Boardwalk Catastrophe: Atlantic City Looks to Pick Up the Pieces After Sandy

New Jersey's seaside gambling hot spot felt the full force of Hurricane Sandy. Now residents face a struggle to recover

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Matt Slocum / AP

A man walks past the remains of a building near a damaged section of boardwalk in the wake of superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Atlantic City, N.J.

On Wednesday morning, Juan Pagan, a 34-year-old lifelong resident of Atlantic City, surveyed the wreckage of the old boardwalk along New Hampshire Avenue that was splintered by superstorm Sandy two days earlier. He perched his right leg against one of the larger wooden boards sticking out from the sand-caked street and arched his left leg back to anchor himself. He looked on bemused toward the sharp poles that mark where the walkway once stood. “I used to come down here, hanging out right here in the corner,” he says, pointing out a specific spot where tourists, fisherman and cyclists would take advantage of the water and view. “And now, this right here, is gone.”

Considering how hard communities in Seaside Heights, Hoboken and Breezy Point in Queens were hit by the fury of wind, sand and water on Monday, the locals here say they lucked out. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that at one point, 70% to 80% of the city was underwater before it receded and, like others, Pagan spent most of Tuesday pumping knee-deep water out of the basement of his mother’s home, located a few blocks from the former boardwalk. But even with the water gone, deeper wounds are coming to light.

(MORE: After Sandy: Scenes of Wreckage and Recovery)

Atlantic City is a shell of itself. The dozen towering casinos weren’t too damaged by the storm, but they sit closed until the gamblers with deep pockets roll back in. The streets are littered with tree branches, apartment siding and smaller debris that was picked up by the surge as it moved inland, but cleanup crews are clearing more paths every few hours. And across the city, most businesses were shut, save for a fast-food joint that offered a smaller menu and walk-up service, as well as several corner liquor stores that were surrounded by groups of neighborhood men tossing back tall cans.

What is most eerie, though, is the lack of human presence, since tens of thousands of residents heeded Governor Chris Christie’s pleas to evacuate the barrier island and are temporarily being blocked from re-entry at a checkpoint a few miles outside town, where police officers are only allowing credentialed press and emergency-services personnel to pass through. What this has left are two specific types of people: the ones who stayed and the others who came for them.

(PHOTOS: Capturing Sandy’s East Coast Devastation)

Shelley Grossman, a guidance counselor at a nearby high school, stayed because the last major storm, Hurricane Irene, was a dud and the places she fled to fared worse than her building here. About 80 people rode out the storm in her residential complex, she says, and at the height of it, they passed the time by playing bingo. Grossman adds that remaining in town “wasn’t that bad,” but like most others now, she’s without electricity, a clean water supply and a fixed plan for the next few days. She wasn’t pleased with the governor’s remarks on Monday after the evacuation window, when he addressed those who stayed as “stupid,” but she appreciates the state’s immediate efforts to help the city get back to normal.

In the early afternoon, the crowd by the fallen boardwalk was growing larger. Rumors had spread online and through word of mouth that President Obama may tour this part of the city with the governor. Whole families had come to see whether he would make an appearance; it resembled a tight-knit campaign rally, with one woman even holding an “Obama 2012” poster. People cheered as Air Force One flew over the inlet to the nearby airport and again when they saw the President’s helicopter, Marine One.

Around this time, Senator Frank Lautenberg showed up and toured the boardwalk rubble, calling what was left there “heartbreaking” and, up the coast, “a picture of devastation that is almost warlike except, thank God, without the killing.” He lauded the immediacy with which first responders began working in the area, saying the state’s highest income source are the shore communities that have been hurt “so badly,” and aimed to assure residents about the state’s bipartisan response to the disaster. “The governor has done a very good job. We’re not friends, but we are working toward the same goal right now,” he said. “When the fire bell goes off, everybody in town jumps in.”

(MORE: Sandy’s Damage Puts a Rickety Power Grid to the Test)

A few handshakes later, the Senator quietly left to meet Obama and Christie in Brigantine Beach, on the other side of the inlet, where the damage was more severe. Eventually, people began realizing that if the President were coming, Secret Service personnel would have arrived hours earlier to secure the area and screen potential locals he could console. Around 2:30 p.m., with their hopes dashed, the crowd thinned out.

The closest shelter is off-island Pleasantville High School, but two spokespeople for the American Red Cross have been in town since the Saturday before the storm as part of the advance-assessment team to determine what the immediate needs are going to be when the year-round residents return.

One of the spokespeople, Catherine Bardé, says the duo is working with local, state and federal officials to provide the basics right now: shelter, food and emotional support. Fresh off a stint from supporting victims of Hurricane Isaac, which crippled parts of southern Louisiana in late August, she calls what she’s seen on the New Jersey coastline “completely devastating” and “exponentially so much worse.”

(MORE: Banks and Businesses Show Heart in Wake of Hurricane Sandy)

After this initial evaluation, the two say a fleet of emergency-relief vehicles will bring meals, cleaning supplies and whatever else is necessary to help people recover. “As this transitions, it’s going to be a long time to recover,” Bardé says. “This is going to be one of our largest disaster-recovery operations.”

Later in the afternoon, as the gathering at the rubble cleared out, three younger women stood amid the debris. One of them, a 24-year-old who works at a restaurant in one of the casinos, says the tourist sites would likely be repaired sooner than other residential properties because that’s why people go to the city. “They’re going to fix the casinos because that’s the main attraction here in Atlantic City — that’s what brings everybody in,” she says. “But they’re not really going to care about the people like us who live in the city. That’s not their concern — the residents who make the city. That’s the sad part.”

Pagan, too, is looking forward to the community’s efforts to quickly restore the city and hopes any new building will be designed to withstand a major hurricane. “I still don’t believe it,” he says, rummaging around the red bricks and debris poking up from the sand. “For me, this is like a dream.”

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