Snow slams the shore: 'Going outside felt like being pelted with sand'

People battled high winds and blowing snow while walking along Atlantic Avenue in Atlantic City on Jan. 4, 2018.

VENTNOR, N.J. — Beach blocks filled with drifting snow. Howling winds drove sand and snow into frozen wavy patterns on the beach. Shore police and fire departments attended to broken-down cars, a stranded bus, downed wires, a woman in labor, a stuck ambulance.

And still the snow came down, overnight and all day, blowing and drifting, driven by 30 mph winds that gusted higher, snow totals and drifts rising higher and higher, reducing visibility in Atlantic City and other beach towns that were socked with a rare but powerful nor’easter snowstorm that plunged the quiet winter into high alert.

Still, the driving snow had a familiar feel to it, said Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans.

“Going outside felt like being pelted with sand,” he said.

Philadelphia, South Jersey, and the Shore all felt the effects of the highly anticipated “bomb cyclone,” but it was the Atlantic coast that got truly buried in New Jersey and elsewhere.

The brutal storm smacked the coastal Southeast with a rare blast of snow and ice, first hitting parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina with the heaviest snowfall in nearly three decades. Photos on social media showed beaches on the Outer Banks blanketed with snow, not sand.

At the Jersey Shore on Thursday, plowing on streets more familiarly filled with beach-goers was an exercise in futility in swirling and drifting snow, as public works crews went over roads repeatedly throughout the day.  Ventnor turned its stoplights to flashing yellow — something many locals have always wanted the town to do in the off-season, but not much satisfaction was found seeing them through a snow bomb. (Margate’s already flash in winter.)

A travel ban went into effect around 11:30 a.m. in Atlantic County. Around the same time, Ventnor firefighters responded to a call of a woman in labor and dropped her off at the hospital.

“It was the third ambulance in our fleet,” said Ventnor Fire Chief Michael Cahill. “One was stuck in a snow bank. One was on a respiratory call. Wires down, broken pipes, fire alarms. We’re just running from call to call.”

In Philadelphia, callers to Philly311 were greeted with a message that the city was not accepting requests for plowing or salting on side streets. Streets Department workers were focusing on major and secondary roads and bridges. The message deterred some resident calls, but Philly311 had fielded about 700 calls as of noon Thursday — a light morning for the city service. Most calls were from renters complaining their heat is out or residents confused about trash and recycling pick-up schedules.

Tim Thornton, executive director of Philly311, said Friday will be an “insane” day for his office. He expects 3,000 or more calls, which better mirrors the workload on a warm summer day.

The day of a snowstorm is generally quiet, Thornton said. “And then the next day we sort of get punched.”

Around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, a few SEPTA Routes 9 and 65 buses became stuck near the corner of Ridge and Manayunk Avenues while trying to get up the hill, a SEPTA spokeswoman said. Five passengers and the drivers had to wait for an hour and a half until a city plow truck arrived to knock snow and ice out of their way, she said.

In Feasterville, Bucks County, Dana Aspray’s seven-mile morning commute down Bristol Road took an hour, twice as long as usual. What had looked like a dusting from her bedroom window, she said, turned out to be a sheet of ice.

“It’s just terrible,” said Aspray. Going up a hill, a SEPTA van almost slid into her. The entire time, she said, she was praying. And as she got closer to work at Physicians Endoscopy, she started to experience engine trouble. “That was just salt in the wound,” Aspray, 48, said.

But it was the Jersey Shore that was getting the worst of it, with up to 18 inches of snow expected in some areas, along with gale-force gusts. By early evening, 17 inches already had fallen in Brick, 16 inches in Margate, 12.7 inches at Atlantic City International Airport, and 17 inches in Cape May Court House. The National Weather Service reported gusts of more than 50 mph. Amounts were more modest inland, with up to three inches reported in the immediate Philadelphia area.

Gov. Christie declared a state of emergency in Cape May, Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth Counties.

Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said the biggest impact from the snow and high winds was felt on the roads, not the beaches.  The county closed both Fulling and Breakwater Roads, which run on either side of the Cape May airport.  Crews just could not keep up with the snow drifts.

“People are getting stuck in snow drifts,” Foster said. “.Even our snow plows are getting stuck.”

Conditions were likely to remain poor through the weekend because of the expected extreme cold.  The snow will freeze hard on the streets, he said, as temperatures reach low single digits Friday into Saturday.  Salt won’t melt it at those temperatures.

In Margate, meanwhile, a half-dozen devoted locals showed up by midday to sit at the bar at Roberts Place on Atlantic Avenue.

“I probably got like 20 phone calls asking if we were opening,” said bartender Pravin Gurung.

Joe Giaccone, the owner of Jo-Jo’s Restaurant in Pleasantville, said he had to close his restaurant because employees were unable to get there. Instead, he went to Roberts, picking up a few buddies along the way.

“I picked up a couple people who were walking, took them to Roberts,” he joked. “The roads are bad. The beaches in Margate are not that good. At the Longport jetty, the tide’s up, it’s blowing like crazy.”

On Long Beach Island, police in Harvey Cedars reported white-out and blizzard-like conditions, and the beginning of beach erosion typical of a nor’easter.

“We do have beach erosion that is occurring right now,” said Patrolman Tim Butler, broadcasting on Facebook Live as he and Officer Benjamin Mrozinski drove up a snowy Long Beach Boulevard.

“The waves are basically almost crashing into the bottom of the dunes,” he said. “So that cliff that everybody knows after a nor’easter with the beach erosion is forming right now.”

Back in Ventnor, firefighters drove military vehicles to conduct house checks, climbing through thigh-high drifts.

Driving around, Fire Chief Cahill said streets would be frozen solid Friday, when his department would be digging out 485 fire hydrants. About two feet of water filled some streets during the morning high tide off the bay, Cahill said.

He said Ventnor’s public works department followed ambulances and fire trucks to help dig out stuck cars, and assist in ambulance calls.

Ventnor Police Chief Doug Biagi said drifting built to more than three feet in places. “As quick as they plow, the snow drifts are building back up,” Biagi said. “It’s frigid, and the snow building is so quick. It’s useless to plow.”

In North Wildwood, Mayor Patrick Rosenello was up before dawn, but by mid-afternoon was calling the storm “manageable.”

He said that swirling winds came predominantly from the west (what would be a land breeze in summer), which worked to the town’s favor.

“Coming off the west, that saved us,” he said. “If we had 40- to 50-mile-per-hour winds off the ocean, that would be significant tidal flooding.”

In Atlantic City, Evans said it might be hard to tell when the snow had stopped.

“It could have already stopped,” he said around 1:20 p.m. “But with the wind you wouldn’t even be able to tell.”

 

 

Staff writers Anthony R. Wood, Erin McCarthy, Jason Laughlin, Frank Kummer, and Patricia Madej contributed to this article.