NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 9, 2013

50 Salisbury Beach homes evacuated

Monster waves cause serious damage to oceanfront properties

By Lynne Hendricks
Correspondent

---- — SALISBURY -- One minute they were videotaping the dark gray, ominous surf rushing under their neighbor’s house on North End Boulevard at Salisbury Beach and the next moment, Edward Bemis and his wife, Nancy, were caught in a monster wave that crashed through their sliding glass door.

The powerful surge as the 10 a.m. high tide hit swept all of the couple's belongings up in a torrent to the back of the apartment.

Pinned under the sliding glass door and 2 1/2 feet of water was Nancy Bemis.

“I grabbed the door and tried to pull it off of her – she was choking on seawater,” Edward Bemis said.

The couple's 16-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, came running, still rubbing sleep from her eyes, trying to make sense of what was happening.

Then suddenly, the Salisbury Fire Department was at their door with an Emergency Code Red evacuation order, urging them to grab what they could and board evacuation vans waiting outside.

It was a surreal experience, and one that played out in many houses up and down North End Boulevard yesterday morning as high tide coupled with a dangerous storm surge from the Blizzard of 2013 came ashore on Salisbury Beach.

According to Salisbury emergency responders, upwards of 50 dwellings were evacuated Saturday morning as the 10 a.m. high tide approached. In addition to North End Boulevard, the evacuations affected Central Avenue, including about five units inside Michael’s Ocean Front Motel, where five units were being rented long term by families and individuals.

Aside from a few people who refused to leave their homes, the evacuees were brought to the Hilton Senior Center on Lafayette Road (Route 1), a temporary shelter that was set up in advance of the storm. There, they gathered to wait out the rest of the storm before returning home or seeking alternative housing with friends or relatives.

While babies as young as 6 weeks old slept in their parents' arms and others rested on cots, 10 to 15 children busied themselves with a Wii gaming console set up in one corner of the center. Adults huddled together, sipping hot coffee provided by emergency volunteers. Some talked about their ordeals and others sat quietly, wondering how long it would be before they’d be allowed to return to their homes.

For some, the answer wasn’t an easy one to grasp, especially for those living at Michael’s Ocean Front and in a handful of residences completely compromised by the surge.

“We can’t let them go back,” emergency responder Don Jantzen said. “There are 50 homes that need to be evaluated and inspected. Some of these houses actually collapsed into the water.”

It was about 9 a.m. when Michael’s Ocean Front Motel manager Robin Weisenstein got a call from Salisbury emergency responders with an urgent evacuation order.

“I called all the units,” Weisenstein said.

Weisenstein also woke up her son and two grandchildren who were staying with her at the motel and urged them to prepare to go to a shelter.

But upon opening the door to her unit, she was paralyzed by the sight of seawater rushing down the front stairs toward her.

“The boiler room was making a horrible noise and it smelled,” Weisenstein said.

Weisenstein said she thought 4-foot snowdrifts would hold back the sea. Instead, the waters came rushing toward the building, crashing through units on the second floor of the motel.

“I thought all that snow would stop it, and it didn’t,” she said. “It was scary as hell.”

With the front of the building impassable, firemen cut through the fencing at the back of the motel and evacuated residents that way, pulling children up over the fence to get them to safety.

“They had to cut down the back fence just to get us out of there,” resident Steve Gleason said.“There were seven kids and seven adults on our bus.”

Weisenstein said they got out just in time.

“The rush of water – the sound was awful,” she said. “It roared.”

According to Emergency Management Director Bob Cook, the motel has been rendered uninhabitable for the time being.

“We know they can’t go back there,” Cook said. “That’s not the only property (residents) won’t be able to go back to. There are a number of single residences as well.”

Weisenstein said she was worried about the residents of her motel since it primarily services families throughout the winter who are homeless. One man staying at the motel refused to be evacuated, because he was reluctant to leave his belongings. With only $10 in her bank account, even Weisenstein fretted over where she would go if she couldn’t stay there. Many of the residents are in the same situation, she said.

“They have nowhere to go,” Weisenstein said.

Cook said all residents managed to escape the rising tide with only scrapes and bruises, even if properties weren’t so fortunate.

With the residents safe and accounted for, Cook said the town will now turn its attention to communicating with the American Red Cross and other aid organizations about finding long-term accommodations for those permanently displaced by the storm.

The shelter at the Hilton Center will remain open for the next two to three days and provide meals and a warm place to sleep for affected families.

With beach properties subjected to waves strong enough to topple buildings that have withstood pounding surf for decades, officials said it could have been worse.

“People were in their living room watching TV and waves crashed into their picture window,” Jantzen said.

Edward and Nancy Bemis won't soon forget it. After watching the waves crashing on the shoreline for the better part of two hours Saturday morning, Edward Bemis said the one that hit them stood out as particularly forceful as it approached. As Edward Bemis urged his wife to "catch the wave" with her video camera, disaster struck.

A former Navy man, Edward Bemis said the raging approach of the ocean was like nothing he’s ever seen in his life, even throughout his days stationed out at sea.

“It was a titanic wave,” he said. “It was bigger than the house, bigger than the doors. Everything was everywhere. It shows you the power of Mother Nature.”