N.J. storm update: One dead, thousands without power

Police have identified the first casualty of Hurricane Irene in New Jersey, as a women who was believed missing in Salem County was found dead this morning, State Police said.

Irene has been downgraded to a tropical storm, but the storm continues to cause disruption across the Garden State.

More than 600,000 customers remain without power; 15,000 people have flocked to emergency shelters; hundreds of trees are down, closing major roads; and the Raritan River has flooded large sections of Somerset County.

The woman found dead has yet to be identified. State Police said they discovered her body by her car at 9:30 a.m.

She was reported earlier to have been missing after being swept up by flood waters after leaving her house, according to Gov. Chris Christie and his office.

Christie, speaking on national television, said cautioned against leaving the safety of shelter this early in the storm’s aftermath.

“She left her house, went in her car and was swept away,” Christie said.

Spokeswoman Maria Comella said the woman was from Woodstown in Salem County.

Salem County officials referred questions to the State Police, who have not responded to media inquires since before 5 a.m. They are the state’s 24-hour contact during the hurricane.

The tropical storm is picking up speed as it moves off the coast near Sandy Hook.

Irene was moving northeast near Sandy Hook at 8:30 a.m. after becoming just the third hurricane to make landfall in New Jersey history. Rains appeared to be ending from south to north across the state, but additional rain is possible as the day progresses and the storm moves into Long Island and New England.

Maximum sustained winds are 40-60 mph, according to the National Weather Service, with gusts up to 75mph. Heavy winds are expected to continue following the immediate passage of the storm, and while they may not reach hurricane strength, the National Weather Service cautioned that trees could still be brought down over the next few hours.

Christie urged residents to stay inside and said at least one woman is missing after he car was swept away by floodwaters.

“What I need to tell people is that we’re going to be fine as long as everyone stays in their homes,” he said.

Christie said it’s impossible to assess the damage until the storm passes, but warned that inland flooding would be record breaking, and that many communities would have to deal with overflowing rivers throughout the next few days.

“We don’t really have a handle yet of what’s going on at the shore, but the inland flooding, river flooding, is record breaking,” he said on the Today Show. “The rivers in Bound Brook and the Somerset County area are rising rapidly. so is up in the Passaic River area up in the northern part of the state.”

The governor has a press conference scheduled at noon.

Towns across the state are reporting flooded roads.

In Old Bridge, Mayor Patrick Gillespie said the storm surge has flooded Route 55 in the Cliffwood Beach section of town, leaving people who ignored the mandatory evacuation order of the area cut off from emergency personnell.

He said any residents there “who are fearful or need help” should make their way to the firehouse on Ocean. Boulevard where the township has set up a shelter.

Authorities in Manville are scrambling to place road blocks throughout the borough this morning to keep vehicles away from its flooded roads.

A swollen Raritan River has turned low-lying streets such as North Second Avenue and Dukes Parkway East into brown rivers filled with debris and trash.

The Raritan River has also overtaken the bridge near Manville’s northern border on North Main Street.

Elsewhere in town, authorities evacuated the Lost Valley neighborhood around 4 a.m. today because of an overflowing Millstone River.

In New Brunswick, Peter Haigney, a spokesman for Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, said the hospital is accepting new patients and is accessible presently by Easton Avenue from Route 287 and Route 18 south, but not Route 18 north because the section of the highway by the first George Street exit, by the Cook-Douglass campuses, is flooded.

Hundreds of thousands of people are already without power across the state. PSE&G is reporting 223,000 of its customers have lost power. JCP&L reports 170,000 outages.

“110,000 of them are in the Monmouth, Ocean, Middlesex area,” spokesman Ron Morano said. “The remainder of them are widely scattered.”

As Hurricane Irene made landfall early this morning, the state braced for more thrashing winds and pounding rain and thousands of residents sought shelter from threatening flood waters.

Flooding closed roads across the state, including several exit ramps from the Turnpike and other Interstates. Police continued to urge residents to remain off the roads. In some towns, including Jersey City and Linden, officials banned driving because of street flooding.

At 6:30 a.m., Middlesex County officials had placed a ban on all non-essential traffic. “New Brunswick is like an island right now,” said Chris Conley, deputy public information officer for Middlesex County’s Office of Emergency Management.

The flooding is a result of the relentless rain – not the Raritan River which isn’t expected to crest over flood stage until Monday night.

Across the state, as many as 412,000 households had lost power by 6 a.m.

The swelling Raritan Bay also posed a threat to Middlesex County communites. Conley said local and county emergency management officials are awaiting high tide when the storm surge is expected to inundate the waterfronts in Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Sayreville and Old Bridge’s Laurence Harbor and Cliffwood Beach.

Shortly before 6 a.m., the National Weather Service predicted storm surges of between four and six feet for Middlesex and Monmouth counties, which was expected to result in near record severe tidal flooding this morning. In Ocean County, the storm surge was expected to reach as much as four feet while a storm surge of 3 feet was forecast for Atlantic County.

The National Weather Service in Mount Holly said a total of six to 10 inches of rainfall is expected to fall through today, with isolated areas receiving as much as 14 inches. Those forecasts were fueling warnings of flash floods and flood warnings, especially in communities along the Delaware, Raritan and Passaic rivers.

The prospect of severe flooding forced more people into state run shelters as Irene battered communities along the coast and the rising rivers. State police said 9,659 residents moved into shelters, an increase from the original projection of 5,600 made about 10 p.m. last night.

Sirens in Manville have been sounding since 3 a.m. and residents in the Lost Valley section started being evacuated early this morning. Manville firefighter Justin Nastri said the Lost Valley section could be under water within the next couple hours. It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were being evacuated.

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