One after another, storm evacuees in Manville, a central New Jersey town along the rain-swollen Raritan River, told the same story: an urgent late-night knock on the door, a wall of water crashing into their apartments, being rescued by boat and taken to higher ground.
Richie Leonardis, a 60-year-old who has had one leg amputated and uses a wheelchair, said an air raid siren went off around 4 a.m. Thursday. Within minutes, police knocked on his door urging him to evacuate.
“When I opened the door, the water rushed in and almost knocked me out of my wheelchair,” he said. “The cops had to grab me to keep me from going under the water.”
Police had brought a boat to Leonardis’ door to bring him and several others from his apartment complex to a Quick-Check convenience store nearby that was on higher ground.
But before long, the Quick Check started to flood. Store workers told everyone to leave, as they, too, were evacuating, Leonardis said.
He called 911 and said they needed to be re-evacuated. “Outside, there was a 25 mph (40 kph) speed limit sign that was a good 12 feet (3.6 meters) tall; you could only see the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of it."
Richard Leoncini, 65, also had to be rescued by boat from his apartment.
“I woke up, looked outside and opened the door, and the water rushed in, 6 feet (2 meters) of it, and it knocked me backward,” he said. “The fire department came and got me in a boat. You’re waiting for that boat to arrive and you’re surrounded by water in your apartment and you’re thinking, ‘How am I going to get out of this?’”
Hurricane Ida’s remnants hit the Northeast hard. Rainfall overwhelmed drainage systems, setting records in some places including New York City. At least 25 people died in New Jersey alone, most from drowning.
Manville, which lies along the Raritan River, is almost always hard-hit by major storms; it was the scene of catastrophic flooding in 1998 as the remnants of Tropical Storm Floyd swept over New Jersey. It also sustained serious flooding during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
About 30 miles (50 kilometers) away in Elizabeth, at least three dozen people sat and stood on the steps of the Dunn Sports Center. Some had Red Cross blankets, others had piled belongings into bags and suitcases.
The shelter is a waystation on what could be a long road back home for many, displaced by flooding that left the city streaked with rust-colored mud and littered with broken-down cars near the Elizabeth River.
Kelly Martins, spokeswoman for Elizabeth, confirmed that 600 people have been displaced by the storm in the city.
Buses idled, waiting to carry people to hotels. They can stay for free for up to a week, said Schenqia Harris, who left the apartment she shares with her mother, Taisy Harris, because the bottom floor had been flooded and there is a threat of mold.
Taisy Harris said she got warnings on her phone about the weather, but was shocked at how quickly her street turned into a river.
Food in foil-wrapped containers and trolleys stacked high with donated diapers shuttled into the center. Inside there was pizza, chicken, rice and hamburgers, Schenqia Harris said.
Ira Dettaway, whose basement apartment was flooded in the storm, marveled at the generosity.
“Some people probably got better today than they’ve had in a long time,” she said about the food.
Back in Manville, Stacey Schember had been asleep in her apartment when she was awakened by sogginess wicking up through her mattress. She stepped out of bed into knee-high water that quickly rose.
“My personal hygiene stuff was floating all around the living room,” she said. “I’m on 14 different prescriptions, and my medicines were all floating around my apartment, bobbing in the waves. I managed to get one small bag of clothes that were still dry and I climbed into the rescue boat.”
Jeremy Rogers had just dragged the 13th large plastic bag of household belongings that was now waterlogged trash to the curb outside his house on Friday.
“We watched the water come up one side from the valley and meet up with the water on the other side of the house coming up from the sewer,” he said. “My basement has two feet (0.6 meters) of raw sewage in it now.”
Evacuees were split on whether they would continued to live here. Some, expressing satisfaction with decent landlords, trusted them to clean up and repair the dwellings. Others, however, had finally had enough and vowed to move to somewhere not in a known flood plain.
“That goes without saying now,” Schember said.
Robert Martes and his girlfriend waited Friday at the Elizabeth shelter for a bus to take them to a hotel. Martes said he realized the storm was going to be bad Wednesday night after he got off work as an Amazon employee, headed to a convenience store to stock up — and saw a wall of water in the street on his way home.
He said he walked back to his basement apartment through chest-high water to get his girlfriend, who was home alone.
“We lost everything,” he said. “I don’t even have words.”
As for what’s next, Martes said they’re going to use their vouchers for a hotel stay and that he’s going to stay in the city of Elizabeth. Beyond that, he said, he just appreciates the help.
“I gotta be grateful,” he said.
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