Lost in the Flood: New Jersey After Sandy
On Wednesday night, I walked through one of Atlantic City’s mostly black neighborhoods. I was a few blocks from the beach—behind the casinos everyone instinctively associates with Atlantic City and out of sight of the normal tourist crowd. I ran into Hashim Stotts, a 34-year-old who’s lived there his entire life and works as a chef at the Golden Nugget casino’s restaurant. Along with a lot of AC residents, he decided not to evacuate on Monday in advance of the freak mutant hurricane that tore the coast apart. He told me he fled during Hurricane Irene back in 2011 and later regretted it—parts of his home got flooded and he would have preferred to be around to keep tabs on the situation—so Hashim defiantly rode out Sandy with a similarly disposed neighbor.
They sat on the upper deck of his small townhouse as the “superstorm” made landfall. To Hashim, the situation didn’t initially seem particularly treacherous, even as the flooding got worse and worse and cars started floating every which way through the streets. Suddenly, he heard a series of noises—CRACK CRACK CRACK CRACK—and thought his roof had blown off. “That shit sparked,” he said. He assumed it had to be some kind of electrical explosion: “I was like, what the fuck?”
Hashim soon realized the boardwalk had snapped. Just like that, gone. Why its destruction sounded like an explosion remains unknown, but those cracks marked the end of an era. For 20 years, Hashim told me, folks had been arguing with the city about that particular section of the boardwalk: It was old and kind of run-down, but still widely enjoyed. As the night wore on, water rose so high that Hashim’s neighbor was able to reach out from their upper porch with a net and scoop up two fish, which Hashim helped cook and clean. The storm was less dramatic in some other neighborhoods—the boardwalk still stands in front of the casinos and familiar attractions, though it’s still strewn with garbage and sand.
The damage is especially shocking because New Jersey has never gone through a storm like this. Passing hurricanes have caused rip tides, heavy rain, and flooding before, but the widespread power outages, gas shortages, property destruction, and deaths that Sandy has wrought are unique in the state’s history. Low-lying barrier islands on the coast were hit extremely hard. My family has a house in Long Beach Island that I haven’t been able to see yet because Stafford Township police claim they are only allowing emergency personnel to cross the one bridge to the island.
Something like Sandy demands a response from the president, and it was originally announced that Barack Obama would appear in Atlantic City to survey the devastation with Governor Chris Christie. That was my impression anyway, given all the publicly available information. Folks in Atlantic City stood out waiting for Obama all afternoon, only to finally discover that he was heading instead for the North Point Marina in Brigantine, a nearby white enclave. Some in the neighborhood were upset about this, Hashim included. “Obama shoulda come right fuckin’ here!” he said.
Most of Brigantine’s year-long inhabitants are working- to upper-middle-class and lean Republican, but when I showed up to interview some of them, they all seemed pleased with Obama’s handling of the storm. “I’m not political, but if the president comes a block from my house, I’ll support him,” said resident Charles Gill. Some did have complaints that cops and other public workers were diverted from recovery efforts to help manage the president’s arrival, which seemed fair enough. An officer noticed that somebody in one of the nearby houses had opened her top-floor window to watch the press conference and immediately ran over, shouting at her to close it (they were worried about snipers). Adding to the surreality, boats were flung all over the place—some stacked in unsafe-looking piles, others smashed against porches or sitting in yards.
A lady standing outside her house waiting for the president’s motorcade to pass by told me she’d heard from someone inside the community center-turned-shelter a bit further south that Obama and Christie visited: Apparently Obama had gone to every last table, she said, giving hugs and offering words of solace. Someone tweeted that Obama embraced his mother, a Brigantine resident, and it “made her day.”
Later, I talked to Dee Brown, the woman whom the Secret Service had chosen to walk alongside Obama when he arrived at the marina. Dee told me she was very nervous in the leadup to Obama’s appearance, but he made her “feel so comfortable.” She recalled him saying, “I’m really sorry to meet you under these circumstances.” Dee, a Republican, told him about her commercial fisherman husband, whose livelihood was in jeopardy because the marina’s docks got wiped out.
Some neighbors were allowed to attend the actual press conference and meet the president and Christie, but others, including myself, had to stay back and squint for glimpses. A few onlookers with me brandished binoculars. Ironically enough, in order to actually hear the press conference, a man had to drive over his pickup truck and blast the radio. Everybody crowded around while Secret Service agents kept close watch. An exhausted local cop said that he’d been working for 48 hours straight; he was in charge of clearing traffic for the president’s motorcade.
One Obama supporter in the generally Republican neighborhood hollered and clapped sporadically, and the small but vocal minority of Democrats orchestrated an “Obama” chant that even some self-described conservatives joined in on. Many residents were still in mild shock that he was even there in the first place.
After the event I talked to Donna Van Zandt, owner of North Point Marina—the backdrop to the press conference—who was so upset she could hardly think straight. She generated income by renting out docks to commercial fishermen, and now those docks are completely gone. And they were uninsured. “The FEMA chief said they are here for us,” she told me. Donna was heartened by Obama’s assurance that there will not be a bunch of red tape to cut through.
The local economy has been imperiled. Kevin Turner, a bartender at Brigantine’s beachfront Laguna Grille, said the place was “totaled,” and that 15-foot-high mounds of sand now cover all the restaurant equipment. “It’s nuts,” he said. He estimated around half the people who live in the neighborhood defied a mandatory evacuation order and stayed during Sandy. Except for one generous gentleman with a generator, they were all without power. When Kevin sarcastically asked his boss if he should come in the day after the storm hit, the boss replied, “Yeah—bring a shovel and a good attitude.” Kevin said he’ll probably have to go on unemployment for a while.
Other residents I spoke to were similarly concerned with what they were going to do now. Joe Scilovati wondered how he should go about removing his boat from a crevice in a neighbor’s front yard. Max Gresham, who said he was voting for Romney but didn’t hate Obama, wished that the president had brought along “A hundred generators. We would’ve cheered him.” A teenager said he shook Obama’s hand and told him, “Yo, there’s a basketball hoop over there, let’s play,” to which Obama—maybe fearing the “Obama Plays Ball While Jersey Suffers!” FOX News headline—replied, “I don’t think so; I’m a little stiff right now.”
Meanwhile, back over the bay in Atlantic City, the shock of the storm’s impact had not yet worn off. Police imposed a 6 PM curfew. Once-busy intersections were virtually barren, though some traffic lights did somehow work, unlike the ones in lower Manhattan. The Atlantic City Expressway was empty. Emergency vehicles raced through the streets, as they did in much of New Jersey. Today, cars wait at gas stations in lines that stretch for miles; four-hour long delays have been reported in West Caldwell.
Karim Abdul, who’s lived in Atlantic City for 27 of his 63 years, was walking the battered streets on Wednesday afternoon a few hours before Obama and Christie visited Brigantine. “Real bad situation, you understand?” he told me. Dealing with Sandy and the flood conditions just added to his longtime struggles with chronic ailments. “I’m in shock,” he said.
When the storm hit, Karim frantically helped transport his family of five to safety as floodwaters rushed in with great force, ruining their home. They all managed to wade or swim away and are physically safe, though Karim told me that he won’t be able to crash with the friend who’s taken him in for much longer. The gas heater at Karim’s house won’t turn on and he “doesn’t even know who to contact with questions.”
He said he was running out of money, and on Wednesday relatives in Chicago could not send him some because 1) there were no money transfer places with power in Atlantic City and 2) his Chicago relatives were in a flood zone caused by Sandy as it passed over Lake Michigan and into Canada. The storm isn’t over yet.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.