By Karen Zautyk
Driving through The Observer’s towns Sunday afternoon was like driving through a CSI episode. Yellow crime scene tape was everywhere — marking off fallen trees, downed wires and flood-damaged roads. But there was no doubt as to who the “criminal” was: Hurricane Irene.
While this area escaped the widespread devastation that some expected, it certainly did not escape unscathed. And “devastation” is relative. Ask the homeowner whose residence was flooded. Or the merchant who has lost a small fortune from water damage or goods in danger of spoiling because of a power outage. Or any of the multitude of people whose lives were disrupted.
As of press time, we knew of one death — a drowning victim in Kearny. (See accompanying story “Matters of life and death.”)
All of South Kearny was under water, reported Sgt. John Manley, deputy coordinator for the Kearny Police Department’s Office of Emergency Management. Heavy flooding was also reported along the Belleville Turnpike, Harrison Ave. and Passaic Ave.
At least 20 people who attempted to drive through waterlogged streets had to be rescued by the police and Kearny Fire Department from submerged vehicles at various locations all round town, Manley reported.
Some of them were taken to an emergency evacuation shelter that had been set up at Lincoln School with the assistance of Kearny Health Officer John Sarnas and Mark Bruscino, director of plant operations, and his custodial staff.
On Sunday, power was reported out all the way from Midland Ave. to the Pike and from Kearny Ave. to Passaic Ave., and there were scattered outages throughout town.
Workers from PSE&G were busy all over the water-logged community clearing downed wires and repairing or replacing damaged poles and transformers.
As of the storm’s exit Sunday morning, Manley said, there were at least 35 trees in Kearny that had been uprooted or shattered or both by Irene’s fury. But in the afternoon, the winds picked up again, and by 2 p.m., 10 more had fallen. Luckily, there were no reports of injuries.
(This correspondent stopped in Wallace Glen on Passaic Ave. at about 3 p.m. to take some downed-tree photos when the sky darkened and the wind off the river began shaking the limbs to a frightening extent and the entire scene resembled a horror movie and she got the heck outta there.)
“The Kearny Department of Public Works is responding to every tree down, and several have already been removed,” Manley told us about 4 p.m. Sunday. He said the DPW had also brought in a private contractor to help with the removals.
The Kearny OEM, under the direction of Police Chief John Dowie, coordinated police and Fire Department efforts before, during and after the storm. The KFD, Chief Steve Dyl had told us on Friday, had commandeered some boats from the Kearny High School crew, and these were used in various rescues and evacuations, as well as in the attempt to find the drowning victim.
To the west, Nutley experienced “significant flooding” all over, Nutley Det. Anthony Montanari reported. At one point, first responders faced limited access between the eastern and western sides of town: The bridges across the Third River on Vreeland and Brookfield Aves. and Harrison St. were under water. Only the Kingsland St. and Centre St, spans were accessible.
While many areas were affected, some fared worse than others.
When the floodwaters crested at 5 a.m. Sunday, Montanari said, Franklin Ave. and Harrison St. were under 4 feet of water. Donna Court and Homer and Albany Aves. were also among the streets experiencing significantly heavy flooding, as was Passaic Ave. between Rutgers Place and Brookfield Ave. Residents asked to evacuate their inundated homes were housed in a temporary emergency shelter at the Recreation Department building on Park Ave.
Vehicles exiting Rt. 21 South onto River Road ran into floodwaters and several cars, unexpectedly encountering a lake and having no way to back up or turn around, were “completely under water,” Montanari said. The drivers were rescued from their stranded vehicles by the Fire Department.
As in Kearny, trees and wires were down all over the community. “Two monster trees” toppled on Ridge Road during the storm, and on Sunday morning the Nutley DPW was on site removing them, Montanari said. The detective was on site, too, and while he was there, a third massive tree fell, just missing the DPW workers.
What brought it down, Montanari said, “was just a small gust,” but a small gust was enough to fell a tree rooted in soil that was “completely saturated.”
“It was,” he said, “a really sobering reality” as to the dangers still present even though the storm itself had long since passed over.