This was the real deal.

Sandy may have just missed becoming the first official hurricane to make direct landfall in New Jersey since 1903, but she didn't miss it by much, hitting Atlantic County as a hybrid post-tropical northeaster powerful enough to flood the barrier islands, push beaches into streets and knock out power to hundreds of thousands throughout the state.

As we mop up and survey the damage in Sandy's aftermath, it may be time to ask ourselves, is this the new normal?

For the second time in two hurricane seasons, southern New Jersey faced, and handled, a major evacuation. Last year, Tropical Storm Irene led officials to call for an evacuation of Cape May County. To add insult to emergency, many families that fled the area found that conditions - flooding and power outages - were worse in the northern and western parts of the state to which they fled.

This week, barrier islands were evacuated before Sandy dealt us a direct hit. The storm came ashore Monday evening on Absecon Island, but its bands of nearly 85 mph winds and torrential rains - 14 inches in Atlantic City - were wide enough to embrace the entire state and region.

Throw into the discussion the June 30 derecho thunderstorms that flattened trees and knocked out power throughout Atlantic County, and snowstorms such as the blizzard of December 2010. In each we saw swift reaction from utility crews working long, difficult hours and heard stories of neighbors helping neighbors. And with each came the creeping suspicion that southern New Jersey is becoming ground zero for big storms.

Residents used to speak with confidence about how the shape of the eastern United States helped shield us from a direct hurricane strike. (Thank you, North Carolina.)

No more. It isn't just that the Philadelphia TV meteorologists have gotten more excitable. We really have seen more disruptive storms. Whether that's just an unusual run of bad luck or a new weather pattern we'll have to get used to, time will tell.

But it's clear we'll have to become less complacent about preparing for emergencies.

That means taking evacuation notices seriously and thinking ahead of time about where we would go and how we would get there. It means heeding warnings about unnecessary travel during storms.

It means being smart when using the ever-more-popular portable generators. Before Sandy hit, the Governor's Office issued a warning, saying generators tied into home electric systems without a properly installed transfer switch can "back feed," sending electricity into nearby lines, endangering utility workers and neighbors. And generators operated too close to homes pose a carbon monoxide hazard.

It means not waiting until the last minute to stock up on water, food and batteries, so that when the worst happens, you don't add to the burden of overworked emergency crews. And it means looking in on and helping our neighbors.

All over our region, the cleanup is under way. It's no fun dealing with flood damage, downed trees and insurance claims. But if you have your family safe around you, count yourself lucky, and think about getting ready for next time.

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