Atlantic City, Struggling in Best Times, Faces New Blows

On Baltic Avenue, Jose Velez pushed open the door to his two-room apartment, still without heat or electricity a week after Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters poured inside.

He sorted through wet clothes, rusted tools and a set of baby booties -- still in the box -- for a daughter being born at the hospital. The air was heavy with the smell of mold.

“I got nothing,” said Velez, a construction worker. “The beach took everything.”

Atlantic City, New Jersey, struggles at the best of times, with a quarter of its 40,000 people living in poverty. Now, it’s contending with the lingering blows brought by Sandy, just as a new storm brews off the East Coast. About 1.4 million utility customers still had no power yesterday, more than half of them in New Jersey.

When the storm came through a week ago, there was flooding in much of Atlantic City, which perches on a barrier island. It temporarily shut the casinos, which brought in $3.3 billion in revenue last year and have been the city’s lifeblood since the 1970s, when gambling was legalized to boost the ailing economy.

Protected by dunes built along the beach, the casinos opened up again last week, their red marquees lighting up the night sky. Yesterday on Atlantic Avenue, restaurants were open, buses running and stores stocked as people went to work.

Paula Sessoms, 57, running errands for the first time in a week and buying food, waited for a bus. With her electricity back on since Nov. 4, she said life was getting back to normal.

‘Still Here’

“We’re just glad the water’s gone,” she said. As she spoke, a passerby shouted: “Atlantic City: We’re still here.”

The tourists aren’t. With the East Coast still struggling in the storm’s aftermath, the casinos have been forced to wait. Late yesterday, rows of slot machines were vacant at Bally’s casino. A few dozen card tables were closed, and at three others, dealers waited idly for players.

Outside as the temperature dropped into the 30s Fahrenheit (1 Celsius) was Tenyo Yovchev, who pushes tourists on a cart along the boardwalk. In an hour, he’d yet to have a single customer.

“Nobody’s here,” he said. “I’m standing here for nothing.”

Billy Bryan, a card dealer, was headed to work for the first time since the storm. He said he didn’t expect business to be brisk.

“The whole East Coast, they’re digging out,” said Bryan, 54. “They’re not going to want to come down and go gambling.”

Don Kesselman drove from Philadelphia with a friend to survey the damage. Walking along the boardwalk in front of the casinos, he was surprised to see it pristine.

“In Philadelphia, people think it’s closed,” he said. “I thought the boardwalk would be ripped up.”

Ruined Boardwalk

Away from the casinos, the boardwalk is wrecked. Part of it was in ruins on the city’s north side, where the storm flooded through a neighborhood. Ruined furniture, thrown away by owners, speckled street corners up and down the island.

On Tennessee Avenue, relatives have taken turns spending the night at Kathleen Wilkins’s darkened home, protecting against thieves. The electric wiring was damaged. Still, the natural gas works, so they turn on the oven and use it for heat.

Tameika Wilkins, 30, said she’s putting up her sister for now. “My sister’s got to sleep on my floor,” she said. “What else can you do?”

Velez, rooting through his apartment, asked himself the same question. He and his wife had slept in the apartment Sunday, with no heat or power and the air rank. She didn’t want to go into labor at the city’s shelter, he said. On Monday morning, he dropped her at the hospital.

He pulled apart his dresser to show all of the family’s clothes were ruined and wept. “I got no place for my baby,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: William Selway in Atlantic City, New Jersey at wselway@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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