A flooded street in Atlantic City, N.J. (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. — The rain was falling in sheets, the winds were relentless, and Fire Chief Bill Danz was fuming.
Dozens of people along the bay that fronts this sprawling coastal community were determined to ride out Hurricane Sandy in their homes — until the flood came lapping at their front doors.
"We told them yesterday. We told them the day before," Danz, carrying a walkie-talkie and wearing a yellow slicker, said angrily. "Now we have to put our people in harm's way to go get them."
Hours before the giant storm smashed into the New Jersey coast Monday night, conditions already were ugly. A rush of cold gray water from Lakes Bay had washed into a low-lying area packed with bungalows, apartment buildings and low-rent motels. So authorities mustered their rescue equipment: ambulances, boats, fire engines and a big dump truck.
Starting about 11 a.m., police officers slogged through knee-deep water under leaden skies, knocking on doors and telling the die-hards it was time to go. If they refused, "Write down their names," Danz instructed the officers. If they ended up drowning, he explained, no one could accuse the police of not trying.
Calls for help started to roll in. "We've got a baby in a motel," one fireman yelled. Next: "We've got a couple on oxygen."
As in many New Jersey towns, the fire department here is volunteer. They work as laborers, carpenters or in the casinos across the bay in Atlantic City. And as in many towns, some residents shrugged off evacuation orders from state and local officials who ordered, pleaded and begged them to get out before Sandy's wrath made it impossible to do so.
"It's our own stupidity," said Fran Shavico, 66, one of those who thought she could hold out. "What a dumb decision."
Her husband, Vince, sat in the firehouse breathing from an oxygen tank. He has severe emphysema, she said, but was afraid to leave his possessions.
"I feel if God didn't want us to leave, he wouldn't have sent a policeman to the door," she said. It was a joke, she added, "to keep from crying."
Phil Schepacarter said the message was short and sweet when police banged on his door: "Mandatory evacuation. Are you leaving?"
He didn't need much convincing, not after watching morning tides swallow his street and come up to his porch. "This is crazy; it's never happened before," he said. He, his wife and two children were headed to a motel 30 miles away.
The rescuers worried that darkness and high tides were coming. So was the storm, which had south Jersey in the cross hairs. Once the winds got too fierce, or the storm surge too dangerous, the rescue operation would shut down.
"Then it's get your kayak out," said police Lt. Dave Algier.
By 2 p.m., some highways were already impassable, and getting worse. Police cars blocked the causeway leading to Atlantic City. Rain came down in torrents and winds whipped the bay. Emergency shelters began to fill up with a steady stream of stragglers.
Danz decided to speed things up: He called for the township dump truck, a black behemoth that could get through almost anything.
As the huge truck rumbled from street to street, police helped about two dozen people climb up a steel ladder and into the open back. They huddled in the driving rain as the truck lumbered on, finally returning to the firehouse. Then the bedraggled refugees were loaded on school buses and taken to shelters.
"Extremely scary," said Miguel Romero, owner of a small contracting business. He and his family were still dripping wet, including their dog, a trembling Shih Tzu named Chewie. They headed to the one shelter in the county that was accepting pets.
"I wanted to stay and protect our property," Romero said. "But then I looked at the street, the water coming up. I said, 'We need to get out of here.'"
The Egg Harbor crews brought about 50 people to safety, though other folks walked and drove out on their own during the long day. The mayor, James "Sonny" McCullough, said he thought everybody found refuge before darkness fell.
"Mother Nature at its worst," he marveled. "I just hope we don't lose anybody."
At the firehouse, no one was going home.
"It's going to be a long night, sonny boy," the chief said to a young volunteer. "There's still all the trees we've got to cut tonight."