Gov. Chris Christie said Monday that he is seeking a Major Disaster Declaration from the federal government to repair major damage in Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties caused by three days of record rainfall.
Christie asked President Barack Obama for the declaration, which would entitle the state to federal funding to repair damage — estimated at $20 million in Cumberland County — sustained as a result of heavy rainfall and subsequent floods between Aug. 13 and 15.
“Based on the information and data available, it is evident that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and the affected local governments and that Federal assistance is necessary,” Christie’s letter to Obama states.
The news of Christie’s request was welcomed by government representatives and Cumberland County officials, who said financial aid is necessary for the county to recover.
“The governor’s move was critical and essential,” Congressman Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said Monday, noting that Christie’s request opened the door for potential federal aid and that, without the governor’s action, the repairs would have been left to county officials.
LoBiondo, who was unsure how long it would take for a federal response, was one of several officials who toured Cumberland County on Monday along with county Freeholder Director William Whelan, Freeholder Sam Fiocchi, Public Works Director Don Olbrich, and Assemblywoman Celeste Reilly, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland.
The daylong tour, which included a trip to neighboring Salem County, highlighted the severity of the damage beyond the photos LoBiondo had seen of the devastation.
“You can hear the explanation, and you can see the photos,” he said. “It’s not like having a firsthand look.”
LoBiondo said he supported Christie’s request in the “strongest possible terms.”
Cumberland County officials said Monday that they have taken the necessary precautions for temporary relief and safety since the weekendlong storm — during which nearly 11.5 inches of rain fell — ravaged the area, but they are still coping with the nearly $20 million in damage they face.
Olbrich said that of the 61 roads that sustained damage during the storm, all but five have been reopened.
Those sites have been dubbed “The Famous Five,” Olbrich said. They are closed to the public by concrete barriers, and repairs to those roads are estimated to take as long as six weeks to a year, he said.
To ensure county residents are not injured and stay away from the severely damaged areas, members of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office patrol the area every day, Olbrich said.
“We can’t stress enough the need for the residents to stay outside of the destruction area,” he said.
In addition to road damage, the flooding of the Maurice River and the Great Egg Harbor River will require repairs to the river dams that were breached during the storm.
The $20 million estimate does not include claims county homeowners might file for damage they sustained to their properties.
Whelan said Monday’s tour showcased the worst of the worst in terms of damage county officials must repair.
“When you see the devastation personally, it allows you to almost visualize the force of the water that caused the damage,” he said. “It allows me to speak with stronger conviction about what is really needed.”
Christie’s announcement was a step in the right direction, officials said, but, with another hurricane-type storm potentially hitting the region this week, there is more work to be done.
“Whatever cards we’re dealt with, we’ll handle it,” Olbrich said, adding that public works employees planned to spend today removing debris downstream to ensure more rainfall will not cause flooding.
Whelan said that if another storm does hit the area, any damage would only compound Cumberland County’s issues. That includes further erosion and more roadways collapsing.
“We’d see more of that,” he said. “Hopefully nothing worse.”
Whelan said county officials have existing emergency action plans in place for all situations and only two months ago engaged in a readiness exercise for a Category 3 hurricane.
“That also puts us in a good position to be prepared for that storm if it does hit us,” he said.
As officials continue to track the forecast, they said it is their job to be prepared for whatever conditions they may face.
“One of our responsibilities as leaders, when you sign up for this kind of stuff, we’ve got to be somewhat resilient,” Whelan said. “We have to be stable enough and strong enough to support what might come next. I feel we are there.”
Additionally, Christie sent a letter to Thomas Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requesting a natural-disaster designation for Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Salem, Somerset, Sussex, Union and Warren counties. That request stems from damage incurred during the 2011 growing season as a result of excessive rain, high winds, flooding and extreme heat.
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