Boxed Christmas decorations, picture frames and other valuables Sabina M. Walsh had gathered over her 45 years in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City were strewn across her yard Saturday morning as she tried to piece her life back together.
Hurricane Sandy’s unrelenting flood waters, more than 2 feet deep, had swept through the first floor of the 72-year-old’s home, wrecking hardwood floors, her deck and nearly every appliance and piece of furniture she owned. Outside next to boxes, salvageable clothes were hung around the perimeter of her North Richmond Avenue home, in an attempt to save them from mold.
“I lost everything. My walls are caving in. The floors are gone. The deck is gone ... everything,” Walsh said.
Minutes later, Walsh’s daughter, Elaine, also a Chelsea Heights resident, arrived and collapsed tearfully into her mother’s arms.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Mom. There’s nothing left,” she said.
Atlantic City shut down for five days due to the storm, marking just the second evacuation in resort history. Residents were allowed to return to their homes Friday, and many found exactly what they had feared.
“They’re finding total devastation,” City Councilman George Tibbitt said. “But everyone’s helping each other out. It’s inspiring to see the … community joining together.”
City Public Works crews have helped with the cleanup that’s striking many residents on their first day back as an insurmountable task.
The city placed seven trash bins citywide Friday to manage the massive amounts of waterlogged belongings people must throw away. On Saturday, Public Works Director Paul Jerkins dispatched nine trucks to empty all of the bins, starting with Tibbitt’s Chelsea Heights neighborhood and working their way through the city.
But that did little to comfort Walsh, who questioned how residents, especially older residents who might not have help, were supposed to reach the trash bins at all. Instead, Walsh paid $400 to rent a bin Friday. By Saturday, the idea of getting debris to the public trash bins seemed difficult, especially because local convenience and grocery stores were quickly selling out of trash bags.
“There’s nobody around to help, to bring water or trash bags or anything. I just feel like there should be more help. We’re being ignored,” Walsh said.
While the Chelsea Heights and Lower Chelsea neighborhoods suffered some of the most debilitating flood damage from Sandy, neighborhoods throughout the city struggled with cleanup Saturday. Meanwhile, traffic lights remained out throughout the city, only complicating the situation. On Atlantic Avenue, every light between Ohio and Vermont avenues — nearly a 1-mile stretch — remained dark.
Sand rendered sections of some roads impassable in the South Inlet section of the city. There, residents who had returned to their homes were anxious to see debris removed from their streets.
Kasha Joyce, who has lived on Oriental Avenue for two years, was frustrated to see other streets cleared while piles of destroyed mattresses and furniture were left in front of her home. Meanwhile, people parked vehicles near her home and trekked through shattered glass, brick and concrete slabs to get closer to the section of Boardwalk demolished in the hurricane.
“No one’s coming by to clean this up, but people keep coming through, going up to the Boardwalk to take pictures like it’s a tourist attraction or something,” she said.
Not far away, car after car arrived at the northernmost point of Atlantic Avenue, where residents and visitors climbed mounds of sand several feet high to get a glimpse of where the section of Boardwalk that had been crumbling for 30 years used to be. Many got out and took pictures of themselves standing in front of the devastation.
Sisters Tiele and Tracy Davis, of Alexandria, Va., spent Saturday afternoon at their mother’s Gramercy Avenue home in the city’s Northeast Inlet section trying to clean out a flooded garage full of Christmas decorations, beach chairs and other items in storage. They discovered the latest casualty of the storm was a family heirloom — a 60-year-old stereo system.
“I’ve never seen damage like this,” said Tiele Davis, who was raised in the city. “When we were kids ... we’d see water come trickling down the street. We’d yell, ‘Dad, it’s coming,’ and we’d lift all the furniture off the floors. You’re used to riding out storms here, but nothing like this.”
Meanwhile, several relief efforts have organized to help those most affected by the storm. Nearly 450 people are staying at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, and another 336 were staying at the city’s shelter set up at the Atlantic City Convention Center, according to numbers provided by officials Saturday afternoon. The mission was accepting donations by the truckload, coming from as far away as Florida, and planned to start distributing food baskets Monday.
“If people show up here and look like they’re in dire need, we’ll give them what we have now, but the plan is to start the organized effort Monday,” said Tom Davidson, the mission’s director of development. “Our plan is to get people off the street and get them in something warm.”
Help has poured in from unexpected places, Davidson said. The Piccini Wood Fired Brick Oven restaurant in Ocean City provided all of the food in its freezers after owners discovered damage at their business would keep them shuttered for months.
But not all were deterred by the destruction their homes endured. Dana D’Amico, who owns local cleaning service Dust Angels, had enlisted the help of several friends as well as her parents from Haddon Heights and Cherry Hill in Camden County to help with cleanup. Flood waters rose more than 4 feet in her Chelsea Heights home, and the floors and furniture were destroyed.
“At one point, I had a beautiful house, but it will be back,” D’Amico said. “The most important thing is we’re still here.”
Staff Writer Emily Previti contributed to this report.
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