MOONACHIE, N.J. (AP) — A tidal surge triggered by superstorm Sandy sent water overflowing a riverbank and gushing out of storm drains, quickly swamping two northern New Jersey towns and setting off a frantic rescue of people stranded in houses and rooftops.
Authorities said the body of a man was recovered from the river during the Monday overnight rescues in a flooded area just upstream. The rescue work continued into Tuesday afternoon.
Gov. Chris Christie said hundreds of stranded people were rescued when the tidal surge up the Hackensack River resulted in water overflowing a natural berm in the middle of the night.
The body was recovered just upriver in the city of Hackensack, where flooding also occurred but was less severe. The victim was not immediately identified, and county officials said they did not yet have a cause of death.
In Moonachie, a town of 2,700 about 10 miles northwest of Manhattan, police Sgt. Tom Schmidt said water rose to 5 feet within 45 minutes, making roads impassable and cutting off residents who thought the worse from superstorm Sandy was over.
The floodwaters also knocked out the police and fire departments, forcing them to relocate to a business in a neighboring community.
Schmidt said rescuers had trouble using boats to carry out rescues because water levels were varying from several feet to only inches. Trucks were also used.
Mobile home park resident Juan Allen told The Associated Press that water overflowed a 2-foot-wall along a nearby creek during the tidal surge, filling the area with 2 to 3 feet of water within 15 minutes and eventually as much as 5 feet.
"I saw trees not just knocked down but ripped right out of the ground," he said. "I watched a tree crush a guy's house like a wet sponge."
He said rescuers moved in quickly to get people out.
"There's no way you're going to be ready for something like this," he said.
In neighboring Little Ferry, population 10,000, residents reported water suddenly started gushing out of storm drains late Monday night, and within 90 minutes there was 4 feet of water in the road and entering houses.
"I looked out and the next thing you know, the water just came up through the grates. It came up so quickly you couldn't do anything about it. If you wanted to move your car to higher ground you didn't have enough time," said Little Ferry resident Leo Quigley, who with his wife was taken to higher ground by boat and later went to a shelter set up in a school gym.
Residents of Little Ferry, situated near the confluence of the Hackensack River and a major creek, had put out sandbags and said they thought they had escaped damage when the water started coming out of the storm drains.
Janice Kama was playing cards with her husband by candlelight Monday night after power went out when her poodle terrier mix started looking out the screen door.
"I thought she saw an animal," Kama said. "Then my husband looked out the back door and said, 'Oh my god.' It was like rapids coming down the block and down the sidewalk, like someone turned on a faucet."
Rescued residents were taken to the gym at a vocational-technical school in neighboring Teterboro.
Local and county officials reported during the night that a levee had broken but the governor and emergency officials said that turned out to be incorrect.
Bergen County Emergency Management coordinator Dwane Razzetti said "an overwhelming tidal push" essentially caused the river to back up and overflow its banks.
"No one has ever seen water come up so quickly," he said.