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Flooding inundates New Jersey after Hurricane Irene

By Tom Cohen and Poppy Harlow, CNN
Flooded intersections in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, closed roads and caused power outages on Sunday.
Flooded intersections in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, closed roads and caused power outages on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Interior of state hit worse than beaches, governor says
  • NEW: Private citizens urged to stay off roads Monday
  • NEW: Governor revises death toll downward
  • Widespread damage reported in Millburn, west of Newark

(CNN) -- A good news/bad news scenario emerged in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, with an orderly evacuation preventing possible catastrophe along the coast but torrential rains setting up record inland flooding in the next 48 hours, Gov. Chris Christie said Sunday.

One person so far has died due to the storm -- a woman whose car was swept away by flood waters in Salem County in southwest New Jersey, the governor told a news conference. Christie later told reporters he erroneously reported a firefighter died during an attempted water rescue in Princeton. He said he was provided erroneous information and apologized, saying the firefighter was in intensive care.

Christie noted that the orderly departure from the Jersey Shore region by more than 1 million people who heeded evacuation warnings both saved lives and showed that the state's residents can overcome their "tough and cynical and hard-boiled" nature to work well together.

State shelters would be almost empty by late Sunday, he said.

Now the challenge is inland flooding, Christie said, with the Ramapo River expected to crest at record levels in the Pompton Lake area in the south and other rivers, including the Delaware and Rahway, also jumping their banks. More than 250 roads had been closed, he said.

"Tomorrow is going to be a very difficult day," he said Sunday evening. "Don't go to work if you do not have to."

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State workers, however, were ordered back to work Monday.

An aerial tour showed few coastal homes suffered significant damage, Christie said.

"While the initial concern was shore communities, the real aftermath is the rest of the state, where there was considerable flooding," he said.

Nearly one-third of the 5,500 households in Secaucus, near New York City, were without power late Sunday afternoon. Many residents were pumping water out of basements or coping with other damage resulting from the overflow of the Hackensack River basin.

"For some this is devastating" said Charlie Schumacher, deputy coordinator at the local office of emergency management. "For some, they were fortunate."

Residents who kept high-water marks from previous storms said Irene surpassed those levels, Schumacher told CNN.

Before heading off for the aerial tour, Christie warned of "a major flooding incident" in the next two days from both the swollen rivers and dams considered at risk.

In particular, he said, the town of High Bridge below Lake Solitude Dam has been evacuated, and the Ramapo River is expected to crest more than a foot above its previous record level near Pompton Lake Dam.

"We are going to have some major flooding events, if not record flooding events in those areas," Christie warned.

Flooding also caused authorities to issue boil water orders in seven communities -- West Orange, Short Hills, Millburn, Maplewood, Irvington, Springfield and Summit, the governor said.

In Millburn, the Rahway River overflowed its banks on both sides early Sunday, causing "major flooding in our downtown area," said Lt. Peter Eakley, the deputy emergency management coordinator.

The water also ran over floodwalls in other areas, Eakley said, forcing local roads to be shut down and requiring the rescue of motorists who drove around barricades and became trapped in rising water.

Eakley said the flooding, while serious, was not as bad as September 15, 1999, when Hurricane Floyd made its arrival.

Businesses on Millburn Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, were bailing out.

"It is like deja vu all over again," Basilico restaurant co-owner Angelo DelBecchi said, referring to Floyd. "You can never prepare for anything like this." Basilico's basement kitchen was destroyed Sunday.

Bob Gamba, manager of Bagel Chateau, lamented the two or three inches of mud and water knocking his ovens out of service until they can be inspected and cleaned. "I've got to get back into business."

"I'm looking to open up in a couple of days," Gamba said. "But I need the water to settle and everything to be fine before I can do that. Because, it's a water bagel."

Jeff Ingram, 35, spent Sunday waiting for electric power to be restored and bailing out his basement in Rahway after the worst flooding in his 10 years there.

"Without power I am reduced to bailing the water out manually ... because the basement water level is dangerously close to the hot water heater," he said, adding that the flood waters were starting to recede and the power company announced it expected to be on the scene at 10 p.m. Sunday.

Water came up nearly 3 feet in the home his family has called home for 40 years, said Guy Pascarello of Secaucus. A building inspector said the house was uninhabitable.

"I don't know (what we'll do), this is all new ground," said Pascarello. "The good news is that it's just stuff. This is a home and we love our home, but it's just things."

David Michael Ramas, a CNN iReporter who posted video footage of the flooding in Union in northeast New Jersey, said local residents told him they never had seen so much water accumulate in the city's Joe Collins Park.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation announced it deployed 3,000 workers in crews across the state to clear debris and create detours for motorists around flooded roads and other obstructions.

In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, the department noted flooding on roads in the central and northern areas of the state near the Raritan, Rockaway, Saddle and Passaic rivers.

Edward Picco of Princeton Junction, halfway between Princeton and New York City, said there's no place for water to go. Flood waters swamped roads and affected a nearby bridge, he told CNN.

Christie noted that along with the coastline evacuation, authorities also moved about 3,000 people from 25 health care facilities to ensure their safety. When he visited some of the shelters set up to house evacuees, Christie said, he braced himself for a hostile reaction that proved unnecessary.

"I was really expecting a lot of angry people there," he said, "and instead a lot of people were really grateful that we had gotten them out of harm's way."

And in a sign that some things were returning to normal, Christie announced that Atlantic City casinos would reopen on Monday.

CNN's Greg Botelho, Phil Gast and Christopher Lett contributed to this report.

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