Historic Storm Floods Township; Challenges First Responders

By FRED T. ROSSI
For Union County HAWK

SCOTCH PLAINS — What Mayor Joshua Losardo described as “a storm for the history books” dumped upwards of 10 inches of rain on the area last Wednesday, leading to flooded basements, streets that became rivers, power outages, damaged downtown businesses, submerged and abandoned vehicles, downed trees and utility wires — and what seemed like nonstop alerts on smartphones telling residents of tornado watches, flash-flood warnings and admonitions to stay inside until the worst storm since Superstorm Sandy nine years ago had passed.

The remnants of what had been Hurricane Ida arrived shortly before the afternoon rush hour on September 1, starting first as a light rain that by 6 p.m. had picked up in intensity and at times was dumping several inches of rain per hour, quickly leading to flooding in all parts of town. Portions of Route 22 were shut along with West Broad Street, Westfield Road, Lamberts Mill Road, Rahway and Raritan Roads, Glenside Avenue, Manitou Way and streets near Shackamaxon Country Club. Apartment complexes near the Clark border were under water, as was much of the downtown business district, where foot-deep water reached the front steps of the municipal building on Park Avenue and damaged numerous businesses.

During the storm, which began to wind down around midnight, numerous residents posted photos and videos of water-filled basements, submerged vehicles, yards that looked like lakes and streets throughout town that were under water. Others expressed concerns about loved ones trying to safely get home during the torrential downpours, while several hundred residents lost power last week.

Residents woke up Thursday morning to blue skies — and the prospect of cleaning up from Ida. Most flood waters had receded, but many streets were covered in mud and littered with branches and other debris along with abandoned cars. Yard and garden items were often found down the street or on a neighbor’s property, and residents began to remove damaged furniture and other items from flooded basements. NJ Transit train and bus service was suspended for most of Thursday, with the Raritan Valley Line serving Union County still out of service heading into the weekend.

Mayor Losardo said he was grateful that no lives were lost in the township as a result of the storm. The municipal government is contracting with a company to haul away all storm-related property at no cost to those affected. Pick-up dates have not yet been scheduled.

While residents hunkered down last Wednesday night, first responders were busy. Deputy Fire Chief Skip Paal, with more than two decades of fire-service experience, said the storm “was like nothing I have seen before,” noting that “we experienced flash flooding in areas all over the township, including a number of areas where water has never been an issue in the past.” He told the Union County HAWK that between 5 p.m. on Wednesday and noon on Thursday, the department responded to 106 storm-related calls — about the same number of calls normally seen in the months of August and September combined.

He said more than 100 people were evacuated by firefighters from homes, apartments and motor vehicles, including 27 from a tour bus stranded on Route 22. Some 20 people at the RWJ fitness center on Lamberts Mill Road were forced to evacuate to the second floor of the building for several hours as floodwaters entered the parking lot and gym. Temporary shelters were set up at the municipal building and at the south-side fire station for those who had to be rescued.

Police Chief Ted Conley told the HAWK that his department responded to 185 storm-related calls last week, including 53 for stranded vehicles and two rescues.

Rescue Squad President Dan Sullivan noted that he had been on duty for massive rainstorms in 1973 and 1999, along with numerous hurricanes, and said last week’s “was the worst.” He told the HAWK his all-volunteer crew responded to nine medical calls and that, due to the flooding, they were limited to only JFK Medical Center in Plainfield and RWJ in Rahway. He also said the floodwaters caused damage to the rescue squad’s vehicles.

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