One year ago Monday is the anniversary of Hurricane Irene, the storm that prompted both mandatory evacuations and Gov. Christie to yell at people to “get the hell off the beach.”
While many tropical storms and hurricanes have touched on the Jersey Shore (I’ve sat through a handful), mandatory evacuations are rare. Everyone needed to be out by Friday with the storm to hit on Saturday. Clearing out towns packed with residents and tourists was not an easy task, – physically, mentally or even financially.
Jack Morey, co-owner of Moreys Piers in Wildwood, was worried about his parks but his then-immediate concern were the 600 international kids who work for Moreys in the summer and had no where to go. “When you call places and ask if they have room for 600, they don’t say yes,” he said.
A summer employee who also teaches in Cherry Hill, N.J., made a few calls, and her school district opened their doors for what Moreys calls a “two day camping episode,” with workers brought from the shore to the suburb by busses.
Morey and his wife, who live in Wildwood Crest, evacuated to Penn State. “I lost sleep, not because I was afraid of the destruction but because I knew there was destruction, and I was already planning the reconstruction and reconditioning of the parks.” While the piers made it through the storm nearly untouched, he still incorporated some of those Irene-vision designs into renovations made to Raging Waters in the off season.
The worst part for the company was that it essentially ended their season a week early. “People left and never came back,” he said.
Ann Delaney spent the run up to evacuation on the phone. Delaney, a real estate agent with Tim Kerr Power Play Realty in Avalon, says she kept it all together because “I was so busy that week helping owners and helping tenants and telling people not to come in,” she said. “Then I went home and realized ‘oh I have to do something too.'”
Delaney, who grew up down the shore and lives in Stone Harbor, evacuated with her sister from Margate and her mother from Cape May to her sister’s house in Jackson Township, N.J. She followed the progress of the storm in Stone Harbor via twitter. “All their TV channels are N.Y.-based. I wasn’t getting what was considered local news,” she said. Without Twitter, she says, she’d have been completely in the dark about what she would be driving back to.
Once she was allowed back on the island, work cranked up again, this time telling tenants who were supposed to start their vacations on Saturday to hold off until every home was checked. Aside from a few broken windows and some pockets of flooding, Stone Harbor came through unscathed.
She also worked on reaching agreements between home owners and tenants whose vacations had been shortened. Some were offered discounts. If the home wasn’t rented the following week, others allowed families to come back for an extra few days. Another popular option, which is being realized this year, was offering a discount on a 2012 booking. “Ninety nine percent of owners were okay about it,” she said. Those who needed some convincing changed their minds when Delaney reminded them that there hadn’t been a mandatory evacuation in Avalon and Stone Harbor since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
John Cooke didn’t have a hard time getting guests at the Victorian Motel, where he’s general manager, to leave. “I had the radio on in my pool area on the day that the Office of Emergency Management gave the report to write your name on a card and put it in your shoe if you were going to stay,” he said. “Some of them were gone by the middle of the night, and the rest were out by Friday.”
Cooke, who is also president of the Greater Cape May Chamber of Commerce, stayed. He had the brick motel for shelter, and sent updates about the storm through Twitter.
Like Delaney, post-storm time was spent letting guests know when they could come back (the Victorian re-opened that Monday), and working with people who had their vacations shortened or ended all together because flooding around their homes prevented them from leaving. The wedding that was supposed to be staying at the hotel rescheduled for March, for example. The Victorian’s policy is not to offer credits instead of refunds, “but for Irene, those were extraordinary circumstances,” Cooke said.
For Will and Holly Knapp, who then lived in Villas, the evacuation decision was an easy one: their daughter Violet was just four months old, so they left to stay at Holly’s parents house in Bordentown, N.J.
“If we didn’t have Violet we would not have left. But with her, why risk it?”
Before they went, though, the show had to go on. Both were performers at Elaine’s Dinner Theater in Cape May, which still held a show that Friday night. “It was a lot of fun because it was us and 30 people who were getting ready to leave town, but this was one last thing before they went,” he said. “By the time we started the show, they had told us we were going to be closed the next couple of days. We weren’t sure when we were going to come back.”
Ed Tettemer would have stayed at his Strathmere home, dubbed “The Octagon” for its Caribbean-style architecture designed to withstand hurricanes, except he’d just had surgery on his elbow. “My wife didn’t let me stay there as a one armed man,” he said.
But he still drove down to board up the house and convince tenants in his second Strathmere property to go home.
“Their 17-year-old daughter looked at me and said ‘Do you understand that this is our vacation?'” I felt so bad, but I ddn’t know who I felt worse for: me or her father,” he said.
Fortunately, both properties were undamaged. “I remember a lot of people whining about the hype but when it was happening, it didn’t feel like hype. It looked like it was headed right for Cape May County. We really dodged a bullet to use that terrible cliché,” he says.
What about me? I holed up in my boyfriend’s house in Philadelphia because I didn’t want to stay in my place by myself, and I was terrified that Irene would wipe the barrier island of the Jersey Shore off the map. He tried to get me to have a drink to calm down, but my stomach wouldn’t tolerate anything. I’ve sat through hurricanes at the Jersey Shore, and in Florida. I’d never been through one as powerful as Irene turned out to be.
I spent about 10 hours solid on Twitter, asking questions for people still there, sharing their reports, and updating worried homeowners with whatever news I could find. I tweeted so much that Twitter tried to shut down my account. I stopped only when water started dripping through the kitchen ceiling of my boyfriend’s home. We slept on an air mattress in the basement, waking up every two hours to check on tornado warnings, make sure buckets caught all the leaking water, and that no windows were broken from flying debris.
As a region, we were very fortunate that Irene turned. The flooding and destruction from Central Jersey through Vermont showed us that. But we can’t let that luck stop us from taking the same preventative measures next time the warning comes out. As Tettemer said, “we’re due.” Unfortunately, I think he’s right.