Gov. Chris Christie said hundreds of stranded people were rescued when the tidal surge up the Hackensack River from superstorm Sandy resulted in water overflowing a natural berm.
In Moonachie, a town of 2,700 about 10 miles northwest of Manhattan, police Sgt. Tom Schmidt said water rose to 5 feet within 45 minutes, making roads impassable and cutting off residents who thought the worse from superstorm Sandy was over.
The floodwaters also knocked out the police and fire departments, forcing them to relocate to a business in a neighboring community.
Schmidt said rescuers had trouble using boats to carry out rescues because water levels were varying from several feet to only inches. Trucks were also used.
Mobile home park resident Juan Allen told The Associated Press that water overflowed a 2-foot-wall along a nearby creek during the tidal surge, filling the area with 2 to 3 feet of water within 15 minutes and eventually as much as 5 feet.
"I saw trees not just knocked down but ripped right out of the ground," he said. "I watched a tree crush a guy's house like a wet sponge."
He said rescuers moved in quickly to get people out.
"There's no way you're going to be ready for something like this," he said.
In neighboring Little Ferry, population 10,000, residents reported water suddenly started gushing out of storm drains late Monday night, and that within 90 minutes there was four feet of water in the road and entering houses.
"I looked out and the next thing you know, the water just came up through the grates. It came up so quickly you couldn't do anything about it. If you wanted to move your car to higher ground you didn't have enough time," said Little Ferry resident Leo Quigley, who with his wife was taken to higher ground by boat and later went to a shelter set up in a school gym.
Residents of Little Ferry, situated near the confluence of the Hackensack River and a major creek, had put out sandbags and said they thought they had escaped damage when the water started coming out of the storm drains.
Joe Dechairo said by midnight the area was flooded, several feet of water entered his home and he and his wife had to be rescued by boat.
Rescued residents were taken to the gym at a vocational-technical school in neighboring Teterboro.
Local and county officials reported during the night that a levee had broken but the governor said that turned out to be incorrect.