Terry Milita went to investigate a sound his wife, Sheila, heard through the roar of the rain that was pounding Rhonda Drive about 11 p.m. Tuesday.
“All hell broke loose,” he said.
Floodwaters had collapsed one of their basement walls, allowing water to douse wedding dresses, prom gowns and the family Christmas tree. In the backyard, debris piled against a chain-link fence that quickly gave way.
With the water rising to 3 or 4 feet, three Millville police officers arrived and carried diminutive Sheila through the now-raging waters to a dry house nearby.
Like many South Jersey residents, the Militas were caught off guard by the intense volley of thunderstorms that inundated much of South Jersey late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Rain totals reached as high as nearly 9 inches.
One of their neighbors, Tiffany Lind, had to be airlifted to Cooper University Hospital in Camden with serious injuries after her basement wall collapsed. In all, 40 residents of the neighborhood had to be evacuated.
While coastal communities such as Beach Haven and Brigantine saw a half-foot of flooding in some areas around high tide, parts of Cumberland County were evacuated due to flash flooding. Skies cleared in time for the Atlantic City Airshow, leaving authorities and property owners to clean up downed trees and waterlogged basements. Meanwhile, some fear the lingering effects of flooding as water flows downstream and the potential impact the storm will have on agriculture.
“You just had one impulse of heavy rain after another that moved up the coast like trains on a track,” said state Climatologist David Robinson, who noted that rainfall was so intense that some areas reached once-in-a-century levels.
What made the storm so powerful, Robinson said, was the strong low-pressure system over the Great Lakes, which rotated around a frontal system along the Mid-Atlantic coast.
“Not only did we have a lot of energy in the atmosphere, we had a lot of moisture that was drawn up on the frontal system,” he said.
Dean Iovino, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the storm — which had caused major flooding in Detroit and Baltimore — had been expected to pass to the north. Instead, Millville saw its second-highest daily precipitation ever recorded, with 8.92 inches — just more than one-tenth of an inch shy of the record set during a similar storm on Aug. 20, 1997. The station at Atlantic City International Airport set a record for the date, with 4.41 inches of rain Tuesday, compared with the previous record of 3.13 inches set in 1901.
There were reports of building collapses and gas leaks in Hammonton and Millville, in addition to flooded basements and roads. The worst flooding occurred in places such as Bridgeton, Millville and Vineland because the rain “had no place to go,” said Cumberland County Public Safety Director James Matlock.
“It’s not that often that we get this much rain this quick,” he said.
That area was hit particularly hard by the flooding, resulting in about 40 people being evacuated overnight, Matlock said.
Flash flooding posed another serious danger. Across South Jersey, police reported rescuing motorists from cars that became trapped in standing water.
Vineland Fire Chief Robert Pagnini said one woman wound up stuck in her car on the Boulevard near Butler Avenue for a “significant amount of time.” The woman had to be treated by emergency services staff for possible exposure, he said.
Meanwhile, six residents of a group home operated by Elwyn Inc., a human services organization, were evacuated when basement foundation walls collapsed. They were taken to other facilities, he said.
Millville City Engineer Rich Jones said there are still concerns in Millville about rising water levels on local streams. Those streams are being filled by what Jones called “storm lag,” or rain that fell into upstream feeder areas.
Matlock said county officials are also concerned about “dangerous” water levels at several lakes, particularly Laurel Lake in Commercial Township, which could damage the lake’s dam and spillway after similar impacts from previous storms.
“We don’t need to lose another dam in this county,” Matlock said.
Brigantine has had to deal with damage to infrastructure similarly stressed by Hurricane Sandy. John Doring, the city’s superintendent of public works, said the city’s library branch was again flooded but should be open by Friday. The city-owned dock, which had sand and sidewalks damaged, and golf course were closed Wednesday due to the storm.
“I’m going to patch (the city dock) to get it through the summer and worry about it in the fall,” Doring said.
Stafford Township saw intense rain that led to an oil tanker becoming stuck in a washed-out section of road near the construction area of the Route 72 causeway.
“We had everyone that we had in the township out there working, but it was bad. This flooding caused a lot of damage,” Mayor John Spodofora said.
Elsewhere, there were reports of 8.6 inches of rain in Downe Township, 6.2 inches in Estell Manor, 5.5 inches in Little Egg Harbor Township and 1.3 inches in Ocean City.
Power outages affecting more than 1,000 customers were reported in parts of Cumberland and western Atlantic counties as of 12:30 a.m., according to an Atlantic City Electric outage map. Most of those outages had been fixed by Wednesday afternoon.
Dave Monteleone, of Vineland, was afraid of what awaited him when he returned to his 35-acre farm. While he sold produce at the Ocean City farmers market Wednesday, he worried that his various crops, from Swiss chard to squash, were rotting in the standing water.
“The season wasn’t over,” said Monteleone’s sister-in-law, Doris, “but it might be now.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Militas and family and friends sat in the now-dry front yard. Workers were still pumping water from the basement. One of them handed Sheila Milita a soggy picture of her daughter, Nicole. The photo, taken years ago, was retrieved from the muddy basement floor.
Part of the Militas’ house is now being supported by temporary wooden beams. Terry Milita said the family cannot stay in the house.
“We don’t know when we can go back in,” Sheila Milita said.
Staff Writers Cindy Nevitt and Donna Weaver contributed to this report.
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
@wjmckelvey on Twitter
Contact Thomas Barlas: