The Longest Night
Lavallette, New Jersey
October 29, 2012
Chris Raia didn’t expect any problems when he started his shift on October 28th. Hurricane Sandy was still several hundred miles offshore and the weathermen couldn’t agree where it was going to make landfall.
But the wind was already gusty. And the ocean was grey and angry at Ortley Beach. Not much was happening so Chris decided to go out onto the Fiedler Avenue lifeguard station. He yelled back at his partner.
“I don’t think these dunes are going to hold up. The waves are already pounding them. What the hell we’ve got the time, I think I’ll shoot some video.”
Little did Officer Raia and his partner know that their video would document the last time anyone was in the Lifeguard building.
1:30pm, October 29: During line-up the next day the officer in charge assigned two policemen to each of the department’s 4X4 vehicles and sent them out to patrol the township’s most threatened areas. Like most communities on Barnegat Bay, Toms River was vulnerable on all four sides, its barrier beaches, the river and the bay from both north and south.
“Raia take the Ford Expedition and cover the beaches.”
The assignment made sense. Chris had grown up on township’s beaches. He had met his wife at his uncle’s house on Ortley Beach and he knew just how to handle Staten Island wise guys who drove to the shore every weekend.
They lived with their parents so they could afford to lease Mercedes Benzes and take Ecstasy in the beachside nightclubs. The wise guys just laughed when you wrote them up a $40 ticket. That was just cheap parking for a night of expensive drugs.
2:30pm: The team responded to a fire on Grover Road. There was nothing they could do. The house was already engulfed in flames fanned by the wind, which was now strong and steady blowing a driving but light rain in off the ocean.
At 3pm they cruised past Pelican Island where the wind had blown all the water out of the bay.
“Never seen that before.”
“Can’t be good, that’s for sure. ”
The storm’s low-pressure area had sucked all the water out of the bay to form a dome of water called a storm surge, the most deadly part of a hurricane. Like the extreme low tide before a tsunami it meant they should have left the area immediately.
But, at 3:05 they were sent to relieve another officer back on Ocean Ave and Fiedler. He was guarding a downed live wire. Sparks were spewing all over the glistening wet pavement.
“We shouldn’t be out here!”
Just when they were wondering what else could go wrong they heard three loud booms and looked back. The ocean had just burst through the sand dunes under the boardwalk. Waves were rushing toward the sparking wire. They got out of there quickly.
The same situation held true all the way west of Route 35. The streets were covered with 6 inches of water rushing rapidly inland.
By 4: 30 the two realized they couldn’t get off the island the way they had come. There was already 2 to 3 feet of water near the bridge.
They turned back north and see if they could get over the Mantoloking Bridge. There was already so much water in the road that they had to drive in the southbound lane heading north. They looked over at the bay and it was so low that large boats were heeled over in the mud.
Low pressure under the approaching storm had sucked all the water out of the bay. But it would returns in spades when the storm surge arrived around 8pm.
“Dispatch, ah this is officer Raia. We’re going to attempt to leave the island over Mantoloking, over.”
“Negative that Chris. Captain says you have to go back to Lavallette and pick up a victim and his dog and meet up with the other officers at the Fire Station.”
Chris and his partner looked at each other. It was becoming clear that they might not get off the island at all, that night.
They picked up the man and his dog and sped back north, only to find whitecaps scudding straight off the ocean onto the entrance of the bridge. Trees and large appliances covered the road. They turned around and headed back south.
By 5:15 they were back where they had watched the water from the ocean meet the water from the bay in the middle of Rte. 35. Only now it was another foot higher.
They plowed through the water realizing that they had no other choice but to head back to the Lavallette Fire Station where several other fire, first aid and police officers were holed up with a small host of rescued civilians.
At 5:20 they arrived at the station and told the other officers what they had just witnessed. The reality finally sunk in, they were officially stranded.
The team inventoried their resources. They had a boat; some 4X4 vehicles and most importantly they had food, toiletries and blankets. Since the fire department had a generator the Lavallette Office of Emergency Management decided they should spend the night in the station. But Hurricane Sandy had other plans.
At 7pm Chris noticed water running down the street from the ocean so his partner moved their Expedition to the station’s rear parking lot. It was a little higher than the lot in front. But when he returned he noticed water entering the front door of the building. What began as a slow flow picked up pace and began flooding the building’s three parking bays.
Everyone sprang into action. Now they had to move 7 civilians and eight police officers and firemen across the parking lot to the first aid building. Chris grabbed radio batteries out of the charging bank and stuffed rolls of extra toilet paper into trash bags. The first aid building already had food, blankets and a generator.
Firemen transported the civilians through the quickly rising water in their diesel Explorer but the first aid building was only a foot or two higher than the fire station.
Chris and his partner argued that they should move everyone to the two story brick school building two blocks away. It was much higher plus it had bathrooms and plenty of rooms where people could be comfortable for the long cold night ahead. But the office of emergency management was more concerned about having power and since the building was their turf, they called the shots.
Half an hour later, everyone was huddled in the first aid building and the firemen were cooking hamburgers. It was almost fun. They expected that once the full moon surge passed through about 8pm, it would all be over. They were wrong.
Around 8:30 someone looked out the window and noticed that the park bench they had been using as a marker was becoming visible again. Everyone gave a sigh of relief and Chris called his wife Nichole to tell her the worst was over. They would be fine. But it was a quick call. He still had to save power.
The officers made everyone as comfortable as possible and kept an eye on the elderly man with Alzheimer’s. He kept getting up to go home. It was a bit of a trial, but their bigger concern was feeling so helpless.
Many people had not heeded their warnings to evacuate the island and were now calling in for help. They could see the orange glow of about a hundred bungalows burning in Camp Osborn, which had once been a tent site for revivalists. But there was nothing the officers could do about the multiple emergencies except listen to the dispatcher trying to talk the civilians down off the cliff.
It was the first time in his career that Chris had felt so helpless. He had been trained to help no matter what. It was also a little irritating how jazzed the firemen were. They wanted to stay up all night but Chris and his partner had switched into survival mode. They knew they needed to conserve themselves for the long haul.
At 10:30 one of the officers pointed out the window.
“That damn bench is going under again.”
There was some concern but everyone figured the water would not reach the level it had several hours before.
The storm surge had filled up the river and marshes and after the storm passed and the water had come rushing back down into the bay again. It was coffee sloshing back and forth in your cup of Joe in a phenomenon that oceanographers call a seiche.
The tide gauge on Mantoloking Bridge would have shown the seiche sloshing back and forth several times if it hadn’t been lost along with the bridge earlier that night.
At 1:30am the rising water killed their generator.
Chris and his partner were furious. The generator was the main reason they were trapped in this single story building and now it too was kaput.
They sandbagged the doors and prayed things would not get worse.
By 2:30 they noticed that the water was starting to subside and they were safe again. As he had done all night long, Chris simply posted on facebook, “Still here.” He still had to save power to the very end. His friends responded that they had prayed for him all night long.
It started to get light at 6am and they could finally see the devastation outside. Chris had not expected it to be so bad. The building was still surrounded with two to three feet of water for as far as they could see.
Chris was finally able to call Nichole. He tried to brush things off things off by saying that everything was fine, but it really wasn’t. Sure they had made it through the night but now what? How the hell were they going to get off the island?
The dispatcher called to say that the department had sent out a 5- ton military truck the night before to get them off but it had been tossed around like a toy. Now the department was contacting New Jersey’s State Police marine troopers to see if they could get a boat to take them off, but it could take hours because there was so much debris in the water.
That afternoon, at 12:30pm, the police boat finally arrived. It powered through the playground over the roadway and right up to their building still in two feet of water.
But they had a new problem. The elderly man with Alzheimer’s had gone into diabetic shock. The dispatcher told Chris they would have a medical team waiting for them on the mainland.
The team left the building at 1:30pm keeping a close eye on the victim as the boat made its way to Cranberry Bay Marina where a NJ State military truck met them and transferred the semi-conscious gentleman to one of the mainland hospitals that was still in operation.
At 2:05 the truck returned and the survivors climbed in and headed through a bleak scene. Pelican Island was almost completely underwater. Cars, jet skies and pieces of buildings littered the streets and all the telephone poles were down, Tangles of mostly dead wire were everywhere.
At 2:10 the survivors climbed down off the truck on the west side of Tunney Bridge where they were welcomed by their co-workers and friends. Most of them were also in the emergency services and knew what Chris and the other officers had been through.
The captain who had told them to stay on the island almost two days before gave them a long emotional hug. He had not slept all night waiting to hear if two of his best officers had made it back alive. They were finally home.