(MCT) — PHILADELPHIA — With powerful, damaging winds and relentless rain, Hurricane Sandy barreled into New Jersey and Pennsylvania on Monday, causing widespread flooding in shore communities, smashing part of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, and leaving hundreds of thousands to hunker down in homes without power.
More than 4,600 New Jersey residents were evacuated to dozens of state, county and municipal shelters as the storm surge, heavy precipitation and full moon exacerbated tidal flooding, state officials said. Power outages were widespread, affecting about 1.3 million people in New Jersey and 166,000 Peco customers in the Philadelphia area by Monday evening.
At an evening news briefing in Ewing, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he feared loss of life in Atlantic City after the mayor directed residents to shelters in the city against his wishes — including one in a school one block from the bay. That shelter flooded.
Christie, who has long feuded with Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, called off all evacuation missions in the Atlantic City area as the heart of the storm slammed into the coast.
“At this juncture there’s no other way for us to get them,” Christie said. “They’re going to have to ride out the storm there until at least 7 a.m.”
Speaking for her husband, who she noted was at a shelter with the displaced residents, Nynell Langford said: “The mayor’s only comment is that all this is not about the governor and is strictly about the constituents of this city.”
Christie also criticized residents who stayed on the barrier islands, particularly in Atlantic County, where a higher percentage of people defied gubernatorial evacuation orders than elsewhere.
President Barack Obama called Christie Monday for a one-on-one conversation. Christie told the president that FEMA was doing an “excellent” job, and Obama gave him a number at the White House to reach him directly.
Christie, who ordered the Atlantic City casinos closed and the barrier islands evacuated, said earlier Monday that at least 50 percent of residents in Brigantine had not left, and 25 percent of those in Seaside Heights remained. “The decision to stay on the barrier islands was a bad one,” the governor said.
Of the estimated 35,000 people living in Cape May County’s barrier island towns — including Ocean City, Strathmere, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Cape May — only about 60 percent had left, officials said.
Martin Pagliughi, Cape May County’s director of emergency management, made it clear to holdouts that once Sandy hit, first responders would not help them evacuate.
“We can’t put their lives at risk,” Pagliughi said.
About 90 people were riding out the storm at Middle Township Elementary School No. 2. “If this keeps going the way they say it will, this one is going to be in the history books for a long time,” said Herbert Siefken, manager of a shelter.
In Atlantic City, the pounding surf and surge at high tide destroyed an 80-foot length of the Boardwalk at New Hampshire Avenue. Large parts of it were carried two blocks away, where they floated in the middle of the street. This segment of the Boardwalk received similar damage in the storms of 1962 and 1944.
Waves, meanwhile, continued to crash over the broken Boardwalk and seawall, parts of which had broken up as well. Ocean water crashed onto Atlantic Avenue, where cars were half-submerged.
Ocean City was essentially under water. Ocean City High School and storefronts along Asbury Avenue — a main drag — were flooded.
Some residents who declined to evacuate were temporarily isolated until low tide allowed rescuers to transport them to shelters in Upper Township on the mainland, according to Laurie Howey, a spokeswoman for Ocean City.
“Our greatest concern right now is the people are beginning to panic, realizing that they really should have gotten out,” said Howey, noting that the city had bused hundreds of the town’s 15,000 year-round residents to the mainland shelter.
In Cape May County, about 500 people remained in shelters that had been set up in various inland communities. Most will likely remain there at least into Tuesday, said Lenora Boninfante, a spokeswoman for the county.
“This is not done yet,” she said.
The barrier islands will likely remain off-limits overnight and access will not be restored until police, firefighters and emergency personnel can determine it is safe for residents to return, Boninfante said.
The flooding in the downbeach communities of Ventnor, Margate and Longport was substantial, as bad as anybody could remember, with many streets under several feet of water, and houses along the back bays surrounded by water several feet high.
The ocean met the bay in parts of Longport, the narrowest part of the island, and Ventnor Heights was under water from midmorning on. Water rose several feet around the familiar Wawa stores. Spots that always flood — the point in Longport, Ventnor Heights — were inundated even worse. And places that almost never flood — Ventnor Avenue in Ventnor, some higher-elevation beach blocks — were submerged at high tide.
In Ventnor Heights, unmoored Hobie Cats were floating down the beach, and newly installed dune fencing was washed away by the crashing surf.
“I had people call me at 2 a.m. hysterical, saying they wanted to leave,” said Emergency Management Director William Melfi.
In Brigantine, where many of the island’s 9,500 residents had stayed, the golf course and streets were flooded.
And in North Wildwood, first responders had to wade down the streets during rescue operations.
Sandy also affected rail travelers. Amtrak service was suspended through Tuesday while SEPTA and PATCO hoped to restore some service by Tuesday afternoon.
Motorists faced challenges, too. The Garden State Parkway was closed south of Exit 129 in Woodbridge Township because of flooding, and more “significant closures” were being considered on both the Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike, New Jersey officials said. Part of the Turnpike from Exit 7A to 8 was closed.
All traffic was banned late Monday from the Delaware River Port Authority bridges (the Commodore Barry, Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross Bridges), and the Tacony-Palmyra and Burlington-Bristol Bridges.
Along Big Timber Creek in Bellmawr, residents watched water levels rise, then shrink with the cycle of tides.
“Around 7 a.m. it was really bad. The river was coming up right over the road, but it’s all receded now,” said Steve Rymsza, 60. “We’ll see what happens when high tide hits again.”
Many roads across Camden County were flooded. Kaighns Avenue and several blocks of River Road were closed in Camden along with westbound Route 38 in Cherry Hill and Route 70 at Springdale Road due to downed poles.
“Floodwaters are usually deeper than they appear,” Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard said. “Just one foot of flowing water is powerful enough to sweep vehicles off the road. Remember: Turn around, don’t drown.”
In Burlington County, dams were opened to lower water levels on all the branches of the Rancocas Creek. But Freeholder Director Bruce Garganio warned that residents who live along the creek should be prepared to evacuate.
“I’m not comfortable saying ‘think worst case scenario,’ ” he said, “but all branches of the creek are subject to flooding.”
Ralph Shrom, spokesman for Burlington County, said Sandy was expected to be the “fourth major event” to cause serious flooding in the areas surrounding the Rancocas Creek over the past eight years. In 2004, more than 13 inches of rain fell, causing extensive damage, followed by a storm in 2007 and then Irene last year.
The county closed the Centerton Bridge, connecting Mount Laurel and Willingboro, due to flooding, Shrom said. The bridge is located on the North Branch of the creek.
In Gloucester County, the levee and floodgates that guard East Greenwich and Logan Township from overflow from the Delaware River were functional Monday night, said Debra Sellitto, county spokeswoman.
The levee had been reinforced with 2 feet of concrete in recent days in anticipation of the storm, she said.
At his news briefing Monday, Christie warned residents not to “tap into your creative juices and jury-rig a power source.
“If it looks stupid, it is stupid, and you’re going to wind up hurting yourselves and others,” he said.
(Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Jan Hefler, James Osborne, Alfred Lubrano, Sam Carchidi, Aubrey Whelan and Jessica Parks.)