PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - Swollen rivers submerged stretches of northern New Jersey on Tuesday in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, damaging homes, flooding roads and stranding residents, hundreds of thousands of whom had no power.
With at least nine river locations hitting or surpassing record flood levels in northern New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie said he was seeking expedited disaster assistance from the federal government.
“Hurricane Irene was a catastrophe of enormous severity and magnitude,” he said in a statement. “Torrential rains have caused significant flooding in areas across the state, impacting residences, major and local roads, and necessitating highway closures and a suspension of rail services.”
Authorities said rivers including the Passaic, Ramapo and Pompton were overflowing from heavy rains and storm surges left behind by Hurricane Irene, which hit the state on Sunday.
Wallington, in Bergen County, ordered a mandatory evacuation of about 1,000 families who live closest to the raging Passaic River, which was expected to crest at about 10 p.m. on Tuesday.
“Many people were caught off guard,” said James Furtak, acting emergency management coordinator of the borough of 11,000 residents. “Their basements were flooded up to the ceiling and the first floor.”
People were climbing out windows to get out of their flooded homes, he said.
The Passaic crested in Fairfield, New Jersey, overnight at 24.12 feet, breaking the record set in 1903 of 23.2 feet, Fairfield Deputy Police Chief Anthony Manna said.
Fairfield is surrounded on three sides by the curving river, and National Guard troops were using boats to rescue flood-stranded residents, he said.
In Paterson, where the Passaic slices through the city with dramatic waterfalls, hundreds of residents were taken to a shelter as torrential waters threatened to destroy homes, authorities said.
Peter Hennen was helping his son, a Paterson homeowner, rig up pumps to remove water from his house.
”I‘m from this area,“ he said, ”and this is the worst that I’ve seen here, the farthest up this water has come.
“Everybody thought the shore was going to be devastated, but people here forgot about the media telling them that the storm’s 500 miles wide so the rest of Jersey got hit.”
The Passaic was some 13 feet higher than flood stage, Paterson Police Sergeant Alex Popov said.
In Pompton Lakes, the force of floods from the Pequannock and Ramapo rivers pushed buildings off their foundations, and two dozen homes in the flooded area have been condemned, said Vito Gadaleta, administrator for the borough of 12,000 residents.
He said the Ramapo was receding, but the Pequannock was still causing problems, with some neighborhoods under several feet of water and inaccessible, although conditions were improving.
In Wayne, where major roads were blocked due to flooding, Mike Holland paddled a canoe from his home on Trovela Drive, where cars were almost completely underwater.
“This is the worst one,” he said, having survived several floods in the neighborhood.
Marguerite Ball, another Wayne resident, described the flooding as heartbreaking for the working class area that tends to flood from the Passaic and the nearby Pequannock.
“People just get cleaned out, cleaned up, rebuild and it happens again and again,” she said.
To the west, state Route 29, a scenic road that runs along the banks of the Delaware River to tourist towns such as Lambertville and Frenchtown, was closed because of a washout near Washington Crossing Road in Hopewell Township, state Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Greeley said.
The highway typically carries 11,000 cars a day, and workers hope to have it reopened for the Labor Day weekend.
The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management said the state had registered seven deaths related to Irene.
State utility Jersey Central Power & Light said more than 240,000 customers were without power, and PSE&G said 67,000 of New Jersey customers still had no power on Tuesday afternoon.
Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Joan Gralla in New York; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston