Rising waters put most of Atlantic City under water Monday as the approach of Hurricane Sandy flooded towns up and down the New Jersey shore, knocked out power to thousands and left some people stranded in water-surrounded homes, forcing rescues.
Emergency officials said they expected conditions to get much worse at evening high tide and the center of the storm could hit at about the same time.
"The city's basically flooded," said Willie Glass, Atlantic City's public safety director. "Most of the city is under water."
The same could be said of much of the southern New Jersey shore. The storm surge went over the seawall in Cape May with high tide early Monday and punched through dunes in other communities. The Garden State Parkway south of Atlantic City was shut down in both directions. Officials reported rescues in Pleasantville.
Sandy was just one component of a massive storm coming together over the eastern third of the U.S., bringing damaging wind and flooding and fears of prolonged power outages. By 11 a.m. Monday, the National Hurricane Center indicated that Sandy had strengthened with top sustained winds of 90 mph. The center was expected to make landfall in southern New Jersey late Monday night.
"It's going to be a slog through the history books but we're doing OK so far," Glass said.
Atlantic City and its casinos were ordered evacuated on Sunday. The city's historic boardwalk remained intact despite the rising floodwaters, though an old section at the north end broke up and washed away.
"It looks like it's going to be worse than the storm of '62, which was monumental," Glass said. "Saving lives and making sure everyone is safe is our priority."
State Emergency Management spokeswoman Mary Goepfert said about 115,000 residents were ordered to evacuate the state's barrier islands, and local officials ordered many more in their towns. It was not known how many heeded the warning. She said more than 2,200 people were in shelters statewide.
About 35,000 homes and businesses across the state were without power by midday Monday as officials braced for a storm surge that was expected to cause record-breaking flooding.
The streets of Atlantic City were mainly deserted.
Ron Skinner, a Harrah's employee who was heading from the boardwalk to the beach, said he was unfazed.
"It is what it is," he said. "I don't worry much."
Tom Foley, Atlantic City's director of emergency management, said officials were sweeping the city's low-lying areas, looking for people who were still in their homes.
While the plywood was tacked onto casino windows, and sandbags sat at the bottoms of doors, the boardwalk looked like it could come to life at any minute. Neon signs still flashed; lamps were lit and a string of Christmas lights extending from a casino to lamps remained lit. Bally's even kept its outdoor sound system on.
A check-cashing store was boarded up. A pizza place sat empty, rain hitting the white facade of the only building on the block. Rain dripped down the elephants in front of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, and a piece of sign hung from a billboard, swaying in the wind.
A traffic light near the Atlantic City Expressway dangled precariously, turning 360 degrees before giving out. Water still spraying up from a fountain was blown sideways. On one street, water rose about four inches in a half hour.
President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for New Jersey on Sunday, allowing the state to request federal funding and other assistance for action taken in advance of the storm.
Christie, who urged people last year to "get the hell off the beach" as Hurricane Irene approached, urged residents of the state's narrow barrier islands to move to higher ground. By midday on Monday, he said, some people who had not gone inland may be stuck for the duration of the storm.
"This is not a time to be a show-off, this is not a time to be stupid. This is the time to save yourself and your family," he said.
Those who had chosen to stay were putting themselves in harm's way, he said.
Christie said every school in New Jersey was closed for Monday and more than half the districts had already decided to call off classed for Tuesday. Most businesses across the state seemed to be closed, even some fast-food places as far from the shore as Cherry Hill.
At New Jersey's southern tip in Cape May, Victorian Hotel owner John Cooke got all his guests checked out by Sunday. But as president of the Chamber of Commerce, he decided to stay himself so he could update other business owners on the situation. "It's important for me to be here to be here to communicate," he said.
Atlantic City's 12 casinos closed for only the fourth time in the 34-year history of legalized gambling here. State parks also shut down.
Residents of northern New Jersey river communities braced for another round of the flooding that has become commonplace for them. Pompton Lakes has been hit by flooding several times in the last decade, most notably last year after Irene swept through the area and left dozens of businesses and homes severely damaged.
Some in the town were already putting belongings out near the curb, in advance of the storm.
"People are worst-case-scenario-ing it," said Kevin Gogots, who has lived in the town since the early '80s. "They're figuring, divide and conquer: They'll take the stuff they want to save and put the rest out. Of course, if the street floods again we'll just have things floating around."