September 7, 2011
By Bob Hennelly
Paterson a week after Irene hit New Jersey President Obama and Governor Christie toured some of the hardest hit areas near the Passaic River in Wayne and Paterson. While the President was in the state the White House extended its disaster declaration to all of New Jersey’s 21 counties which will help residents and businesses get expedited FEMA assistance.
For six hundred of the hardest hit households in Paterson the Presidential visit was a welcomed distraction from their dire circumstances that includes a prolonged power outage and difficulty securing basics like food and water. A foul stench of solvents and sewage permeates some spots and flood debris is everywhere.
The sound of pumps and generators filled the air as a counter point to the loud gospel singing in churches like the Rehoboth Church of Christ. At Rehoboth the congregaton turned out in their Sunday best walking down debris filled streets to church that was running off of a generator and deeply abiding faith.
Paterson has already been hard by the prolonged recession with both a foreclosure and unemployment rate much higher than the state average.
At the Temple Bridge in Paterson President Obama sounded words of encouragement for the crowd. He committed that “all those communities that have been affected by flooding, by the destruction that occurred as a consequence of Hurricane Irene” had “the entire country” behind them. “We are going to make sure that we provide all the resources that are necessary in order to help these communities rebuild.”
The President referenced only obliquely the partisan snipping over budget cuts being a possible prerequisite for disaster aide. He said despite “some talk” of a “slowdown in getting funding out here” emergency relief would not be delayed.
“As President of the United States, I want to make it very clear that we are going to meet our federal obligations because we’re one country, and when one part of the country gets affected, whether it’s a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, or a hurricane that affects the Eastern Seaboard, then we come together as one country,” said Obama.
A door to door canvas of dozens of homes along North Main Street along the Passaic in Paterson produced the same list of angry complaints. Long time resident Patricia Foreman echoed the sentiments of many about the extended power outage. “People can’t cook. You can’t see what you’re cleaning. You can’t do the basic things you need,” Foreman said.
Foreman also expressed health concersn about the air quality. “Its a real bad smell. Somebody with asthma or any kind of breathing condition your going to have trouble trying to clean-up,” Foreman said.
Residents along the river say this was the deepest and quickest moving flood they had ever experienced. Marvin Shepard was angry that despite the frequency of the flooding of the neighborhood for generations, nothing had been done for a long term solution. He thinks the Passaic should be dredged to increase the capacity downstream from the Great Falls. “When that water comes off the Falls it has nowhere to go,” Shepard says. Other residents favored the government buying the most flood prone homes out and converting the land to open space.
An impromptu disaster resource center at the intersection of Haledon Avenue and North Main Street was doing a brisk business. The Salvation Army was providing solace and bottled water. PSEG reps worked to explain to residents that just turning on the power to homes that had been fully flooded without a detailed inspection for potential flood damage would be dangerous for the whole neighborhood.
Verizon had a specially rigged tractor trailer that provided free international, national and local calling as well as internet access for residents. Company spokesman Howard Waterman said the trailer was also serving as a place residents could recharge their cell phones.
Asenio Sebrao was one of the well prepared homeowners who had his own generator. He pumped out his basement for three full days but was frustrated he could not get his electricity restored without a City inspection of his electric system first. What did he think of President Obama’s visit. “I don’t care if he came or didn’t,” said Sebrao. “My President is my own two hands working hard everyday.”