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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flood Impacts Multiply as Water Rises

A house exploded in an evacuated flood zone early Monday, one of the most dramatic moments in New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which led to record flooding, caused widespread power outages and was being blamed for at least three deaths.

Pompton Lakes, where the house exploded, is surrounded by three rivers and was seeing serious flooding Monday. Record crests were expected in the area.

The house exploded early Monday, sending a cloud of smoke over the area as firefighters sought to contain the flames from a boat.

Maryann Waibel, who lives a few blocks from the house, said she heard an explosion around 6:30 a.m. "I heard the bang and the house trembled," she said. "I thought, `Did my foundation crack?' Then I went outside and saw the billowing smoke."

Pompton Lakes Police Lt. Ronald Thomas said it was assumed no one was in the house because of the evacuation, and there were no reports of any injuries. Natural gas service had not been turned off in the neighborhood, he said.

Neighborhoods from Mount Holly near Philadelphia to Hoboken outside New York City were evacuated as the state's streams and rivers rose.

The water was exceptionally high along the Raritan and Passaic Rivers, among other waterways across the state.

When Trenton's Assunpink Creek flooded to a record level, it submerged train tracks in the state capital that are used by Amtrak and commuter trains.

The flooding made scores of roads big and small impassable. That meant New Jersey Transit buses were altering routes. Most of the state's train lines were shut down. Gov. Chris Christie told the state's residents to stay home if they could on Monday, but didn't close state government offices.

State climatologist David Robinson said Irene would join the handful of storms whose names make people wince, like Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the Ash Wednesday Nor'easter of 1962 and the memorable storm of 1944.

He said that as a rainstorm, it will end up about as bad as Tropical Storm Doria, which doused the state on Aug. 27 and 28, 1971 -- exactly 40 years ago. The only worse flooding, statewide, was the Great Flood on 1903, which came in October of that year, the month after the last hurricane that made landfall in the state.

"We're talking a tragic mass of flooding," he said.

For rivers like central New Jersey's Millstone, it's the fourth -- and most severe -- major flood since Floyd a dozen years ago.

He said the state seems to be in a pattern of frequent heavy rains. It's not all explained by impervious surfaces brought in by sprawl. "It's not as if in 1999, New Jersey suddenly developed," he said.

Irene brought about 10 inches of rain in Stockton and Wayne, and at least 5 inches almost everywhere.

It had been a wet month before Irene's rains arrived Saturday. Robinson said the average total rainfall from observation centers across the state will be about 15 inches for the month -- 3 inches more than October 2005, which had been the rainiest recorded in the state. Some locations have had about 2 feet of rain in all.

By Monday morning, about 625,000 homes and business still had their power knocked out, down from a high of over 900,000. If the winds at the shore had been a bit higher than Sunday's peak gusts of 60 to 69 mph, power outages would have been even more severe.

With the heavy volume of work and obstacles presented by flooded roads and downed trees, utilities said it could take up to a week to restore power to everyone. That left people fretting about the contents of their freezers, living by candlelight and trying hard to preserve their cellphone batteries so they could maintain a link to the rest of the world.

The storm is being blamed for at least three deaths in the state, all Sunday: a 20-year-old Salem County woman found in her flooded car, a 39-year-old man from Wanaque swept away as he walked around looking at damage and a postal worker from Orange, who was swept away after his car was marooned near the Kearny facility where he works.

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