Sometime before 4 p.m. on January 23, 2016, the day the worst nor’easter in recent memory destroyed his house, Sven Peltonen, an Atlantic City fireman and amateur Facebook weatherman, addressed his home audience via video camera with a bandage above his lip. The dog had bitten him.
Sven was speaking, at this point, in Australian-accented English, I want to say (he’s since taken down the video), with occasional outburst of pirate speak. At different times during the preceding 20-plus hours, he’d delivered his regular weather reports in a variety of dialects and accents, including, by my count, Standard Pirate, Eastern European Pirate, Southern Bumpkin, Stoked Aussie and a kind of classic Surfer Speak reminiscent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spicoli.
Meanwhile the dog—a fuzzy little animal named Cha-Cha (I think), which may have been a little high-strung to begin with—had been visibly unimpressed with its owners at their decision to stay put and ride out the storm from the comfort of their bayside bungalow, rather than retreat to the relative safety of the mainland. It had spent much of the day perched atop a bed, one of the few remaining safe zones in a house that contained between two and three feet of water, growling at passersby.
Sven’s house—known to friends as the “Sea Shanty”—was one of a number of small houses on a row of docks jutting into the bay in Atlantic City’s historic Gardner’s Basin district. Almost a house boat rather than a house, the Shanty had blue walls in a multitude of hues, and shelves and drafting tables filled with nautical miscellany, collected by its interesting and resourceful occupants. Imagine your favorite seafood restaurant taken over by architecture students with a yen for the Woodstock era. Outside were life preservers and a stack of sea kayaks and surreal views of the Borgata and Golden Nugget casinos, rising from the salt marshes.
Sven had read the weather forecasts, which, as of Wednesday, were calling for near-record flooding during the Saturday morning tide cycle. He was no stranger to the hazards of the ocean, and the latent power it can release on the insufficiently respectful. During Hurricane Sandy, he’d stayed put in Brigantine, liveblogging, essentially, the landfall of that historic storm and providing accurate and entertaining reports on the condition of the islands, even as major media outlets were reporting (inaccurately) that the Atlantic City boardwalk had been destroyed.
But the decision to up stakes or hunker down has always been idiosyncratic among islanders. These days—when even the Weather Channel is owned by private-equity profiteers who need to hype every breezy efflorescence into the latest killer Frankenstorm—parsing the signal from the noise can be difficult. And maybe South Jerseysans are still coming to terms with the new realities, when 50-year storms seem to hit every other season and coastal flooding is a simple fact of life.
Whatever the reasons, Sven and his partner, Kira, had resolved to stay put. And they’d remained in remarkably high spirits, despite the fulminations of the storm that tore through the island, and, ultimately, their house, but by Saturday afternoon, after nearly 24-hours, maybe everyone was a little on edge.
Sven delivered his first dispatch around 8 p.m. on Friday night, about an hour after the snow had started. He was wearing a gold hoodie and holding a stuffed animal—either a sheep or a polar bear—and blinking maniacally and cackling in what might have been incipient psychosis but I think was just Sven messing around. He and Kira had stacked sandbags at the doors and made other “adjustments” to the Shanty for the sake of its preservation, and they were now enjoying a Friday-night cocktail (seemingly) and taking in the beautiful scenery, which included the warm glow of the casino lights through low cloud and driving snow.
An hour or so later the snow had covered the docks that still seemed, quaintly, worth sweeping clear, and Sven greeted the camera with a hearty, “Ahoy there!” as he commenced running from one end to the other with a broom. His dispatch mixed mock-official meteorological banter (“We’re a low-tide situation right now”) with observations on the wind and the surf informed by his considerable experience, delivered in a tone of lighthearted fun. They were expecting flooding but didn’t seem too concerned.
“Starting to see some white-cappin’ action out there. Rocking and rolling. Seas about, maybe, I don’t know, half a foot to a foot in the bay. And as you can see, snow’s coming down. Big flock of birds out there.
“Everything’s pretty good out here. Still working the snow plow.
“Looks like the Sea Shanty doesn’t look too bad.
“Ain’t really that big a deal!”
When he checked in the next morning, the house was flooding. Sven was wearing his captain’s hat and talking like a mad pirate weatherman, but there was concern in the voice as well. Water was “oozing into every orifice of the place,” he said. The bilge pumps were going and marsh grass floated back and forth in the foyer. Outside the docks were submerged and water flowed down the street like a tributary.
“The storm is a lot worse than I’ve ever seen before.
“We have serious water issues.”
Then, no accent at all.
“It’s really, really windy. The street’s completely flooded.
“Wow. It’s only six. High tide’s not in the bays until eight, I’m thinking.
Then, pirate again.
“What arrrgh we gonna do? What arrrrgh we gonna do?”
I’ve known Sven since high school when he came out one year, his junior I think, for the football team, after spending the first three years playing soccer. Holy Spirit High School in those years had one of the more storied programs in South Jersey, fundamentally sound in many ways, but the team was not known necessary for its emphasis on the kicking game. The mere act of volunteering, as a placekicker, took some courage, but Sven, with his improbable Nordic name and improbable shock of yellow hair looked maybe like he might be South Jersey’s answer to Jan Stenerud. When he kicked a ball it seemed to jump straight up in the air, a very unusual angle, almost like the pros did it on Sundays.
After school he’d become a champion paddleboarder for the Brigantine Beach Patrol, competing around the country and regularly, it seemed like, winning. When he wasn’t in the newsfeed with his amateur meteorology, he was in the news with his forays into philanthropy and general, irrepressible humanitarianism.
In 2010 he was a rookie on the Atlantic City Fire Department when the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti. He used his vacation time, disappearing without a word and traveling by train, airplane and van to Port-Au-Prince where he hooked up with an aid group to assist in relief efforts. He alerted his parents by email only after he was on the road.
In 2014, as Hurricane Bertha spun off the coast, Sven was one of the first responders when a 59-year-old New Hampshire woman went into the water of South Carolina to rescue a young family member and was found floating face down. He administered chest compressions, frantically working to get the water out of her lungs, before handing her over to an ambulance crew. For a day, fire and lifeguard personnel thought she was dead before Sven learned, when a reporter called him, that in fact she’d survived and they’d probably saved her life.
“He never gave up. He was unrelenting,” a passerby reportedly said.
Apart from anything else, I appreciated Sven’s resolve to document these weather events, which form such a part of the history of the region. In South Jersey, where capital-h history can seem like something that happens to other people, the big storms seem to take an outsized place in our collective memory. Everyone has stories about the March Storm, the Blizzard of ’78, Hurricane Gloria, Hurricane Irene, the Derecho—little moments of time out of time, when people pause to help one another, to work together to survive, to pause and appreciate the awful power of nature. I’d read accounts of any number of historic New Jersey storms but seeing them documented so thoroughly, so colorfully, was a new experience.
The next video was posted at 7:45 a.m. It showed Sven walking through water, deep water, in his wading boots as the camera tumbled through space, giving glimpses of the Shanty’s exterior, the kayaks covered with snow, Sven’s yellow first-responder jacket, piles of seaweed. No talking. Only the dull roar of the wind.
A few minutes later he was inside, accentless and sounding bummed as he sloshed from room to room. The water was easily knee-deep. Valuables—a lamp made out of a fisherman statue, an electric radiator—had been stacked on the couches to keep them above the water, which they did, barely. “It’s starting to drop a little bit,” Sven said, of the water level. .” In the bathroom, where the water must have crested just below toilet-bowl level, a stack of TP sat serenely on a table.
Outside, the trash and recycling cans had flipped over, adding old bottles and bits of floatable garbage to the marsh grass and seaweed that filled parts of the house. Imagine the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars and you’re not far off. And in the bedroom, safely atop the bed, sat Kira and the dog, the latter grumbling angrily at the camera, which seemed to elicit laughter from Sven.
Pets in distress aren’t funny but in this instance, the dog’s grumbling was like the voice of reason. What were you thinking, it seemed to be saying.
Sven turned the camera out the window. “Um like, ok, so there’s supposed to be a road there. There’s supposed to be uh land. and it‘s just straight bay.” Cars that had been moved to high ground had survived, miraculously, but elsewhere it looked like a neighborhood had been teleported to the middle of the open Atlantic.
He pushed outside and walked up the dock toward open water, and into the Shanty swirled a little whirlpool of marsh grass and assorted flotsam. “Just to open the door is, like, the hydraulic force is like…it’s real slow.”
Outside were what looked like a laundry-detergent container, a piece of driftwood, formerly a piece of the shanty, perhaps, the odd piece of tarp, a soccer ball, logs, big pilings perhaps, that had been uprooted, could those be scuba tanks?
The only moment I feared for Sven’s safety is when he was standing out on the docks, on the edge of the bay, the wind tearing along the faces of the houses. The docks were bobbing up and down in the surf. The houses themselves seemed to be bobbing up and down in the surf. It seemed the wind might rip pieces of the houses free, and send then flying toward the camera.
But contact with nature seemed to recharge Sven and he launched back into pirate mode. “The briny deep! Here we go. Into the sea shanty she goes. She’s ripping this place apart, mate. Ripping her apart!
“It’s all crazy, what’s happening. The wind and the sea, spinning and churning the deep, darkest depths of Poseidon’s wrath upon us. Jonas and the whale. As you see we have this crazy, crazy, significant high tide that’s coming through and he we are having a brew [Dos Equis] as the darly, gnarly deep comes way high! Waves that crash. You see the waves that crashing. Three-foot surf, picnic tables smashing. The briny, briny, briny, the briny, briny deep. It’s gnarly. It’s so crazy. The sea. The darkest depths.
“Arrggg. And this is only the first of three high tides. The next two will be worse.”
“It’s a shame. A lot of damage. [shakes head] The sea, she breathes. She’s breathing up and down right now. Hopefully we can get out of here. But right now, I’m stuck.”
Seven did survive the storm of course. The tide went out, as it’s in the habit of doing, and with it went Sven and Kira and the pets, leaving the Shanty to the elements. The bedroom looked like a disaster area. The foyer was, unquestionably, a disaster area. The docks looked destroyed, as did many other houses and businesses throughout the barrier islands of South Jersey.
The storm dumped 30 inches of snow on parts of the state and cut power to some 270,000 people. For much of South Jersey—from Avalon to Cape May—the weekend tides had been worse than those of Hurricane Sandy, whose eye passed over Atlantic City. Early estimates put the damage from this winter storm at around $83 million, far less than the recent hurricanes.
But by Saturday night, Sven was back beside the water, giving a weather report from the Brigantine Seawall, where big waves of surf were crashing against the barrier and rolling back to see. The wind was blowing offshore, Sven said, giving cause for hope the tides in the back bays might be lower.
“This morning I lost my house and I lost a, phew, lost a lot of property,” he said. “Lost a lot of docks, and stuff like that, that broke away.”
Meanwhile, the governor, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, appeared to suggest there was no damage at all from the nor’easter. In a petulant exchange with a reporter on MSNBC, Chris Christie, said there was, “no residual damage” from the flooding, then promptly got hit over the head with those comments by people who’d been up to their martinis in ice water all day Saturday.
After a series of ill-advised jokes about whether he should “go down there with a mop” a student at Stockton University started a GoFundMe campaign to send mops to the governor’s mansion. In twenty days, they’d raised $1,955, earmarked, in the end, to assist those affected by the storm (no mops).
The governor would ultimately ask for disaster-relief funds for Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean Counties. By the second week of February, he’d suspended his bid for the Republican nomination.
In Atlantic City, where they seemed to have their own mops anyway, the cleanup was already underway. By Sunday, Sven had fans running to dry out the Shanty and it appeared he’d already sanded down the decks. A day after the flooding it looked, miraculously, livable.
By Sunday night the storm had moved north to Nova Scotia and a temporary peace held over the bays. Outside, the leftover clouds were lit up with the red light of the dying winter, and Sven posted a last message. “If you are in South Jersey right now go outside and check it the sunset!” and people did and started sending in pictures of the big skies over Atlantic County, and in fact it was beautiful.