Published October 31. 2012 4:00AM Updated October 31. 2012 11:55PM
Westerly - If you were unknowingly dropped Tuesday afternoon into the middle of the Misquamicut Beach community, a favorite summer play place for many New Englanders, its appearance could have been mistaken for some post-apocalyptic desert locale.
Fatigue-wearing Rhode Island National Guardsmen directed traffic or patrolled through sand-covered streets in a tan Humvee. Homes sat with their fronts sheared off, possessions and furniture spilling out onto the ground. Police patrolled for looters. Twisted metal and household appliances lay haphazardly in yards, and no electricity ran through downed power lines. Few people walked the streets.
The wreckage of Atlantic Avenue restaurants, hotels and apartments stretched back into the neighborhoods, where floodwaters have yet to recede. Some called the damage, surely in the millions of dollars, the worst in close to 60 years, when Hurricane Carol struck the coast.
Louis Misto, chief of the Misquamicut Fire Department, reported one injury: a person trying to ride out the storm in an Atlantic Avenue hotel who broke an ankle. Responders found the man when he called out for help during the department's initial survey of the damage around 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Eight other people riding out the storm in the mandatory evacuation zone south of Shore Road, or Route 1A, escaped unharmed, he said. Around noon, Misto said a state urban search-and-rescue team, accompanied by a cadaver dog and two search-and-rescue dogs, swept the community looking for bodies or survivors. Neither were found.
Misto called the storm, which he said arrived quickly with massive waves, "epic."
"I've been chief for 12 years, and I have never seen anything like it," he said.
At least 100 houses sustained damage, Misto said, and about 10 structures were "destroyed, demolished or missing," including a yellow house lifted off its foundation and dumped into floodwaters on Benson Avenue. A beachfront snack shack was completely wiped out, with only its foundation still standing. Two mobile homes were knocked onto their sides.
Around 5:15 p.m., as a rain-weary town received more, Dave Murphy, a Westerly building official, took digital snapshots of damaged homes and businesses along the beach and Atlantic Avenue. Several teams had been out during the day to make a preliminary assessment of which buildings were salvageable and which were not.
"You can't fathom it," Murphy said as he walked through rubble to his next photo subject. "It's just unbelievable.
"It's a prime example of why when they give you a mandatory evacuation, you leave," he added. "You can't get emergency personnel down here."
Paddy's Beach, a popular beachfront bar, had completely collapsed. Among the wreckage were newly installed garage doors, Murphy said. The beachfront Andrea Hotel lost part of its roof, and water was being pumped from the building. Alfie's, a small beachside shop promising video games and surfing supplies, looked as if a freight train filled with sand had barreled through the wall and then tipped over.
A black, older-model Mercedez-Benz sedan sat askew in deep sand, its front bumper ripped off but a "Follow me to Hooters" sticker still clinging to its rear quarter-panel. The tops of vending machines stuck out of sand piles, like buried trunks of treasure. Signs of "no vacancy" still hung outside of some hotels that almost surely will never again shelter human beings.
Sand, 6 feet deep in some places on Atlantic Avenue, was scooped into piles by big yellow machinery. Last year's Tropical Storm Irene dumped only 14 inches of sand on the road, Murphy said.
Along Atlantic Avenue walked Larry Adams who, with his 10-year-old son James, went to check on the relatively unscathed Ocean View motel, which Adams' brother owns. In 20 years as captain of Misquamicut lifeguards, Adams has never seen such destruction from a storm or so much sand on Atlantic Avenue. For some business owners, Adams said, the storm could be "a fresh start."
"You have to say, this is totaled," he said, pointing to Maria's Seaside Cafe on Atlantic Avenue, which had been filled about halfway to the ceiling with sand. "For some people, it's a change of life because they have to decide what they're going to do."