WILDWOOD — While Tamera Santana desperately wants to return to Seaside Heights, she anxiously awaited a phone call Wednesday from FEMA that would extend her stay at the Esplanade Suites.
The hotel on East Taylor Avenue has become her only home for the past week. Her first-floor apartment in Seaside Heights, around the corner from the infamous beach house on MTV's "Jersey Shore," was left in ruins by Superstorm Sandy.
She said her room at Esplanade Suites is comfortable, but an uncertain future keeps her up at night.
"I haven't been able to sleep since I've been here," she said. "I still have nightmares."
Her eyes welled up as she spoke, the rising volume of her voice evidence of frustration. Her friend Dawn Eckhardt, also a Seaside Heights evacuee staying in Wildwood, put her hand on Santana’s leg.
"God's not going to move us backwards," Eckhardt said. "He's going to move us forward."
The women are two of the hundreds of people staying at 15 different Wildwood hotels and motels that registered with FEMA to provide transitional sheltering assistance. More than 70 establishments in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties have registered to shelter people who still cannot return home.
As of Wednesday morning even more people were moving into hotel rooms on the island, while those already there were hoping to have their stays extended by FEMA to the end of the month.
Many of the people who came to Wildwood were bused from a shelter at Toms River High School North. When the shelter had to close so that school could reopen, and hotels in the area were already filled, they traveled 84 miles down the Garden State Parkway.
Before the storm, Wildwood had a lot of similarities to Seaside Heights; both were famous resorts anchored by boardwalk amusements and crowded bars. Afterward, there is no comparison.
Since Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, the storm's worst effects have been seen to the north of Absecon Island. Homes in Longport and Ocean City were flooded and filled with debris, but homes on Long Beach Island and the Barnegat Peninsula, where Seaside Heights, Lavallette, Mantoloking and other towns are located, were swept off their foundations. Many of those towns will not be fully restored or reopened for people to stay for months.
The Esplanade had less than a foot of flooding, which only affected its garage. Piles of debris caved in the garage door, but no rooms were affected.
"You know, God works in mysterious ways," Maintenance Supervisor Ken Anderson said as he pointed out that no windows were broken during the storm. "He must have known we were going to use this to rescue people."
Esplanade Manager Denise Palek said the hotel has housed 18 evacuees, most of whom remain. The nearby Blue Palms Motel had about 100 people, while the Starlux Boutique Hotel had about 36, said Gordon Clark, the manager for both those properties.
“I’m sure we were some of the last destinations to call,” said Clark, whose properties would normally be closed this time of year but opened exclusively for evacuees.
Not all those displaced came from the other end of the New Jersey shore. Some are locals, others from elsewhere in South Jersey.
Evan Davey is staying at the Esplanade with his mother, Amy Beth, and their bulldog, Gracie. The family is from the Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor Township, which saw flooding as bad as anywhere.
Their one-story cottage had 2 feet of water inside, and they are waiting for it to be condemned, with eventual plans to rebuild. After fleeing, they first stayed with family, then one of Davey's friends, before being relocated by FEMA.
Davey said Gracie's been stressed, as has his mom. Due to the trauma of the last few weeks, he said she had a brief episode of transient global amnesia, during which she forgot who people were around her and could not remember how she got where she was.
But he has been faring relatively well. Before moving home to Mystic Islands not long before Sandy, Davey had been traveling by couch surfing, basically connecting with other people online who are willing to let someone sleep at their house free of charge.
"This is my expertise," he said with a smile while smoking a cigarette on the outside balcony of the hotel.
Many of the people at the Esplanade knew each other before the storm, and others became friends through the ordeal.
Santana, Eckhardt and Mabel Stewart all knew each other from around Seaside Heights before finding rooms at the Esplanade. Santana and Stewart evacuated before the storm hit, and Eckhardt trudged through floodwaters to escape the devastation the morning after Sandy passed.
“At least we have each other,” Stewart said.
None of them brought much of their belongings with them. On Wednesday, they all wore donated clothing: Eckhardt a velvet jacket with fur-lined boots, Stewart a blue and white fleece and Santana a lime green souvenir sweatshirt from Florida.
Food came from the Red Cross and a long list of local restaurants. Palek paid for their meals for days, they had a barbecue on Saturday night and several hoteliers are planning beef and beer benefits this upcoming weekend to help the displaced.
They spend their days riding bicycles to the local library to search for new apartments. One day, just to stay busy, they went to the Cape May Airport in Lower Township to sort supplies that would go to other areas affected by the storm.
By Wednesday afternoon, nearly all the people at the Esplanade received bittersweet news — FEMA had extended their sheltering assistance, which means about two more weeks in their hotel rooms.
“It’s comfortable, but I know we can’t get too comfortable, because it isn’t home,” Eckhardt said.
Contact Lee Procida:
Follow Lee Procida on Twitter @ACPressLee