BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. -- The power was out for all of Berkeley Heights on Tuesday, except for a narrow strip of roadway that included Benham’s Garage.
The garage's gas pumps were running -- and running low. A crush of cars and people, some toting red gasoline cans, lined up for the precious few remaining drops before Benham’s ran dry.
“We’re the only game in town, and we won’t last much longer,” Bob Kaiser, a barrel-chested attendant clutching a wad of cash, said as the last of the gasoline from one pump only half-filled a customer’s gas can.
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Those who managed to reach the gas station had negotiated around fallen trees, downed power lines and flooded roads. They left behind darkened homes, a few of them crushed by falling trees -- all thanks to the devastating storm known as Sandy.
It was the same across much of northern New Jersey on Tuesday, where the storm left hundreds of thousands without power, from tiny townships such as Berkeley Heights (population 13,183) to big cities such as Newark. Roads were a jumble of yellow police tape, massive tree trunks and instant lakes of churning brown water that cut some towns in half.
Much of the nation’s attention has focused on extensive wind and water damage in New York City, Long Island and the New Jersey coast. But a huge swath of northern Jersey west of Manhattan was equally paralyzed by flooding, fallen trees and downed power lines.
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President Obama took note of the damage and dislocation during a talk to Red Cross employees Tuesday. He mentioned that 80% to 90% of residents in many towns and cities in northern Jersey were still without electricity by midafternoon.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie summarized his state’s woes during a TV interview with “Fox and Friends”: “I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state.”
In Moonachie, population 2,708, south of Hackensack, rescuers searched frantically Monday night for people stranded in houses, trailers and on rooftops after a river overflowed its banks. Officials said Tuesday that at least 800 people were rescued, many of them by boat.
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In the nearby community of Little Ferry, water poured out of storm drains, swamping houses and flooding roads.
“We have a major problem,” Little Ferry Mayor Mauro Raguseo told the Record newspaper. He said 80% of his borough was underwater.
In Berkeley Heights, hundreds of people were out in the streets, in cars and on foot, searching for food, ice, water or gasoline. Police had cordoned off stretches of road blocked by fallen trees or snaking power lines, but some people ducked under the tape to take shortcuts.
At Benham’s garage, Kaiser said the station had 1,200 gallons of gasoline -- more than two days’ supply -- at 10 a.m. Tuesday. By 2:30, almost all of it was gone.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen lines like this,” Kaiser said.
Carlos Chavarriaga, who lives a few miles away in North Plainfield, maneuvered his way around road closings to the Stop & Shop supermarket in Berkeley Heights. He was desperate for ice to keep perishable foods from spoiling at home, where his electricity had been out since Sandy roared through Monday night.
“We stocked up on food and ice, but ice only lasts so long,” Chavarriaga said, loading several heavy bags of ice into his car.
Inside the Stop & Shop, where lines of customers clogged the aisles, a new shipment of ice had just arrived. The supermarket was one of the few stores in town able to stay open, thanks to a generator, but it wasn’t able to save its frozen section. A faint odor of spoiled food wafted through the store.
“It’s been crazy,” said cashier Scott Macaluso. “Everybody’s desperate for milk, water, eggs, ice -- all the basics.”
In most hurricanes and blizzards, stores are jammed before the storm hits. In Berkeley Heights, the rush for staples never abated, especially after many residents realized Tuesday that it could be a few days before power is restored.
“Nobody has any idea when the power will be back on,” Macaluso said as waiting customers traded stories of trees falling on houses and water flooding into basements. "All we can do is try to stay open as long as we can.”
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