ATLANTIC CITY – Casino lights still blinked through the rain on the Boardwalk, but Atlantic City was emptying quickly Sunday night amid waves pounding the beach in advance of Hurricane Sandy.
Traffic was jammed on the Garden State Parkway and other highways early in the day as tens of thousands of Shore residents heeded Gov. Christie's order to evacuate the barrier islands by 4 p.m. Winds whipped across causeways, making it difficult to drive at points.
As always in a hurricane, some diehards chose to tough out the approaching "frankenstorm," as some forecasters dubbed it.
Locals who decided to stay were hunkering down for the long haul, some with kayaks at the ready, despite Christie's description of them as "stupid."
"Yeah, I know," Mortimer Spreng, of Ventnor, said of the storm warnings.
Spreng was staying put in a house a block from the beach with a housemate, five dogs and a couple cats. He was dog-sitting for some neighbors who had evacuated.
"It's been 20 years since the last time the ocean met the bay," he said. "We do have contingency plans. I've lived down here forever.. . . I'm going to stay. I have caution, and I understand the storm is going to be bad.""
Shore towns began to see flooding Sunday morning, with Sea Isle City's Landis Avenue almost entirely flooded by 11 a.m. and water creeping into side streets in Ocean City. In Atlantic City, waves invaded the beach as a few lone security officers boarded up storefronts on the boardwalk.
At the Trump Palace casino, locksmith and security guard Art Hartwell laughed as he turned stragglers away from the casino, which was shuttering its doors at around 1 p.m.
"You get the crazy ones who want to party it out," he said. "You could sandbag this place and they'd still try to get in."
By 2 p.m., significant lines had formed in the convention center, where the city was arranging bus service to evacuate residents to emergency shelters.
"I wanted to stay, but somebody put me in a headlock and dragged me here," laughed John Williams, pointing to his wife, Robshima Hood-Williams, who were waiting for a bus with their three children at the convention center. "We're running away from some rain."
Hood-Williams said the couple simply figured they'd play it safe.
"We live a couple blocks from the beach," she said. "We're excited to leave for the safety of our children."
In Longport, a line of cars poured into the end of the island, with people from nearby mainland communities and others about to evacuate taking one last look before Sandy's arrival. The beach block at 11th street, where the island ends, had flooded from the ocean crashing over the rocks, and had been blocked off.
Natalie and Russell Weems, of Mays Landing, brought their two sons, Jared, 9, and Mason, 15, to see the churned up ocean, the froth up to the ankles, the pounding of the surf. They had fond memories of waiting out storms in their homes in Ventnor, where they grew up.
"I love it," said Natalie. "We're used to coming down and seeing the storms. I'm a little concerned only because it's a direct hit. During the 1944 Hurricane, a piece of the Boardwalk with a bench still attached ended up in front of my grandmother's house on Rhode Island Avenue in Atlantic City."
In Margate, Dino's Sub Shop, which prides itself on never closing, was churning out subs.
"God Bless Dino's!" read the spray paint on the plywood that boarded up the shop windows.
Emergency personnel in Atlantic City said they were still trying to convince some residents to leave Sunday night. The city had set up shelters of last resort at several schools.
Emergency management chief Tom Foley said he believed that most locals had cleared out of low-lying area.
"In some of our high rises, a lot of people have hunkered down," he said. "If they don't want to leave, they don't want to leave. That's up to them."
Foley estimated they'd have about 3,000 bused out by Monday. They'd estimated that another 3,000 might head to shelters. The shelters were underutilized Sunday night.
"We have a high tide coming up in an hour and a half," he said at around 6:30 p.m. Sunday. "When that high tide hits and that's when you start to get water in your first floor, that's when you'll call 911. We'll probably pick up another 200 to 300 people then."
Foley cautioned that emergency personnel will stop sweeps when winds reach 45 m.p.h. on the island. It's unsafe to drive then, he said, and the city doesn't want to risk the lives of first responders.
Contact staff writer Aubrey Whelan at 215-854-2771, at email@example.com, or follow @aubreyjwhelan on Twitter.