Beth DiCioccio fought back tears Wednesday as she stood among her family’s living room couch, wooden shelves, stacks of utensils, treadmill, surf boards — all of it water-logged and crammed into her backyard.
“It’s ruined. It’s saltwater, black mud,” DiCioccio, 51, said before her voice broke and she turned away and walked inside her home of 23 years in Atlantic City’s Chelsea Heights section. “It’s awful — your whole life, in one time, is gone.”
The mother of two found little comfort there. During the peak of Hurricane Sandy, 41 inches of water flooded her family’s home, damaging all the major appliances and destroying the floors.
Described as the worst in at least a half century, the storm’s intense winds twisted traffic poles, splintered the weakest, most susceptible part of the Atlantic City Boardwalk and knocked out power to many residents who still didn’t have it back Wednesday. Concerns about Sandy’s intensity forced the second known mandatory evacuation of Absecon Island in history and shut down local casinos for the third time since they opened in 1978.
The effects on residents, however, have not yet been fully realized because an estimated 83 percent of the city’s 40,000 people left as ordered by 4 p.m. Sunday — and could not return because the main routes into the resort remained closed. On Wednesday morning, the last five miles of the Atlantic City Expressway were passable for the first time in two days. Authorities, however, continued to limit traffic there and on the two causeways to the resort — Routes 30 and 40 — to essential personnel, such as police officers, firefighters and other first responders.
Gov. Chris Christie asked for patience and resilience from New Jersey residents during a livestreamed press conference Thursday.
“We want to return normalcy to New Jersey as quickly as we can,” Christie said. “This is the biggest storm New Jersey has ever faced. I’m confident (that by) working together, we’ll be able to confront these challenges. I’m asking for patience this week because I don’t have much.”
He said, however, that of 463 roads closed during the storm, only 20 had not yet reopened.
And three of them were the main entries into Atlantic City.
“Not everyone can get back to their house, which is probably filled with mud that’s getting harder every day. And they can’t get home because Gov. Christie won’t open the roads,” DiCioccio said.
Chelsea Heights is separated from the rest of the island by a narrow bay channel — one of three sides bordered by water. Other houses bordering the bay are likely to suffer similar damage to DiCioccio’s, given flooding as deep as eight feet in the resort, Atlantic City Fire Chief Dennis Brooks has said.
Originally, city officials expected to reopen the city Wednesday. In the hours leading up to Sandy’s landfall Monday night, their prediction changed to today. Once floods receded Tuesday, however, they said they couldn’t commit to a date. That stance didn’t change Wednesday. Casino operators meanwhile stated they hope to resume operations Friday.
Public Safety Director Will Glass expected to know more today. Atlantic City police Capt. Frank Brennan said it was the “governor’s call,” echoing city officials’ previous statements that the state will determine when roads are fully accessible again and when the city would reopen.
The residents who did not wait, however, “are just crushed” by what they’re finding upon their return, 6th Ward Councilman Tim Mancuso said Wednesday.
And regardless of property damage, no one can drink tap water in the resort until results — expected today — assuage concerns that Sandy caused a breach of the water supply. In the meantime, people must boil tap water for three minutes before using it for drinking or cooking, according to an Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority advisory issued Tuesday.
The storm made potential contamination an issue for drinking water supplies statewide, so Christie issued an executive order Wednesday prohibiting using water for landscaping and washing sidewalks and cars, and urging conservation for bathing and other uses.
If tests indicate water will be undrinkable for an extended duration, Atlantic City residents will have access to water through distribution points, Office of Emergency Management Director Tom Foley said.
Some local businesses reopened Wednesday, allowing people to buy bottled water, food, cigarettes, batteries and meet other needs they considered essential.
The Seven-11 near Morris and Atlantic avenues was among the first back in business Wednesday morning. More than a dozen convenience stores opened over the course of the day, drawing people in droves to stock up.
Junior Barsoom, manager of the Venus Food Market location within Lighthouse Plaza on Atlantic between Vermont and Connecticut avenues, said his business Wednesday was double its normal volume.
Barsoom also discounted items between 10 and 15 percent, in part because downed phone lines prevented him from running credit cards and customers from using the ATM.
People treated one another kindly, exchanging quiet greetings and small smiles as they waited patiently in long lines.
One exception, however, was a man who attempted to steal food from the shelves inside the Morris Avenue Seven-11. He was chased out by a worker taking inventory.
“C’mon, man,” the would-be thief complained as he slunk out of the store.
In the store’s atrium, people lined up for access to a power outlet where they stood charging their phones two at a time.
One was Alvin Moore, a 62-year-old commercial fisherman who traveled from his home in Cape May to ride out the storm with his granddaughter in her Atlantic City apartment.
Moore was angry because he felt the evacuation was unnecessary — simply a revenue generator for the government, he said.
“They’re going to get new cars, new equipment, overtime,” Moore said. “I’m not going to get a penny for my food that went bad, or anything else.”
Moore was one of many whose car was flooded out during the storm.
The DiCioccio family, however, was spared that expense because they parked their cars in a casino parking garage and avoided the potential tickets and towing fees they risked by doing so.
Beth DiCioccio’s husband, Richard, was choked up as the couple spoke to their neighbors.
“Thank God for my brother and sister-in-law, and my boys — they were amazing,” Richard DiCioccio said.
The couple seemed relieved and heartened by their children Nick, 17, and Rich, 21, and their steady, optimistic resolve. That resilience the governor spoke of.
“I know my parents are really upset, but it’s just new Sheetrock and floors,” Rich DiCioccio said. “I can (replace) that, do the whole living room, for just a couple hundred dollars.”
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