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Coastal residents look back on the Great Atlantic Hurricane

September 16, 2018

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 hit the New Jersey Coast 74 years ago on Sept. 14, destroying most boardwalks — including Atlantic City’s — and leaving Atlantic and Cape May counties in ruins.

Most of the nine people who died in the storm in New Jersey drowned or were hit by debris on Long Beach Island, Atlantic City and Sea Isle City, according to weather historian David Ludlum’s “New Jersey Weather Book.”

The category 2 storm didn’t make landfall until Long Island, New York, said State Climatologist David Robinson, but it hugged the coast as it traveled north, close enough to push vast amounts of water into New Jersey.

“There was a major storm surge,” said Robinson, who is also a professor at Rutgers University. He called it New Jersey’s most physically destructive tropical system of the 20th century.

Joe Zetooney, 93, a longtime Margate resident who grew up in Atlantic City, was a 19-year-old jukebox mechanic when the storm hit.

He went to work that morning, he said.

“Like today, the humidity was heavy. It was a warm day,” he said recently.

By midday, rain started and the wind picked up.

Within an hour or two, “all hell broke loose,” Zetooney said. “That storm came and went in three hours.”

“I went up to Rhode Island (Avenue) and the Boardwalk to get a jukebox, and the whole front of the building was gone,” said Zetooney, who now lives in Ventnor. “Everything was washed to the back of the building, in one big pile. Windows were blowing out of stores. The barometric pressure must have been so low, they were blowing outward not in.”

Most of the music players his company had placed in coastal locations from Atlantic City to Cape May were ruined, he said.

“The (storm) impact was heightened because storm surge in southern New Jersey occurred very close to high tide,” said Rutgers Professor Anthony Broccoli, whose research focuses on understanding changes in climate. “Timing is everything.”

It produced some of the highest water levels ever recorded on the South Jersey coast. Water level at Atlantic City reached 8.84 feet above mean low water, Broccoli said.

As the day went on, heavy cornices came off an apartment house on Atlantic Avenue, Zetooney said. “They came crashing down on cars.”

He came out of a service appointment and saw ambulances going one way and firetrucks another.

When he got home at 5 p.m., at 113 S. Texas Ave., water was up to his waist in places, he said.

Records show the strongest wind gusts in Atlantic City were 91 mph, said Broccoli. They reached 105 to 115 mph out at sea.

That hurricane was the death of the Margate Boardwalk, which some residents now want to see rebuilt. The small remnant left on the north end was swept away in the 1962 nor’easter.

For Zetooney, early reports about Hurricane Florence were reminiscent of early storm reports he heard in 1944.

“We had radio then. Didn’t have television. Radio mentioned about the hurricane — they said it will hit the Carolinas,” he said.

But once it got near the Carolinas it took a northern turn and ripped up the coast to New York, then Rhode Island.

This time, the high-pressure systems that created a route in 1944, pushing the hurricane along the coast at 40 mph, are in different locations — and are keeping the current hurricane from turning north, Robinson said.

Zetooney had a long career as a television mechanic, eventually owning his own business. He still drives.

He now lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building with a great view of the bay.

“I sit here and watch storms come in over the water,” he said.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2NKXP4n

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Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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