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Devastated Atlantic City loses its boardwalk, but not a single life

Wednesday, 31 October 2012 - 4:39pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Felled trees littered streets and sand, washed up from the beaches, lay three inches thick across sections of the ashphalt.

Storm damaged cars, their bumpers ripped off and windows smashed, sat scattered in parking lots. Felled trees littered streets and sand, washed up from the beaches, lay three inches thick across sections of the ashphalt.

Dawn broke flat and grey over Atlantic City on Tuesday to reveal a resort town in tatters; in the middle of one road a child's car seat lay upturned and abandoned. On another street, the shreds of torn American flags snapped in a still-stiff breeze.

It was an eerie drive into the deserted, blacked-out city, the winds still strong enough to buffet a saloon car, the only lights visible, dim in the distance, the flashing blue and red of patrol vehicles, guarding block after block of empty, abandoned properties.

And at the coast itself, the most arresting sight of all - Atlantic City's venerable old boardwalk smashed to pieces and deposited inland in tangled piles of lumber. Until Monday evening, it had stretched for some seven miles around the New Jersey shoreline. Not any more.

For Chris Christie, the oversized governor of New Jersey who personifies the state's straight-talking tough-guy image, Hurricane Sandy's assault on his fief was clearly personal: more than 5,500 New Jersey residents in local shelters and 2.4 million households without power.

"The level of devastation at the Jersey Shore is unthinkable," said Mr Christie after reviewing the damage, his voice hoarse from a long night over-seeing the relief efforts, including several phone conversations with President Obama.

"This is twice the number of impacted households as Hurricane Irene," he said, referring to the powerful storm that struck the region in August 2011, adding that every single one of New Jersey's railway lines had been damaged to some degree.

"Large sections of track were washed out on the New Jersey coastline. Numerous power lines and trees have fallen" along tracks, and "several rail bridges were damaged by storm surge including boats and other debris lodged on the railroad tracks."

Mercifully, no-one was killed. The only possible fatality came from an unconfirmed report of one elderly woman suffering a fatal heart attack riding a bus outside of the city. "We've had no injuries. We're very thankful," said Tom Foley, chief of Atlantic City's Emergency Medical Centre (EMC).

It seemed that most had heeded the warnings to evacuate, returning yesterday to survey the damage and salvage what remained.

Jitney Guy was looking over his storm-ravaged home, observing how the garage doors to the property had been ripped open as the flood waters had surged forward.

"I've had better days," he grinned wearily, "I evacuated on Monday in the middle of the day after the first high tide. I was watching my house on the evening news.

"The water smashed over the sea wall, took out the boardwalk and poured towards the house. Suddenly, there was no separation between the ocean and my yard."

Mr Guy was lucky, with only the ground floor of his seafront home suffering serious damage: his white BMW looked like it might prove a write-off, but the upstairs was untouched.

"I'm happy that it's just material possessions," he added. "I'm safe and my family is safe. Everything in the garage is a total loss but otherwise we're OK. The boardwalk used to be at the back of my house but now it has been washed around to the front and it's sitting in the road."

After daybreak, more people emerged from their homes and arrived from outside of the city to take in the full impact of the devastation.

Wadud Salall, 50, a long-term resident of the city described the "boom sound; like a car crash," as the storm hit. "I live just two blocks in from the sea," he said. "My house was shaking."

For the rescue workers, the beginning of the new day was the end of a very long night. Joe Biscieglia, a 31-year-old firefighter, looked dazed with exhaustion as he headed home after a 38-hour shift.

Flooding, 6ft deep in some areas, had made hard work of their rescue efforts.

"The fire service had 400 calls yesterday. I was part of a team of five driving around in an army truck," he said, "We rescued one family with three kids from the roof of a building. Their ceiling had collapsed."

Atlantic City itself is home to some 40,000 residents. Its casinos attract tourists from across the US and beyond, but most people heeded the early storm warnings and evacuated well before the bulk of the weather system hit.

Shops, casinos and offices were all shut as large numbers of people fled, although not every bar was closed, with police and rescue crews using the Ducktown Tavern and Liquors as an unofficial staging post for the relief efforts.

"Ducktown's a legend," said patron Ben Markum, 35, who headed to the bar on Monday night at the peak of the storm. "It's like 'Cheers' or something," he added, referring to the eponymous bar in the long-running US television series.

About 30 people, many of them police officers, crowded the bar on the evening the hurricane made landfall. Owner John Exadaktilos, 36, said Ducktown remained open because of its semi-official role in the hurricane response effort.

"We have the support of the municipality to stay open to help feed the police, fire, whatever," he explained.

But for those who chose to go, and go early, coming back to Atlantic City yesterday proved a bitter shock.

James Gilmore, 66, stood on the porch of his home just a street back from the seawall. Waves still smashed against the beach, spitting spray into the air, and just yards from his house lay a tangled heap of debris.

Huge timber struts, once part of the city's boardwalk, leant up against his white picket fence. "We were lucky," he said, "Other houses suffered more. It was the worst storm I've ever seen."

As the day wore on, the battered city stirred itself into greater action; more cars began to ply the streets and emergency services, safe in their large 4x4s, toured the city offering assistance.

It is not all gloom. Outside the only shop that appears open, Jerry Derby, 53, who works in a nearby casino, offers a more optimistic assessment of the scene, and the motivating force that will ensure Atlantic City is likely to be back on its feet in no time.

"The clean-up here is going to take a while," he said, "But I reckon the casinos will be back open by tomorrow afternoon. They're always quick. They want the money."
 




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