By Tim Kelly
There may not be many storm chasers in Ocean City, but there are plenty of storm watchers.
As Hurricane Florence gained strength a thousand miles offshore and took aim at a likely East Coast landfall on Thursday, so did the traditional run on bread and milk, and storm-related items like sandbags, flashlights and plywood.
But for a significant number of Ocean City residents and visitors, the venture from a toasty bedroom into the flooded streets, 50-plus mile per hour wind gusts and eroded beaches had more to do with observing nature’s fury on Monday than preparing for it.
“This is fantastic. This is (part of) why my daughter moved to Ocean City,” said Dennis Matulewicz, of Palmyra, Burlington County.
“And this is why we’re here,” he added kiddingly. “To be walking around Ocean City before the hurricane.”
His wife, Maureen, said the couple were house-hunting themselves, to be closer to their daughter, Kelly Hudak, who had given birth to her eighth child over the weekend.
“She has kids in the Primary, Intermediate and High Schools,” Maureen Matulewicz said.
Their appointment to look at one property was cancelled, Maureen said, because the route to the Bay Avenue residence was impassable. This fact did not deter them in the slightest.
“It’s just so nice here,” Maureen said, while noting the irony of the statement given in the midst of a wind-driven shower. “(Possible hurricanes) are part of the deal here. It’s exciting.”
Florence was re-classified as a potentially devastating Category 4 storm on Monday, according to the National Weather Service. The projected track could include Ocean City and all of the New Jersey coast, the Weather Service advised on its website.
However, it said the eventual landfall could take place “anywhere from the Georgia-South Carolina border to Norfolk, Virginia.”
Most predictions as of Monday were for the storm to lessen to a Category 3 once it hit land, and for New Jersey to be at risk for extensive rain and flooding that could worsen. Also, the Weather Service said it was still too early to get an accurate read on the storm’s path once it hit land, and could not rule out dangerous storm surges and property damage as far north as New York.
Locally, the Weather Service called for a Coastal Flood Warning to be in effect until at least 2 a.m. Tuesday due to lingering effects from the weekend storm.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian issued a statement that it was unlikely at this time for an evacuation, though reminding people “it’s always a good idea” to have an escape plan and route in mind and to purchase any necessary food and supplies ahead of Florence’s advance and possible arrival.
The Acme supermarket on 8th Street and the Wawa on West Avenue appeared to be slightly busier than usual, around noon, as did Wallace’s Hardware store on 8th.
“It’s been steady all morning and now it’s picking up, but it’s still not crazy busy,” said an Acme employee who asked not to be named. “Nothing like a typical day in the summer.”
To the curious, the storm warnings weren’t as important as getting a first-hand look at the ocean’s rippling whitecaps or feeling the sting of wind-driven sand on their faces.
Joe McGonigal, an insurance analytics executive from Drexel Hill, Pa., called Florence “A plus for this vacation.” He said it wasn’t something he was anticipating when he booked his weeklong stay, which began on Saturday, and he couldn’t have been happier with the timing.
His wife, Kathy, an oncology nurse, concurred. “The ocean is amazing today,” she said.
Accompanying the couple was their 3-year-old golden retriever, George.
“Hurricane or not, we’re going to relax,” Kathy McGonigal said. “It’s easy to do when you are with George,” she said, petting the laid-back pooch who works as a therapy dog for the elderly. The dog had just come in from a romp in the water.
Nearby, a group of teen surfers, their boards bungee-corded to racks on their bikes, let out yells of disappointment when they spotted the choppy surf and lack of breaking waves. The group then got off their bikes, stood on benches along the Boardwalk railing and silently looked out to sea.
On the 3rd Street beach, people examined erosion on the beach, which left massive ridges in the dunes resembling a staircase. About half a block to the north, a man struggled to put up a beach tent and gave up after the wind snatched it from his hands one time too many.
“We have vacationed here in July in the past, but we heard great things about the weather in September,” said Will Verdon, of Hershey, Pa., who carried his daughter, Anna, 3 on his shoulders for a better look at the mighty Atlantic.
His wife, Rebecca, carried their other daughter, Ellie, and Cathy Rentzel pushed a stroller on the Boardwalk occupied by 1-year-old son, Liam. The group happily chattered about their plans, seemingly unconcerned by the weather. Verdon’s only mild disappointment had to do with the churning ocean.
“We hope we can go in (for a swim) this week, but not today, obviously,” he said.
Meanwhile, some local residents were dealing with the hassles of potentially damaging floodwaters threatening their homes on Monday.
Steve Sinibaldi, who lives at the Ocean Aire Condominiums at 43rd Street and West Avenue in the south end of town, snapped photos of stormwater surrounding the bayfront residential complex.
He estimated the stormwater Monday was only about 6 inches below the severe flooding churned up by the coastal storm Jonas that pummeled Ocean City in January 2016.
Sinibaldi believes flooding in his neighborhood has been exacerbated by a gap, or “break,” underneath the abandoned railroad tracks crossing the marshlands behind the Ocean Aire condos.
“I did tell them the break in the tracks is the major culprit,” he said of his talks with city officials about the flooding.
Sinibaldi suspects the gap was created when a pipe under the railroad tracks was either removed or washed away by storms.
He thinks it can be easily repaired and is urging the city to fix it. In the meantime, he has sent video of the flooded area to the mayor and other city officials, hoping to get results.
Donald Wittkowski contributed to this story