In several feet of icy bay water, John Hicks clung to a window-jamb, half in and half out of his West Wildwood, New Jersey, apartment. The first floor home had become part of the Richardson Sound and the 31-year-old wondered if he and his 26-year-old fiancée, Carrie Ensle, would make it out alive.
"The water almost freezes you up when it hits you," he said.
With floodwaters continuing to rise and first responders struggling to get a military vehicle to them because of debris and a snagged boat, the couple jumped into the water. They waded through the chest-deep storm surge, clinging onto a piece of dock at one point, as rescuers pushed away other trash and sea grass swept up by the storm to get to the couple.
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A walk around the two-story apartment house on the 700 block of West Glenwood Avenue that’s typically measured in seconds labored into minutes. The closer to safety the couple got, the deeper the water became.
"Right before we got to the truck [the water] went up to our shoulders," Hicks told NBC10 in an interview Sunday. "I almost didn’t think I was going to make it."
Luckily, they did.
Sopping wet, they were pulled into the back of the covered surplus truck and shivered on metal benches along with other rescued residents.
"I’m sore. My body’s sore," Ensle recalled. "We didn’t even get a blanket when we got to the truck."
Hicks and Ensle were among hundreds who fell victim to severe coastal flooding brought on by the Blizzard of 2016, which pounded the Jersey Shore with snow, rain and close-to hurricane-force winds for hours Saturday. Flooding in The Wildwoods and neighboring Stone Harbor broke records set during Superstorm Sandy. Flood gauges in the Great Channel at Stone Harbor recorded a historic surge of 10.52 feet — more than a foot over the previous record.
The strong storm, which dumped more than two feet of snow on parts of Pennsylvania, knocked out power to more than 38,000 customers in South Jersey at its height.
The couple thought their stormy Saturday would’ve been much different. They said city officials didn’t expect flooding from the Blizzard of 2016 to be so severe, so they opted to stay in their bayside apartment. The couple rode out Superstorm Sandy (in a different apartment on the island) without issue.
"Sandy didn’t even come close to this," Hicks said.
Hicks woke up around 6:30 that morning to check on the water level. There was nothing, he said. But within an hour, the tide began to rise, pushing salt water under their doors. They called 911 for help and spent the next hour collecting clothes, keepsakes and documents. The water had risen to their windows by the time rescuers got there.
Now, the couple is staying at a Wildwood motel, after being taken there by the rescuers, they said.
"We paid with wet money. The only money we have, we paid to stay here," Ensle said. They said they’ve been having trouble getting an answer about temporary housing assistance.
West Wildwood police told NBC10 a shelter at Wildwood High School has been closed and some residents have returned to their homes.
Hicks and Ensle said they haven’t been able to get to their home yet, but are bracing for the worst.
"At this point, we’re trying to figure out how much damage was done," Hicks said. Ensle believes it’s a total loss.
"Now, we don’t have a home," she said.