By TERRY MORAN, BRANDON BAUR and LAUREN EFFRON
As Hurricane Sandy continues to batter Cape May, N.J., with high winds and flooding, there is one business in town that is determined to stay open and ride it out.
The Congress Hall Hotel in Cape May, the oldest seaside hotel in the United States, has hosted four presidents – Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan — and now is serving as a temporary shelter for people who stuck around during one of the biggest storms to ever hit the East Coast.
Hotel owner Curtis Bashaw said he is staying open for residents and guests – the only business open in town, despite the city being under a state of emergency and a mandatory evacuation that was ordered at 4 p.m. ET remains in effect.
“Congress Hall has been relied upon as the town’s living room in good times and bad for generations, weathering dozens of storms through the years,” Bashaw said. “This is definitely shaping up to be a storm for the history books, but I still feel confident that this venerable building will be reopening its shutters come Thursday.”
The hotel started out in 1816 as a boarding house for summer visitors as “The Big House” and was renamed the Congress Hall hotel in 1828. It has been in Bashaw’s family for decades. His grandfather Carl McIntire, a presbytarian minister, bought the Congress Hall in 1968. Bashaw purchased it with partners in 1995.
Locals are trying to get rooms at the Congress Hall hotel as homes begin to flood. Cape May resident Viviane Rowan said she moved into the hotel this morning.
“The water was rising on the street the I live on and my basement is flooding and I didn’t want to lose power and be on an island. I wouldn’t be able to leave,” she said.
As of 2 p.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Sandy was still a category 1 storm, with pressure measuring at 943 mb, the lowest ever record in the eastern U.S., and 90 mph winds with gusts reaching over 100 mphs. It has already bought widespread flooding to the Cape May area, which is expected to get worse as Sandy approaches land. The NOAA National Data Buoy Center reported earlier that wave heights reached up to 26 feet southwest of the city.
Mayor Edward Mahaney, Jr., said at a press conference today that his major concerns were extended periods of high winds and huge storm surge causing flooding. He added that Cape May hasn’t flooded since 1992, when high storm surge brought water over the city’s sea wall built after a 1962 Noreaster.
Terry Chapman, who has lived in Cape May for 30 years, said she and her family evacuated out of the area during last year’s Hurricane Irene, but decided to ride out Sandy at home with her daughter and son-in-law, Julina and Robert Shepanski, and their two kids Greta and Elsa.
“I’m certainly concerned [about Sandy],” Chapman said. “Fear is the biggest enemy, but no point in dwelling on it because we can’t leave now.”
ABC News’ Bartley Price contributed to this report