center was still over very warm water.
“That didn’t happen. In fact, it weakened some,” he said.
Forecasters were still analyzing data to better understand the storm’s dynamics, but Reed said that when Irene re-emerged over open water after making landfall in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the center never was far from land. That kept it from intensifying before making its second landfall near Little Egg Harbor.
Hurricanes typically need warm water that’s at least 200 feet deep for the storm to maintain or increase intensity.
Atlantic City Electric reported more than 100,000 customers were without power. But most places on Absecon Island and other barrier islands never lost electricity, while many areas on the mainland — where evacuees were sent — were in the dark.
“The irony of it is so many people from the barrier islands that have second homes here were evacuated, went home to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania counties that were hit far worse than Margate or Longport,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said.
Mandatory evacuation orders for the shore communities and Cape May County were lifted by early afternoon, and residents were allowed to return to their homes after Gov. Chris Christie lifted a statewide travel ban. Tolls remained suspended on Cape May County bridges until this morning, and New Jersey Transit service remained suspended statewide Sunday.
Atlantic County estimated that 75,000 people evacuated the islands and low-lying mainland communities out of a possible 100,000 in the area, spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said in a news release.
Forecasters had predicted a storm surge of three to six feet on top of the tide. But due to Sunday’s new moon, the low tide was much lower than average, so the wall of water pushed along the coast and into the bays ultimately was no higher during the storm’s peak than a typical high tide.
That’s not to say there wasn’t damage. Trees fell on houses, trees and downed wires blocked area roadways and the heavy rain caused other roads to flood. Beach erosion in many areas was significant, but not as severe as expected.
Significant river flooding is expected along the inland areas. Area officials are watching the waters rise on the upper reaches of the Great Egg Harbor and Mullica rivers in Atlantic County and the Cohansey and Maurice rivers in Cumberland County.
The Cohansey River crested Sunday just above 8 feet — more than 2 feet above flood stage — and the Maurice River was still rising as of 5 p.m. Sunday, already two feet above flood stage, a U.S. Geological Survey stream monitoring website showed.
Gilmore warned residents that water levels continue to rise, causing more potential flooding. However, she said there had been no reports of fatalities, serious injuries, or structural damage related to Irene in the county.
Atlantic City’s 11 casinos also reported no significant damage, and Tom Foley, director of the city Office of Emergency Management, hoped to get most evacuees back in their homes by Sunday night.
Irene also brought the threat of tornados Saturday evening as numerous warnings were issued about 9 p.m. for all counties based on radar imagery. None of the tornados was confirmed by the National Weather Service.
Maria Leonard, who lives on Shunpike Road near Shell Bay Avenue in Cape May Court House, said her house never lost power during the storm. She drove several people who sought shelter at her house back to their Stone Harbor home and said there were no real signs of major damage.
“I think most people who stayed home, they probably would say that they didn’t need to order the evacuations,” Leonard said. “But you don’t want to find that out the hard way.”
Residents streamed back into Cape May County after the county’s first-ever mandatory evacuation. Residents and businesses returned to find little damage except some beach erosion and minor property damage.
Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno toured New Jersey by helicopter, touching down in Avalon, where they surveyed potential damage and looked for beach erosion with Avalon Mayor Marty Pagliughi.
In Ocean County, low-lying areas experienced minor flooding, and hundreds of downed trees and power outages proved annoying for thousands of county residents. The worst damage occurred in the western part of the county, where eight bridges and culverts were washed out in Jackson Township.
Cumberland County residents encountered treacherous driving conditions after the storm on some roads because of fallen trees and downed power lines. More than 50 sections of roads were either closed or covered with water although passable. Rainwater further damaged some roads that were already in disrepair from flooding after a storm earlier this month that caused about $20 million in damage.
Levinson said he surveyed Atlantic County’s damage Sunday and many residents he spoke with commented on how minor damage was compared to what they had prepared for.
“The people you talked to say, ‘Oh geez, this was overkill,’ and the rest of it was people who were almost disappointed that they didn’t lose the roof on their house,” Levinson said. “The path it was taking, the timing of it, was potentially deadly, and if we had to do it over, I don’t see anything we would be doing differently.”
However, Levinson said, he does fear that after Irene’s perceived lack of punch, residents may not take future evacuation orders seriously.
“The next time this occurs ... we don’t want to act like the state that cried wolf, when this was a very, very dangerous situation that could have been extremely, extremely disastrous and we’re lucky that it wasn’t.”
Staff Writers Steven V. Cronin, Brian Ianieri, Emily Previti, Thomas Barlas, and Wallace McKelvey contributed to this report.
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