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Powerful Storm's Economic Impact Will Haunt an N.J. Beach Town

By Lauren Morello, E&E reporter
November 03, 2012; 1:00 PM

OCEAN CITY, N.J. -- The sign in front of the Ocean City Coffee Co. advertised pumpkin spice lattes, but bleach was the smell wafting out the door yesterday. Trash bags stuffed with sodden debris lined the nearby sidewalk.

A few blocks away, Walt Hohman was dreading what he'd find in the walk-in freezer at his family's bakery, Wards Pastry, after at least two days without power.

Store owners in Ocean City, N.J., struggle to clean up and reopen after record flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Lauren Morello.

"We've already had some exploding yeast in the little refrigerator," Hohman said, leaning on an empty pastry case. The bigger walk-in freezer held buckets of eggs, more bags of yeast, and trays of pastries waiting to go into the bakery's big industrial oven, he said.

It, like the rest of the bakery, was inundated by nearly 2 feet of floodwater as Hurricane Sandy rolled ashore a few miles north of this thin barrier island Monday night. Days later, Ocean City's residents are just beginning to clean up the mess the storm left behind.

Ask around and people here will tell you they are lucky. Sandy swept away many of Ocean City's protective beach dunes, but the town's boardwalk is intact. Powerful storm-fueled waves felled most of the already-crumbling 59th Street fishing pier, but the newer 14th Street pier survived without a scratch.

It is hard not to feel grateful, Ocean City residents say, when the Philadelphia TV stations keep showing video of Seaside Heights, N.J., shorn of its boardwalk, or floodwaters still running high on the streets of nearby Atlantic City.

But that doesn't mean Sandy didn't pack a wallop in this Cape May County town, which bills itself as "America's Greatest Family Resort." At the 7-mile-long island's extreme north and south ends, the storm sent ocean tides crashing into bay water, turning city streets into a neat grid of impromptu waterways.

Winds and water cut off the power supply in some areas, and both of the city's sewage treatment stations failed.

A fragile economy takes a heavy beating

Though Sandy's economic toll remains to be seen, business owners downtown say they are worried the cost of repairing and restocking their flooded shops could upset the delicate financial balance between the long, lean off-season and more profitable summer months, when Ocean City's population swells from 11,000 to more than 100,000.

On the 700 block of Asbury Avenue yesterday morning, Joann Thompson, her husband and a few helpers were pulling piles of wet furniture, waterlogged cushions and soggy books of fabric samples out of her corner storefront, Interiors by Joann, and throwing them in a nearby trash bin.

"The water picked up all my furniture and threw it all over," she said, grimly surveying her ruined inventory. "This is total devastation."

Picture frames and glass trinkets were all that could be salvaged, Thompson said, adding that the roughly 20 inches of floodwater that inundated her business had also ruined her floor, subfloors, walls and the files from her interior decorating jobs. She put the damage at $500,000, a sum that dwarfs the $60,000 in flood insurance she carries.

"I was at the insurance office at 8:30 this morning," Thompson said. "For two days, I was walking in circles. But we're lucky; our house out on the beach at 49th Street is fine. Our dunes went, though. We've got 4 feet of sand in our yard."

Across the street at Wards Pastry, Hohman was struggling with similarly tough math: With orders stacked up, he couldn't afford to wait for insurance adjusters to cut a check for repairs at his bakery, but he couldn't foot the entire bill himself.

"We're not getting power until Monday," he said. "The loss of income alone is thousands of dollars."

An ominous new benchmark

Next door, at the downtown branch of Hoys 5&10, manager James Corrigan was overseeing the effort to pump water out of the store's basement, one of very few in low-lying Ocean City. (The U.S. Geological Survey lists the island's elevation at 3 feet above sea level.)

Last year's Hurricane Irene "was absolutely nothing. We had a little flooding in the basement," Corrigan said, standing next to nearly 20 heavy-duty trash cans full of ruined merchandise: stuffed animals and T-shirts, beach umbrellas and bright foam flip-flops. But with Sandy, "the water was up to my knee," he said, pointing to the wavy ribbon of dried silt on a door frame.

Under the potent surge of Hurricane Sandy, the beachfront dunes at Ocean City became history. The poles mark where they once stood. Photo by Lauren Morello.

Hoys employees moved stock off the store's lowest shelves before the storm, betting floodwaters would rise a foot or less. Instead, Sandy wiped out a third of the Asbury Avenue location's inventory.

"I've spent the last 15 years here, and I've never seen this," Corrigan said, shaking his head.

Neither have the owners of 103-year-old Wallace Hardware, who keep a unique flood gauge in their longtime Asbury Avenue storefront. Successive generations of Wallaces have marked flood levels from major storms on one side of a work bench, said Dawn Wallace-Wentz.

The line for a December 1992 nor'easter lies 6 or 7 inches up the bench's side. Even higher is a yellowed paper marking the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, a devastating event that prompted New Jersey to set tougher rules for building along the coast. These marks eventually spawned codes that required new buildings -- like Wallace Hardware's modern West Avenue annex -- to be raised several feet above ground on wooden pilings.

Now there is a new mark on the Wallaces' bench, the one against which future disasters will have to be measured. It is written 8 inches above the 1962 line in fresh black ink that identifies the fateful, expensive arrival of Hurricane Sandy, "October 29, 2012."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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