Like many Jersey Shore towns, Cape May is no stranger to hurricanes and devastating storms. The historic town, which bills itself as America’s oldest seaside resort, is basically an island at the very southernmost tip of New Jersey on the Delaware Bay. Over its 200-year history, huge swaths of the town’s beachfront and boardwalk have been wiped out by storms or fires and rebuilt time after time. In 1944, the Great Atlantic Hurricane swept away the south end of the town. So it’s not surprising that while many of Cape May’s 4,000 or so year-round residents did leave as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the town’s unparalleled collection of restored Victorian homes and elegant bed-and-breakfasts, some locals stayed through the storm despite pleas by state government officials to leave.
Among those who rode it out with the permission of town officials, were about 30 staffers and managers of the Congress Hall hotel, one of the town’s most recognizable landmarks — a frequent haven during tough times in Cape May. Built in 1816, its famous white-columned facade stands right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean but sits on a slight hill about 14 ft. (4 m) above sea level, which in this case was enough to spare it from the water and sand that sloshed over the boardwalk below, where sand, debris and tree branches litter the streets.
Over the past few days, as the predictions about the size and ferocity of Sandy grew more dire, Congress Hall became a temporary base for 75 or so journalists who camped out, prepared to report on the massive storm’s landfall from one of the only local hotels planning to stay open at the fragile terminus of the Jersey Shore. Many of the reporters were waiting for access to Atlantic City and points north, which, after bearing the brunt of Sandy’s eye and ire, had been closed to the press. Cape May, which was for the most part spared, became a detour.
Bill Cobaugh, 42, has been on duty round the clock staffing the front desk. “We’ve had the restaurant open 24 hours a day for the reporters. A lot of the them got through the police roadblocks with their IDs and they’re from everywhere: France and around the world. We even kept the bar open till 7 a.m. this morning for them,” he told TIME on Tuesday. Call it the media economy — perhaps a small bright spot in what is sure to be an economic catastrophe for the state’s tourism industry.
On Tuesday morning, New Jersey’s main thoroughfare, the Garden State Parkway, reopened, and the journalists started checking out of their temporary perch in Cape May. But it may be just the start of the ordeal for some of the Congress Hall staff, like Cobaugh, who have been staying at the hotel with their families and haven’t been able to check on their homes. “I live right on the water across from the canal in Wildwood,” says Cobaugh. “It’s bad even when it’s just raining, I’m sure we’re flooded out.”
Cobaugh did get a chance to walk around part of Cape May on Tuesday and take a look at his boat, which was docked locally. Miraculously, both the boat and the town seem mostly intact, if a bit battered. But for the moment, with smaller roads still closed, it will be a while before he and his daughter can go home. And if photos coming out of Wildwood are any clue, Cape May fared better than its northern sibling, which is known as much for its honky-tonk beachfront amusement park as Cape May is for its quaint 19th century atmosphere. In fact, Wildwood may have seen some of the Jersey Shore’s most intense damage, along with Atlantic City and points up the coast like Point Pleasant Beach. Large sections of Wildwood were under several feet of water at the height of the storm surge on Monday night, with cars submerged and property destroyed.
Bay Head, north of Cape May, took the storm hard as well. Resident Betty Kelly, who lives a block from the beach, says, “Flooded is not the word. It looks like I am looking at the ocean when I look outside my door. Boats are loose in the bay and bridges are closed.” She tells TIME: “There’s 4 ft. of water outside my door and 4 ft. of water in the basement. It was a full moon — very windy when the water came in. I was really a little scared. I should have left when my daughter asked me to come stay with her. My goodness, it was windy.” She adds, “My poor dogs don’t know where to go to the bathroom because there is no backyard. It’s a river.”
Curtis Brashaw, owner of Congress Hall, is also the proprietor of a hotel in Atlantic City. “We own the Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City on Chelsea Avenue near the boardwalk,” he says. “I spoke to them this morning. There was minor flooding and there’s still no power, but as catastrophic as the images from [Atlantic City] have been, we feel that our hotel there is O.K. We had a security team and a maintenance team there to deal with the water last night. We’ve heard that they will have the casinos open on Thursday, and we plan to be open for check-in on Friday if the city is open. I had a request from a CNBC crew to stay tonight, but we still don’t have power. They said they got into the city with a police escort because it’s still closed to the public.”
Until they can get back on the roads, Cobaugh, Brashaw and many other New Jerseyans will be watching the news and waiting for the frequent and frank updates coming from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has called the level of devastation on the Jersey Shore “unthinkable,” noting that 2.4 million people are still without power in the state and that public transportation is likely to be crippled for days to come.
— With reporting by Catherine Sharick