How I survived the storm and learned to love meteorologists

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Downbeach Current Staff Writer Shaun Smith rode out Sandy with his family on North Surrey Avenue in Ventnor. VENTNOR - I can't say we weren't warned. By the time the storm hit on Monday evening, I was feeling as though I had made a mistake by staying. But we survived on North Surrey Avenue with more water than I have ever seen in my 27 years of living in Ventnor.

In the first high tide Monday morning, water had covered the first step on my front porch. During the storm of 1992, the water had just touched the front step at its peak. It was incredible to see the water keep rising, and even when the tide was low, still covering most of my street.

I stayed at home with my mother and grandmother. My mother's friend from two blocks away had water dangerously close to getting in her home during the first high tide and came here to ride out the storm with us on Monday afternoon. Lori, her husband, Fred, daughter Jaden, 2, and nephew Michael, 15, stuck it out with us, as we were better off than most: A gas fireplace and stove kept us warm and fed. My mother cooked a big meal of frozen crab cakes and pasta, but most of us were too anxious to eat much.

By 5 p.m. the water was again on my front lawn. High tide wasn't until 8 p.m., and the water was already high. One of the higher points in town is the parking lot across the street from my house at Titus Field. However, the cars that parked there had water halfway up during that first high tide Monday. When I looked out my front porch, all I could see was a river of water flowing toward the ocean - not a good sign when you live near the back bay.

As the tide was rising, we played Monopoly to help keep our minds off the storm and listened to the radio to hear updates on where it was headed. We were on our phones, using Facebook and Twitter trying to get the latest information - although we read and heard conflicting accounts throughout the night. The scenes that many people saw on social media were the same that we were seeing as we sat in the middle of it.

"Pathmark looks like it has three feet of water," I said, scanning my phone. "So does Ventnor Avenue in Margate." It was scary not knowing when the water would stop rising, when the winds would stop pounding, and when we would feel safe again.

When the howling wind finally died down, we went outside to an eerily calm sight as the eye of the storm passed over us. In the darkness, only the roofs of the cars across the street were visible. Water was over the third step and reaching for the fourth, and there was only one more before it would be over the front porch. We stood outside, tried to take photos and were amazed at how calm and warm it was outside.

"Is it over?" we wondered. It wasn't, as the winds and rain came back with incredible force; not long after we were back at the game board, commenting on the properties we had acquired. Landing on the spaces on the Monopoly board - Ventnor Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, Boardwalk, Marvin Gardens (sic) - it brought a whole new meaning to the game. When we looked outside, the water was slowly receding. I never thought I would be so happy to see water above the second step to the house. The water was still at an incredible level, and we had no power, but the worst seemed to be over.

We were among the lucky ones. Our friends on the 600 Block of North Somerset Avenue had 18 inches of water in their home. My friend on Dudley and Edgewater avenues had five feet in her first level.

On Tuesday I awoke to helicopters and sunshine. State police, Black Hawk and Coast Guard helicopters were circling the island, and it was eerily calm for a little while before the wind and the rain picked up again. Flooding was still an issue in Ventnor Heights, and as I made my way to the beach, water had yet to recede from the street ends of the beach block.

I walked around, talked to neighbors and offered help where I could. Ralph Venzie told me that during the eye of the storm he saw a shipping container in the ocean heading toward the Ventnor fishing pier. On Tuesday morning it was resting on the beach about five feet from the entrance of the pier.

My neighbor, Chuck Eberson, circulation manager for The Current, also stayed for the storm. He picked me up in the newspaper van and we drove down Ventnor Avenue into Longport. Most stores on the avenue were boarded up, and a telephone pole had snapped off at the base and was lying on someone's lawn in Ventnor. A police officer stopped us at Longport Point, but he let us through to report for The Current.

What I saw at the point in Longport was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Months before I was enjoying the bayside deck of a home nearby. As I approached the front door of a home on Point Drive, I saw it was cracked open - all the furniture was pushed to the door and water was coming out of the opening at the bottom. I could see clearly through to the back, where Longport Office of Emergency Management coordinator Bruce Funk was in the back.

"How did you get back there?" I yelled to him over a twisted pile of dock and fencing in the side yard.

"I started at the end and worked my way down. I'm trying to find a way out now," he yelled back.

Eberson and I went to the last house and walked along the bulkhead. On nearly every home, the back windows and doors had blown into the house, pushing all the contents to the front. The powerful surge took parts of bulkhead, decks, fences, doors, windows, walls, furniture - even a piano was pushed through the home. Some had their foundations completely moved or cracked. Most street ends in Longport were filled with sand, extending to Atlantic Avenue, where a backhoe was piling up sand higher than our van so the street would be passable for emergency vehicles.

By the time I got back to Ventnor, teams of police and firefighters were going door to door. They were telling people to leave because the power might not be back on for a week to two weeks. They said that once we left, we would not be allowed back on the island, probably for a week.

In the first team that came to my house, the firefighters were from Indiana and were helping evacuate people to a shelter in Buena. The Egg Harbor Township firefighters who came to my house about 30 minutes later took down the names and birthdates of people who decided to stay. On the homes that were empty, yellow caution tape was tied to the door handle.

I asked if there was any truth to rumors of robbery and looting in town; as I heard from people on Somerset Avenue that a home on Oxford Avenue was robbed. Mayor Mike Bagnell confirmed the reports when I spoke to him Wednesday.

As I write this on Halloween, Wednesday, Oct. 31 there is still a massive amount of work to be done. An entire shed needs to be emptied and probably rebuilt. Anything that was left lower than two feet off the ground is soaking. I have just finished piling up the shingles that littered the street - from my house and my neighbors'. And the back gate is now closed with a bungie cord and no longer slapping in the wind, keeping me up at night.

The recovery has begun in Ventnor, and it seems like it might be a long time before it is over. On Wednesday, as I continued to clean up after the storm, I helped my neighbors, pushing cars from the lot across the street to a home two blocks away, offering food and water to some of the folks who were less prepared than us. Everywhere I go, people are on street corners, talking about how bad they had it and those who had it worse.

It is in these trying times that residents are pulling together. Everyone is lending a helping hand. We are looking out for each other, and I'm meeting people who live in my town who I have never met before. The police and fire departments are patrolling the area and helping out the citizens. State police and Atlantic County sheriff's officers are also in town. Some people are leaving; others are staying behind to work on the clean-up effort.

As my neighbor pulled off the hatch to her crawlspace, minnows swam away. It's going to be a while before my town of Ventnor is restored to normal.

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