Jake and Maureen Glassey crept onto the front porch of their West Atlantic City home about 8 p.m. Monday as the eye of Hurricane Sandy passed overhead.
Lakes Bay had already inundated the neighborhood Jake Glassey has called home for 35 years. Its black water appeared like a sheet of glass extending from the lip of his porch to the lights of Margate on the far shore. High above the street lights, which burned on through the storm that night, the sky was a solid, starless void.
As the eye wall moved west, the Glasseys watched as a wave of flotsam and foam swept across the bay straight at them. It was then that Jake realized the danger.
“We could buy the farm tonight,” he remembers telling his wife as they scrambled out of knee-high boots and up the stairs to their second floor. Behind them, the water rose higher than ever before, up the door jamb and into their home, eventually reaching 38 inches.
As he walked through his ruined home Friday, amid the clatter of construction workers, Glassey said Sandy was the first storm that truly scared him.
“It was the first time in my life that nature seemed angry,” he said. “The storm was out to get us.”
Residents of South Jersey’s back bays and barrier islands have weathered many “Storms of the Century.” But for all the warnings that preceded last week’s storm, there was a sense among natives and newcomers that Sandy, which actually hit the shore as a northeaster, was business as usual.
Glassey, who lives in a flood-prone section of Egg Harbor Township, felt well-prepared for a night or two of higher tides and blustery winds. And to 30-year Brigantine resident Helen Patalivo, the ominous clouds that gathered Sunday afternoon held nothing that flashlights, a space heater and a few Hail Marys couldn’t ward off. Kevin Davis’ children were more excited than scared when rain began to fall at his apartment in the Bungalow Park section of Atlantic City.
For residents who rode out the storm near where Sandy’s eye came ashore, however, the receding flood waters left behind sobering memories of a storm that defied expectations.
Patalivo, a 67-year-old grandmother with a buoyant personality and a shock of white hair, had evacuated to her daughter’s house in Somerdale, Camden County. But she made the hourlong trip back after her husband, Tony, decided to stay on the island to look after their restaurant, the Pirate’s Den, and the condominiums they manage near the sea wall. The couple recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary — Tony’s roses sat outside their condo Friday with a collection of deck furniture — and Helen didn’t want to leave him.
During the tranquil moments as the eye passed overhead, Helen left Tony’s side to take in the view — “it was so peaceful, just gorgeous,” she said — and check on an adjacent three-story condo where they had stowed their valuables. But as soon as she got to higher ground, she knew she had made a mistake.
“I figured I’d be safer up there on the third floor, but the waves were actually hitting that building worse,” she said. “I worried: ‘I’m going to get stuck here, and he’s got the food.’”
As the wind and waves began to pick up again, Helen scrambled back to her husband. They stayed on their second floor, listening to the waves pounding against the plywood that covered their front door and a police scanner squawking with near-constant calls for help from those stranded in nearby Atlantic City. After the waves breached the sea wall at both ends, benches and broken railings floated outside, threatening their shelter.
“I said a lot of Hail Marys,” Helen said. “I had faith. This, staying here, was a lot of faith.”
For Helen, the storm presented a number of minor miracles.
She had tried several times before the storm worsened to coax “Condo Cat,” the stray she’s cared for for more than a year, into the apartment. Shortly before the storm intensified with the passing of the eye, the cat scurried away, only to return hours later unscathed. “He’s our miracle kitty,” she said.
About 100 people were rescued by firefighters after waves breached either end of the seawall, but the condo escaped with relatively little damage.
“I kept saying, ‘Please, dear Jesus, keep the waves away from the condo,’” she said.
Across Absecon Inlet, in Bungalow Park, 33-year-old Davis was in his Wabash Avenue apartment with his girlfriend and three young children.
“Evacuation was one option,” he said. “I have family in Egg Harbor Township, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”
As the tide and storm surges came and went, Davis and his kids watched from their second-floor apartment the cars outside their window rise and fall with them. Meanwhile, personal watercraft and other debris from the nearby marina and neighbors’ yards floated past their window. He turned his phone off for long stretches of time Monday night to ensure he could call for help if the flood waters rose any higher than the first floor.
“Mostly, we just tried to be strong for the kids,” he said Friday as he cleaned up debris left along the curb. “If we’d showed we were scared, they’d have been scared.”
Davis said his family was very lucky because their upstairs apartment was untouched by the flood waters; many of his neighbors were not. On Friday, he said, he was doing his part to help out. He swept a child’s boot, washed out of a neighboring house, into a pile of leaves.
“Basically, I’m trying to get everything back to normal,” he said. “I’m not going to wait for the city to do it.”
After their moment of tranquility in the eye of the storm, the Glasseys sat in their glass-enclosed “hurricane room,” a sunroom overlooking the bay on the second floor. Through its windows, they could see wave upon wave coming in off the bay and they could hear — but not see — the damage being wrought to their neighborhood.
And for a while, they listened to radio chatter. “He kept saying, ‘It’s looking like it’s letting up; it may almost be over,’” Jake Glassey said. “But the wind kept blowing; it didn’t let up.”
Eventually, the Glasseys sat in silence as the waves undermined parts of their house. Finally, in the early morning hours, they slept.
“We just begged for daylight to come,” he said.
Nearly a week later, Glassey is trying to return to normal, but a no-content clause in his homeowner’s insurance policy means he’s lost nearly all of the possessions from his first floor. The house has already been gutted, with water-logged flooring and drywall stripped below the water line. One trash bin has already been filled to the top with debris. The cost of the repairs to the house alone will likely reach $100,000, he said.
But it’s the little things that bother him most. The grime that’s now part of everyday life. The original Looney Tunes prints, their paper wrinkling in the sun. And the 80 koi and betta fish that had been part of Jake Glassey’s freshwater pond in the backyard.
“That was a beautiful, beautiful pond,” he said, shaking his head. “The funny thing is, the fish had been with me so long we got names for them, and they’re all dead now from the salt water. Every now and then, I find one around here.”
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