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Hurricane Irene: The Big Storm That Brought the Jersey Shore Together

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Some say it was the big storm that wasn't very big at all.

A year ago this weekend, Hurricane Irene plowed into the East Coast with a roar, churning up the shoreline and leaving shuttered businesses and displaced families in its wake. By the time it got to the Jersey Shore, however, the storm that once packed 115 mph winds had fizzled into a tropical storm that felled trees, flooded roads and knocked out power to tens of thousands, but kept many more free from harm.

Still, few argue that Hurricane Irene did something that had rarely -- if ever -- been done before, doing as much to bring together the Jersey Shore, and give it the good name it has long had, that many believe a certain MTV show has not.

It galvanized and mobilized a region that had escaped storms and calamities such as these for two decades, or more, causing tens of thousands to evacuate in an orderly and peaceful way, and keep themselves out of the storm's path. It was a storm that brought spectators to the sands of Long Branch, Manasquan, Belmar and Point Pleasant Beach to film and snap pictures of the water splashing up to the dunes, just as it was destroying them and chewing up more of the shoreline.

As it churned overnight on Aug. 26, 2011, it still managed to kill at least four people, force hundreds into packed shelters and shut down businesses throughout the state. It was a hurricane that was supposed to be the first to hit the region directly since 1985. But for those old enough to remember, Irene paled in comparison to the deadly Nor'easter that plunged much of the Jersey Shore under water in December 1992. Still, it was windy and destructive enough to cause Governor Chris Christie to demand that people "get the hell off the beach." Had they stayed there, and not heeded his warning, perhaps it would have been worse.

There was enough damage that the Federal Emergency Management Administration temporarily opened a Disaster Recovery Center at Brick Township Civic Plaza on Chambers Bridge Road. FEMA approved more than $140 million in assistance to disaster survivors, while the Small Business Administration approved more than $48 million in disaster loans to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes, and nonprofit organizations. As it turned out, for the hundreds of thousands of people who felt or heard the wind as it howled outside their homes, the storm that left many homes, businesses and lives in a state of disrepair -- however temporary -- was big enough.

The following are some of the stories that go back to that weekend, compiled by our Patch staff as it scoured the Jersey Shore during and after the storm, and found a population that had protected itself well, and recovered smoothly. Doug Bergen, Noel Aliseo, Patricia Miller, Christopher Sheldon and Graelyn Brashear covered these areas and documented the events as they happened:

Long Branch, N.J.

The days leading up to the storm were days of preparation and speculation for many residents, including officials, who seemed to agree that preparing for the storm was worse than the storm itself.

"We really got lucky," Mayor Adam Schneider said. "It was luck that it moved a few degrees in the other direction."

A shelter was opened at Long Branch Middle School and hundreds of residents went there to escape their homes, most of which were located in flood-prone areas and near the oceanfront.

When the actual hurricane hit, hundreds of residents lost power, trees were knocked down and streets were flooded.

Power outages proved to be a persistent problem throughout the area. A First Energy spokesman reported that more than 110,000 customers had been left without power in Central Jersey with 80,000, or more, in Monmouth County alone.

But, in Long Branch, the area that received the most damage was an apartment complex on the corner of Howland Avenue and Ocean Boulevard that had its roof torn off.

At the time, it was thought that a small tornado touched down, but Schneider said it was likely a "microburst."

"I remember following the path it took and you could see exactly where it hit," Schneider said. "It came right off the ocean and hit the apartment complex."

Luckily, the residents in the apartment and that area had all evacuated, and the damage done has been repaired.

Rumson and Fair Haven, N.J.

Trees and power lines were down for days as hundreds of residents - perhaps thousands - in Rumson and Fair Haven had no power after being pounded by Irene.

The Rumson Police Department sent out a message to residents urging them to stay inside their homes: "Be advised, due to Hurricane Irene, there are numerous live power lines down on the ground or tangled in trees. Use extreme caution if you need to leave your home."

Department of Public Works crews were out cleaning up after the storm, removing trees from the streets so they could clear the area for emergency crews.

In Fair Haven, some residents had power two days after the storm hit, but there was some tree damage and power lines down. Police officers were telling residents they had no idea when the power would be restored.

"Roads are mostly clear, but people should try to stay inside," Mayor Mike Halfacre said at the time. "Our PD, FD and DPW have been doing a tremendous job all night."

Manasquan and Belmar, N.J.

Two days after the storm hit, the lights were still out for some as people throughout the Manasquan and Belmar area began to survey the damage left in the wake of Irene.

Fallen tree limbs, flooded streets and a ravaged beachfront were common sights in southeastern Monmouth County.

In Manasquan, flooded roadways along the borough's waterfront impaired an effort to extinguish a two-alarm blaze in a home on Brielle Road.

With roads made impassable by fire trucks, the borough had prepared by equipping high-wheel OEM vehicles with water pumps and fire extinguishers. The firefighters pumped floodwater to fight the flames until they could successfully hook up hydrants.

"We could have very easily lost the west end of Brielle Road," Kircher said, crediting the Manasquan Volunteer Fire Department with minimizing a potentially disastrous situation.

On Route 35 in Belmar, motorists encountered blacked out street lights at the 8th Avenue intersection and a road closure to the flood prone area between Route 71 and 16th Avenue.

Belmar's beachfront also took a significant hit with numerous reports indicating that the storm surge created by Irene pushed water onto Ocean Avenue.

Berkeley Township, N.J.

Mandatory evacuations were underway before Irene arrived on Friday, Aug. 26. Residents had until noon Saturday to get out. Police officers handed notices or taped them to front doors.

The mainland evacuations were the first that then-Township Councilman, now Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr. could remember. Amato has lived in Bayville for 40 years.

The day before, then-Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari and Ocean County Emergency Management officials hunkered down at Robert J. Miller Airpark off Route 530 to brace themselves and residents for the coming storm.

Vicari wasted no time declaring a state of emergency in Ocean County, well ahead of the hurricane, which was expected to hit hard the next morning.

"Our goal is we don't want one life lost," Vicari said at the press conference. "In our lifetimes, this is the biggest hurricane we've ever experienced."

Berkeley officials and residents were hampered by evacuation orders, because there were and still aren't public shelters available in Berkeley, due to a lack of generators. Central Regional High School and the Berkeley Township Elementary School went unused.

Berkeley residents who had to leave either headed to family and friends or had to take their chances getting into a Toms River shelter. Toms River High School North filled up rapidly and officials there had to open more schools to cope with evacuees.

The worst arrived on Saturday, Aug. 27. Power went out in a number of areas throughout the township. Trees blew down, branches littered the roadways. But the winds never reached the expected 100 miles per hour.

When it was all over, South Seaside Park, Pelican Island, Good Luck Point and Glen Cove, were hit the hardest. Flood waters were two to three feet deep in Pelican Island and South Seaside Park. Roads into Pelican Island were blocked off.

Barnegat Township, N.J.

A day after the storm hit, police barred traffic from a section of West Bay Avenue in front of St. Mary's Church while they waited for Jersey Central Power & Light crews to clear a downed wire on the road.

Residents gathered up tree limbs from front yards and, once the evacuation order for the eastern section of the township was lifted, drove out to the bayfront to take a look at a still-flooded municipal dock parking lot and take in the scoured but intact bay beach.

On Railroad Avenue between West Bay Avenue and Burr Street, Michelle and Harry Van Schmidt spent much of the day clearing and cutting up two of the three trees in their backyard that were toppled by the high winds - all of which missed their house.

On East Bay Avenue, Eric Calvert was finally unpacking his car and moving things back into his one-story home across the street from the bay. He and his girlfriend had fled the house ahead of Irene, going to friends' houses further inland.

"We knew we had to get out, because of the severity of the storm," Calvert said. "I've lived in Barnegat all my life, and I've never been rattled this way."

Ocean City, N.J.

Even as the last gusts of wind from Irene continued to blow, Ocean City was beginning the work of cleaning up from a storm that spared the island the worst of its fury.

A massive Category 3 hurricane just four days prior, Irene led emergency management officials to call for a mandatory evacuation of Ocean City, the first since Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

But the highest recorded gusts of wind on instruments at 59th Street were in the 50 to 59 mph range, according to Frank Donato, who served as Ocean City's emergency management coordinator during the storm.

Two days after the storm hit, all roads and bridges into Ocean City were open and evacuated residents were streaming back into town to find homes that were spared any significant damage. Christie also lifted orders that had closed southbound traffic on the Garden State Parkway.

Many side streets remained flooded with fresh rainwater as the high tide receded, but the flooding seemed to be limited to the low-lying streets and intersections that typically flood in any storm with heavy rainfall.

The beaches appeared to be spared significant erosion. Boats and homes on the bayside lagoons also appeared to fare well -- with none showing any signs of significant damage.

The island "didn't seem to lose much power, if any at all," Donato said.

"For the first full-scale mandatory evacuation in 26 years, I think it went very well," Donato said.

This story originally appeared on Patch.

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