NJ floodwaters begin to recede

Hundreds still out of homes across Northeast while others begin to assess damages

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | March 13, 2011

Hundreds remained out of their homes over the weekend as they waited for flood waters to recede along the Passaic and Raritan rivers in northern New Jersey.

The flooding hit much of the Northeast, extending from Maryland to Maine, following heavy rains last week. Northern New Jersey was among the hardest hit areas.

Earlier in the week, the same storm system caused severe storms and tornadoes in the South, including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

The National Weather Service said the Passaic River crested about 9 p.m. Saturday roughly 12 hours earlier than expected but floodwaters were still expected to take several days to completely recede.

Kristin Kline, a National Weather Service meteorologist stationed in Mount Holly, said the river crested at four feet above flood stage in Little Falls and about three feet over flood stage in Pine Brook. Although the flooding was not as severe as initially predicted, the weather service “still considered it a major flooding event,” Kline said.

While emergency management officials estimated some 2,500 residents statewide were evacuated as a result of the flooding, Red Cross shelters reported relatively few people looking for a place to stay.

Fewer than 100 people were staying at a pair of shelters in Paterson, while only 15 were sheltered in Little Falls.

“Things are going smoothly; we’ve had fewer people than we expected and everyone’s needs seem to be met. I think the flooding isn’t as bad as they first expected and that may have worked in our favor,” shelter volunteer Jessica Gold said. “We’re making arrangements now for more permanent shelter for those whose homes will be uninhabitable for some time.”

Gold added the emergency shelters will remain open as long as needed.

The Salvation Army’s New Jersey Division was providing food, water and cleaning kits to those hit by the flooding. Salvation Army personnel also stationed mobile canteens across north and central parts of the state, should they be needed, and feeding stations were opened at the Fairfield Municipal Building and in the borough of Pompton Lakes.

The Salvation Army also positioned a task force at the Passaic County Fire Academy, staged resources in Trenton and placed personnel and equipment on call in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In Paterson, where the overflowing Passaic River flooded much of the northern part of the city, Mayor Jeffery Jones placed six fire department rescue boats on standby.

“This is not a game; this is real. If you can, please seek higher ground now,” Jones told residents in flood-prone areas.

The flooding also caused major travel disruptions throughout the region. A number of major roadways in northern New Jersey remained closed, while traffic was reported moving slowly in other areas. Some cars stuck in high water had been abandoned, and a bus became stuck on a bridge in Paterson early Sunday due to the flooding along the Passaic River.

In addition to Paterson, Little Falls and Wayne, major flooding impacted the Bergen County communities of Fair Lawn and Elmwood Park.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie toured Pompton Lakes on Friday to view the flooding from the Ramapo, Pequannock, and Wanaque rivers. Christie pledged to provide state aid to help with the recovery.

Pompton Lakes Borough officials also announced food and cleaning supplies would be available through the Red Cross and Salvation Army at a distribution center at the Dawes Highway and Lincoln Avenue. Additionally, lime will be made available for all residents from the borough garage and the Pompton Lakes Volunteer Fire Department was offering to pump out basements on a first-come, first-served basis as soon as water levels recede.

County officials said it was “too early” to determine the extent of the damage.

“How fast we can get cleaned up and get people back in their houses and open roads again depends of how fast the flood water recedes,” Passaic County Freeholder Edward O’Connell said over the weekend.

In Elmsford, just north of New York City, pedestrians waded through knee-deep water from the Saw Mill River, which had overflowed its banks as much as 200 feet wide in some areas.

In addition to northern New Jersey, parts of eastern Pennsylvania from Scranton to south of Lancaster remained under a flood warning, with much of the Susquehanna River valley affected.

The National Weather Service said the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania could rise as much as eight feet over flood stage near Wilkes-Barre. While the city has a levee system to protect it, low-lying areas downriver were experiencing flooding.

In Pine Grove, about 40 miles northeast of Harrisburg, a 74-year-old man died when his car was swept into Swatara Creek. Schyulkill County Coroner Joseph Lipsett identified the victim as David Sallada.

The Pennsylvania State Police said Sallada drove around barricades blocking a flooded road. Two state troopers pulled the elderly man from his submerged vehicle, but he was already deceased.

In Harrisburg, City Island, a mile-long island in the Susquehanna River that is home to a number of recreational and athletic venues, was swamped by floodwaters and is expected to remain closed at least through Monday. Metro Bank Park, home to the city’s minor league baseball team, was under as much as two feet of water, but officials with the team, the Harrisburg Senators, hope to have the stadium repaired in time for the home opener in four weeks.

Ninety miles to the east, authorities in Bethlehem said about 100 people had to be evacuated from an area near the Lehigh River as floodwaters rose into a residential area. All evacuees were taken to a Red Cross shelter or found a place to stay with relatives.

Meanwhile, flooding along the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania caused some road closures over the weekend and sent water into some basements, but no serious problems were reported.

Much of New York State was also under a flood watch as the heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to swell rivers and streams. Repairs crews in Delhi County scrambled to drain water from an 18-acre detention pond near Sidney Center, about 150 miles north of New York City, after engineers said flooding and soggy conditions had caused an earthen dam to become unstable.

Up the Atlantic Seaboard in New England, there were concerns rising water levels could break up river ice, creating jams and trigger flooding.

The Coast Guard began ice-breaking over the weekend on Maine’s Kennebec River. The effort, which typically does not begin until spring, will continue through the early part of the week to reduce the risk of property damage.

The National Weather Service said no significant rainfall was expected across the region for several days, giving the area a chance to recover.

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