FEMA head to tour NJ flood damage; Obama to visit

DAVID PORTER - Associated Press,SAMANTHA HENRY - Associated Press
August 31, 2011
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Jesery Gonzalez, 5, looks on as water rushes down the Great Falls as the Passaic River neared its cresting point following Hurricane Irene, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011, in Paterson, N.J. Many questions faced New Jerseyans as most rivers began to recede and expose a path of destruction that seemed to touch all corners of the state. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

WALLINGTON, N.J. (AP) — Homes around New Jersey resembled large, soggy yard sales Wednesday as residents dragged flood-damaged belongings out onto lawns and into streets still muddied with floodwaters left behind by Hurricane Irene's record-setting path of destruction.

Three days after the storm blasted through New Jersey and up the East Coast, there was little respite for many northern New Jersey communities facing a lengthy cleanup and a sobering tally of damage.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate were visiting flood-damaged Lincoln Park, in Morris County, late Wednesday afternoon. President Obama was scheduled to tour hard-hit Paterson on Sunday.

State climatologist David Robinson said the rainfall that fell during Irene, averaging 7 inches statewide, was the worst since the Great Flood of 1903. The flooding statewide was the most extensive on record, he said, though for the Passaic and Raritan rivers the floods were the second worst ever measured.

State officials said Wednesday it was too early to determine the scope of the damage across New Jersey, particularly since not all the floodwaters have receded. Teams were expected to be out in a day or two to perform preliminary damage assessments.

The receding rivers offered a mixed blessing for those who finally were able to return and see firsthand what the storm did to their homes.

In Pompton Lakes, at least 10 house foundations had collapsed and two basement fuel tanks were breached, according to emergency management coordinator Albert Evangelista. A portion of a riverside road was completely washed away and may cost $500,000 to rebuild, he said.

Paterson residents may have a longer wait to return home. Raging currents of the Passaic River swept through the city of 150,000, flooding part of downtown and forcing the emergency evacuations of hundreds of people who likely underestimated the storm's ferocity.

In Wallington, a heart-shaped, one-square-mile town of about 12,000 residents, large sections remained inundated with floodwaters from the Passaic River, which winds around the small hamlet and hits it from several angles.

"Sunday morning the water was only up to here," said resident Kevin O'Reilly, gesturing to where his front lawn used to meet the sidewalk. "My daughter and I took a walk around the block, we figured everything would be fine. Sunday afternoon, the waves were bouncing off the house, and that's when it blew out the basement windows. It sounded like Niagara Falls, it just filled up immediately, and this is what we've been dealing with since then."

O'Reilly, 58, has lived in Wallington for 26 years and said he's never seen flooding this severe.

Neighbors had started mucking out flooded basements and piling water-logged furniture and destroyed possessions on the sidewalks in front of their homes when the river rose again Tuesday. The town rushed to place large trash bins on higher ground, and neighbors pitched in to keep the streets clear.

"Everyone was out with wheelbarrows, some guy pulled up with a skateboard and a bucket on it — just improvising. The whole thing's been a mess," said resident Matthew Keenan.

Paul Postma watched as more than two feet of rain filled the bottom level of his Lincoln Park home over the weekend. On Wednesday, he was busy pulling furniture onto his lawn and using bleach to wipe down the house's mud-soaked walls.

His lawn looked like he was hosting a yard sale, with one caveat: "None of this has value. At least not anymore," he said.

Flooding continued to besiege Paterson, Little Falls and Montville Township even after the state's rain-swollen rivers crested and slowly receded.

Amtrak resumed Northeast Corridor service Wednesday through Trenton, where the tracks had been overrun by floodwaters. State transportation officials said crews were able to patch and reopen a lane of northbound Interstate 287 in Morris County, where floodwaters had undermined the pavement.

NJ Transit resumed most of its commuter rail service Tuesday. Service was restored on the Northeast Corridor line from Trenton to New York's Penn Station for the Wednesday morning commute, with delays due to ongoing signal problems caused by flooding in Trenton. Full service was resuming on the Montclair-Boonton Line Wednesday afternoon following a suspension on a portion of the line due to flooding.

Closures on Route 46, which parallels Interstate 80 through much of the flood area, left traffic at a standstill in some places and created lengthy delays on I-80. Some of the congestion was eased by Wednesday morning's commute with the reopening of northbound I-287.

More than 150,000 homes and businesses remained without electricity early Wednesday, with utilities predicting restoration by the weekend or early next week.


Porter reported from Newark. Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco in Lincoln Park contributed to this story.