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 around high tide swept all of the couple’s belongings up in a torrent to the back of the apartment.
The tidal wave pinned Nancy Bemis under the sliding glass door and 2 1/2 feet of water.
“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, more than of 50 dwellings were evacuated yesterday as the 10 a.m. high tide approached.
Hampton Police closed parts of Ocean Boulevard and a few other streets close to the beach. High tide also sent waves crashing into the streets, but police say there have been no reports of significant damage.
Salisbury police Chief Tom Fowler called a Code Red just before 9 a.m., announcing the mandatory evacuation of oceanfront homes. In addition to North End Boulevard, the evacuations affected Central Avenue, including about five units inside Michael’s Ocean Front Motel.
It was about 9 a.m. when Michael’s Ocean Front 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.
“The rush of water — the sound was awful,” she said. “It roared.”
National Guard trucks arrived around 10:30 a.m. Many residents awoke to find themselves almost trapped in their homes, due to huge snowdrifts blocking doors and reducing cars to barely identifiable mounds in driveways.
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.
Destroyed by water
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.”
Cook said all residents managed to escape the rising tide with only scrapes and bruises, even if properties weren’t so fortunate.
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.
And things were worse, for parts of Plum Island already battered by Hurricane Sandy.
Homes on Annapolis Way were hit the hardest. The already precarious Nee family house at 37 Annapolis Way was further compromised by the pounding waves and onshore wind, losing its slab concrete basement and the last piece of its side deck, according to Newbury Building Inspector Sam Joslin.
“What we’ve had at the Nee house is waves got up over the sand bag system in place and have taken the basement floor out,” Joslin said, explaining that sand barriers in place were not enough to protect the concrete slab, which washed away with the tide surge.
With the collapse of the concrete slabs, water began blowing into the home around high tide at 10 a.m., washing some of the family’s personal belongings, including furniture and clothing, out with the sea.
In addition, Joslin said northeast winds caught the side deck of the home for a while, weakening it.
“Once (the deck) got the waves hitting it, it made short work of it and took it down,” Joslin said.
There are reports that the beach lost 20 feet of sand in the storm.
Emergency workers closed Annapolis at around 10:20 a.m. and wouldn’t let anybody in after the waves began to flood the street. A good call, it seems.
“It’s absolute mayhem out there,” said Bob Connors of 39 Annapolis Way. “The water is coming right up to the houses.”
The sandbags that were put up in advance of the storm reportedly provided some protection, but not much, he said.
The beach center access was closed off to the public shortly after Annapolis Way was, and after high tide, the water rose high enough to flood Plum Island Turnpike with nearly 6 inches of slushy water and debris.
As the tide was still rising, police urged curious residents to stay away from the dunes, but at one point before the beach center was closed, a big wave came up and washed two people who were trying to take pictures down across the parking lot and into the road more than 40 feet away.
Forcasters called the Blizzard of 2013 one of historic proportions. Edward and Nancy Bemis certainly won’t soon forget it anytime soon.
After watching the waves crashing on the shoreline for the better part of two hours yesterday, 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.”
Lynne Hendricks, Mac Cerullo, Jo-Anne MacKenzie and the Associated Press contributed to this report.