Biden calls Ida damage in NJ ‘incredible’ after touring Manville
MANVILLE – President Joe Biden called the damage inflicted in this Somerset County borough by the remnants of Hurricane Ida “incredible” during a Tuesday tour that he said underscores the importance of the infrastructure bill pending in Congress.
“It’s incredible. It’s incredible,” Biden said. “What I’m surprised by is that what otherwise you would not assume could generate a water height that went up in some cases almost to the windows of these homes, literally over your head, according to the folks here. That is pretty amazing. I’ve seen that before, but that’s when levees have broken or things have changed.”
Biden spent about three hours in New Jersey, part of a Northeast swing that also included a visit to flooded areas of Queens, New York. In addition to touring Manville, he discussed the flooding with state and local officials at the Somerset County emergency operations center in Hillsborough.
“The losses that we will witness today are profound. Dozens of lost lives, homes destroyed in Manville, including by gas leaks triggered by the flooding. Damaged infrastructure including the rail system,” Biden said. “My thoughts are with all those families affected by the storms and all those families who lost someone they love.”
Biden spoke with a number of residents in a roughly half-hour walking tour of the Lost Valley neighborhood of Manville.
One family Biden spoke with whose home exploded after a gas leak had left hours before the flood began Wednesday night to protect their 4-month-old baby. One woman said her husband and father returned to the house at 1 a.m. Thursday to retrieve their cat and some items – but had to leave within 5 minutes when warning sirens began blaring.
“By 2, 3 a.m. the water started coming in, and it came in very fast. Within a few hours, we had a lot of water in basement. The whole basement was flooded, it’s still flooded,” she said.
“The first floor would have been, everything would have been ruined anyway,” she said. “Our plan was to come back once the water had gone down. Our daughter’s nursery is on the second floor.”
“And it’s over there on the other corner,” Biden said.
“Yeah, half of her nursery, the wall is up there and the other half of her nursery is down the street,” the woman said. “And our plan was to go in and save her belongings, but unfortunately probably around 2:30, 3 o’clock Thursday, the house was on fire.”
“Thank God you didn’t come back,” Biden said.
“Yeah, thank God we were not near the house. Nobody in the area was able to come back yet because the waters were so high,” she said. “So, we’re extremely grateful that we were able to, all of us in the community, we were all able to not be here when this happened.”
Leaving the White House and again in Hillsborough, Biden said Ida’s devastation shows the importance of approving the infrastructure plan currently awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives, which includes about $150 billion related to climate change.
“We can’t just build back to what it was before,” Biden said. “Whatever damage done in New Jersey, you can’t build back and restore it what it was before because another tornado, another 10 inches of rain is going to produce the same kind of results.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell said FEMA recently authorized close to $5 billion in hazard mitigation funding.
“I think what we saw over the last week is that nobody is immune from the threats that we’re facing from these disasters,” Criswell said.
Criswell said more than 7,000 families in the six counties in New Jersey declared major disaster areas because of Ida – Bergen, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Passaic and Somerset – have applied for individual assistance already.
“That number will continue to grow,” Criswell said.
People in those six counties can register at disasterassistance.gov, through the FEMA app or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA, or 1-800-621-3362.
Criswell indicated that more counties could be declared major disaster areas, as well.
“We’re continuing to do damage assessments today. So, I have staff on the ground today that are doing assessments in Essex, Hudson, Union and Mercer,” she said. “We wanted to be able to get this disaster declaration in place quickly, knowing that we still needed to do additional damage assessments to really get a better understand of the scope of the impact that communities are experiencing across New Jersey.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said he hopes FEMA adds more counties to the list.
“If you’re not in the six counties, we have a website set up, NJ.gov/Ida, and hopefully that’s a landing place for now for folks to go until please God they get designated as a disaster county,” Murphy said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on the flight from Washington to New York that Biden is “quite amenable” to adding more counties to the major disaster declaration.
“I was there in the room when he spoke with Governor Murphy last week, and what he conveyed to him is, ‘You just tell me what you need to help the people of New Jersey to recover, and we’re going to work to get you that,’” Psaki said. “The president is very amenable to hear what he needs.
“And sometimes these requests just take a moment to process, but the president has been quite focused on pressing his team to act and provide resources as they are requested,” Psaki said.