IMAGE: TRUCK IN DEEP WATER
Mel Evans  /  AP
A truck borrowed from a military academy in Trenton, N.J., searches for stranded residents Thursday. Thousands of people along the Delaware River fled their homes.
updated 7/1/2006 6:07:43 PM ET 2006-07-01T22:07:43

Some residents of cities and towns flooded by the Delaware River struggled to clean up debris and waterlogged possessions Saturday but many others were still waiting to return to their homes.

Thousands of New Jersey residents were evacuated on Wednesday and Thursday, joining thousands of others who fled rising water across the river in Pennsylvania and upstream in New York state following a record rain storm.

People still out of their homes were waiting for local and state inspectors to give them the go-ahead as the high water moved downstream, said Capt. Jerome Hatfield of the state’s Office of Emergency Management.

“We started the process yesterday up north, and people are getting back in today, though not in large numbers,” he said.

High water recedes
The National Weather Service said the river had fallen below flood stage throughout the region by early Saturday.

Police and fire teams worked on Saturday to pump water out of basements in The Island, a Trenton neighborhood bordering the Delaware that has absorbed the worst of three major floods in the area since the fall of 2004.

Danny Thomas, an Island resident through all three floods, said the damage did not look as severe as last year’s, when some people had 5 feet of water in their basements.

“And no, I’m not selling,” Thomas said. “When I was in Virginia I lived on the Potomac, and when I was in Uganda I lived on the Nile, so I must like living near water.”

Resigned to damage
Upriver in Warren County, Harmony Township resident George and Cathy Kelchner had started cleaning their home that sits within 150 yards of the Delaware.

Slideshow: Deadly deluge

“It’s the same routine,” George Kelchner said. “An inch of water is like 2 feet of water. It doesn’t make any difference because once you get the floor and carpets ruined, it’s still the same amount of work to replace them.”

Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were touring the state Saturday to assess damages.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Friday asked President Bush to declare the state a major disaster area. There was no immediate indication when a decision on federal assistance would be made.

Bush issued a disaster declaration Saturday for eight New York counties struck by the flooding, state officials said.

D.C. area inundated
In Washington, D.C., where a National Archives theater was inundated and several other federal buildings shut down because of flooding, the General Services Administration on Friday was still trying to determine the extent of the damage, when it might be repaired or how much it would cost, said spokesman Mike McGill.

Corzine and Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez toured flood-damaged areas in New Jersey on Friday. Sen. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to tour some of the flooded regions of upstate New York. Vermont was hit by heavy rain against Thursday that led to more flooding there.

The flooding this week was brought on by days of heavy rains that caused several rivers to swell. The Delaware River crested Thursday night at Trenton at 25.1 feet — 5 feet above flood stage — and wasn’t expected to sink back below that level until early Saturday, Palmer said. The Susquehanna River crested at just over 34 feet at Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — below expectations and the 41-foot floodwall.

Along the swollen Delaware, officials closed 10 bridges connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania because of high water. A 117-mile stretch of the New York Thruway between Schenectady and Syracuse reopened Thursday, but Amtrak service in much of the western part of New York remained shut down.

The Erie Canal from near Albany to east of Rochester was closed. Water was rushing so hard over a lock under repair in Amsterdam that it washed away construction trailers and knocked the lockkeeper’s house off its foundation.

Evacuation orders over
In and around Wilkes-Barre, an evacuation order covering up to 200,000 people was lifted Thursday when newly raised levees held back the raging Susquehanna. In Maryland, an evacuation order for 2,200 residents downstream from a dam in Rockville was lifted.

But others weren’t as lucky. Officials cautioned residents in many communities to stay away from their homes until authorities determined gas and electricity are working properly and homes are structurally sound.

Almost 3,000 people remained in shelters in New York, where widespread problems with drinking water and power outages continued. In Trenton, Palmer said some residents might not be able to return until Tuesday. Drinking water was dwindling after the city’s water filtration system was shut down because of debris in the Delaware, and Palmer said it would not restart until at least Friday.

“I want to move,” said Jennifer Helmuth, who sweltered in a sport utility vehicle with her 16-month-old son and extended family outside a middle school serving as a shelter. “Away from the water. Away from this.”

Deaths in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New York have been blamed on the storms and the flooding. In New York’s Sullivan County, searchers found the body of a 15-year-old girl whose house collapsed as she stood on the porch waiting to be rescued.

Searchers also found the bodies of two Maryland boys, ages 14 and 16, who were swept away earlier this week after they went to look at a rain-swollen waterway. Pennsylvania Health Department spokesman Troy Thompson said Friday that four additional deaths — nine in all in that state — had been tentatively linked to flooding.

Even as waist-high waters invaded streets, some tried to look on the bright side. In Johnson City, N.Y., Erin Davis and her boyfriend, Chris Newton, both 25, took a break from cleaning up with a short game of badminton.

“We were cleaning when I saw a tabletop float by with the rackets and birdies,” Newton said. “We’re just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

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