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Gamblers return to Atlantic City, where residents had most to lose

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Many gamblers never leave the multibillion-dollar row of oceanfront casinos towering over the world famous boardwalk here, but if they walked across Pacific Avenue, they would find a church that feeds homeless people.

They would see block after block of cash for gold shops. And if they walked further toward the bay on certain streets, past tiny convenience stores and strip clubs, they would find neighborhoods where poverty runs high with problems unimaginable in resort towns along much of New Jersey's storm-battered coast.

While there are exceptions, including an upscale outlet mall near the main corridor into town, the contrast between life on opposite sides of Atlantic City’s Pacific Avenue has always been stark — but perhaps never so stark as on Friday, when New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie ordered the city and casinos reopened.

Nearly a week after Superstorm Sandy forced the evacuation of barrier island towns all along New Jersey's coast, gamblers trickled back into town alongside people who live in neighborhoods the tourists rarely see. In flood-ravaged pockets of the city, people spent the weekend sifting through dark and moldy living rooms and kitchens.

"We've got any machine we want," said retiree Bill Dineen, 69, playing the slots in a mostly empty Trump Taj Mahal on Saturday. He and his wife drove from Edison, a township in northern New Jersey.

"Everything looked fine coming in," he said.

Off the main corridors into town, things were not fine. Soggy mattresses, backpacks, CDs, couches, VHS tapes, toys, bottles, pillows, vacuum cleaners, car parts, roofing shingles, umbrellas, rugs, siding, garbage and food wrappers lay piled up in yards and on streets for blocks in some neighborhoods Saturday afternoon.

On the 300 block of north Connecticut Avenue, Antoinette Hooper, 77, and her son, Stephen Hunter, 48, returned to their small row home Saturday morning. It was dank and dark and the floors were soaked. A brown line on the top of a now dingy, soggy floral-patterned couch showed the high water mark during the flood.

"The whole downstairs gone," Mr. Hunter said. "All gone."

The drywall rippled in sections and their newly tiled kitchen floor was muddy and buckled. There were trophies and framed black-and-white family photos, reminders of better days, lining the walls mostly untouched.

Ms. Hooper had spent much of the day on the phone calling a government hot line to ask what to do, but she said the person on the other end kept telling her she had the wrong Social Security number, even as she read the information directly from the card in her hand.

"My mother's 77 years old, why is she going to lie?" Mr. Hunter said.

The mother and son, of course, had heard that the casinos were reopening. They heard officials say it was important for Atlantic City to get working again, that the storm actually could have been worse.

By then, public attention had shifted to the devastation in places up north like Staten Island. But here on Connecticut Avenue, the feeling was that things still were pretty bad, that it didn't matter much either way whether the casinos opened.

"The casinos in this town are what sells," Ms. Hooper said, "but we don't get any benefit from it."

While a portion of the proceeds from casino revenue pays for big reinvestment and community projects in and around the city, Mr. Hunter said times are tough. He recalled that he began working in the casinos in 1978, but was laid off from his job doing surveillance work at the Showboat.

While he and his mother said they were happy President Obama had toured the area, they didn't know why he went to neighboring Brigantine instead of Atlantic City. And Mr. Hunter said people in Washington, D.C., need to understand "this isn't a one day, one week thing."

Less than a mile away, also on the west side of town, Tom Davidson, director of development at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, was helping unload trucks full of supplies for the city's homeless shelter. Not yet 24 hours after the evacuation order was lifted, the shelter already was overbooked.

Usually, there are about 300 people who stay each night, but officials were told to prepare for many more in coming days. There would be the usual mix of the chronically homeless and down on their luck, but the storm was expected to bring in others like waitresses, cabdrivers, food-service employees, hotel housekeepers — people who get by on tips, the lower-middle-class backbone of this city.

Mr. Davidson said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials were setting up extra beds near the mission inside the city's convention center to handle the increased demand.

"We've been operating on very little sleep," he said, a coffee in hand. "We were told to expect a flood of up to 1,000 people expecting some sort of assistance."

Two days earlier, Mr. Davidson said he had talked with a local prominent restaurant owner whose business was ruined.

"He lost his restaurant during the flood, it was completely wiped out. There were tears," he said. "Basically, they donated their entire freezer of food to the mission. But these guys are all hurting because they don't know how quickly their restaurants are going to be back up. He can't keep his employees working, and they're like family to him because they've worked for him so long.

"A lot of these guys who own these businesses feel like their employees are family and they worry about them. But then they also don't know," Mr. Davidson said. "They haven't talked with the insurance companies about what the coverage is going to be."

In neighboring West Atlantic City, which is part of Egg Harbor Township, retired utility worker Joe Peterson said he felt lucky even though most of his downstairs had been flooded and the contents of his garage seemed as if they had been tossed around in a washing machine.

Nearby, other homes were damaged even worse than his property. He heard from neighbors about how a boat broke loose from its dock and slammed around the neighborhood before coming to rest in the middle of a highway.

Mr. Peterson, whose home sits about a half block from the bay, said he thought about staying during the storm but reconsidered when he heard the weather reports grow increasingly dire.

"We knew it was time to leave," he said.

A few houses away, a big section of dock had come to rest in the front yard of a house with a sign in front, "Julia, World Renown Spiritualist, Reader Adviser, No appointment needed."

Inside, Herbert Andrews, a construction worker, said Julia was his late mother-in-law and that his wife does the palm readings now. But the family business was closed Saturday night.

Mr. Andrews' Ford Mustang was stuck in the mud, ruined. The floors downstairs in his house were soaked and many of his neighbors' homes had been condemned with orange pieces of paper declaring the structures unsafe.

He said he had driven around Atlantic City earlier in the day and things didn't look so bad; but in his own neighborhood, where churning floodwaters ripped up sidewalks, toppled trees and decimated homes, things were different.

"Look around," he said. "We got destroyed."

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