Obama to Survey Storm Damage in NJ

President Barack Obama will travel to New Jersey on Sunday to see the damage Tropical Storm Irene caused in the state, which he declared a major disaster on Wednesday.

New Jersey officials say 178,535 households are still without power and 10,000 people are in emergency shelters. The president's declaration makes federal funds available to residents in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic and Somerset counties.

Governor Chris Christie said he is asking for a disaster declaration for the entire state.

"We don't have time to wait for folks in Congress to figure out how they want to offset this stuff with other budget cuts," Christie said Wednesday. "Our people are suffering now. And they need support now."

On Wednesday, the buzz of electrical generators can be heard in places like Cranford, as residents and business owners assess the damage from floodwaters due to storm.

The Rahway River flooded hundreds of homes, and even the police department. 

Rene Stempniewicz's basement was filled with water and he said Irene was worse than Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

"This time, the water level was 10 times higher than that," Stempniewicz said. "It went about a foot above my basement window, which is about 3 feet above the ground level, so nothing was stopping at that this point. I've never seen that much water come through at one time."

Stempneiwicz said he doesn't have flood insurance.

Hundreds of homes were flooded and six houses have been condemned. The fire department evacuated 2,500 people and 175 people were rescued by boat.

In Fairfield, the river crested overnight at 24.1 feet, shattering the previous record of 23.2 feet set in 1903.

"Twenty homes in Fairfield near the river were completely submerged in at least five feet of water, water damage far more than has been inflicted before," Governor Chris Christie said. "We just can't fathom what these folks have been going through."

(Photo: Ruined belongings line the streets of Springfield Avenue in Cranford/by Kate McGee)

In Wayne, along the Passaic River, flood waters crested well above 13 feet, putting areas at risk that were never flood-prone before.

A few hundred feet from the edge of the Passaic River in Little Falls, Elisa Sudol was working at her job at the Entenmann's bakery outlet, rescuing pastries and English muffins as flood waters surrounded the building. The inside of the bakery was spared, but the flooding had hurt business nonetheless. "As you can see, we're surrounded," she said, pointing to blocked off roads and highways, "So it's very difficult to get down here unless you walk."

(Photo: Flooding keeps roads closed and make travel difficult in NJ, Scott Gurian)

Near the flooded Willowbrook Mall, Guy Catalioto said the flooding andresulting road closures have caused a major headache for local residents. "I actually ran to my job in Wayne this morning, and that was a big mistake, cause what's a ten minute ride took me a little over two hours to get back," he said.

Further downstream, Wallington Resident Harry Burbank says that his wedding photos, personal mementos and basically his whole life was destroyed when his basement flooded on Sunday, and he was preparing for the water to rise yet again. Burbank's wife, kids and pets sought refuge at a local hotel, while he returned with a friend to help reach stranded residents with his canoe.

Other swollen rivers include the Ramapo and Pompton rivers, which are overflowing from heavy rain and storm surges from Tropical Storm Irene over the weekend. Flooding continues at Millington, Chatham and Little Falls.

Officials warned homeowners to be careful during the clearing process because flood waters can carry chemical and bacterial contamination from sewage.

Police Sergeant Alex Poppoff, Paterson's OEM press spokesman, said even bailing out a basement requires some forethought.

"We're worried about the water actually being contaminated," he said. "It is river water and it has flowed from quite a distance to this point and we are obviously asking them to take  the proper precautions before they pump that water out and not let the skin come in contact with it if possible."

With reporting from Bob Hennelly and the Associated Press

(Photo: Flooding in Newwark/ Newark Press Information Office, D. Lippman)