Flood waters inside 7-year-old Zachary Robles’ home in Manville, New Jersey were so high they surged past the hand-drawn lines on his wall—marking how much he’s grown.
They submerged his sisters’ room, ruined his mom’s kitchen, and forced his family to evacuate through the roof, with their dog.
“We lost everything and the flood was coming inside our house,” Zachary, who hovers a little over three feet, said. “I was hugging my Squishmallow, because I was afraid of the dark.”
On Tuesday, almost a week after the storm, President Joe Biden walked through Zachary’s water-logged block in the flood-prone neighborhood known as the Lost Valley.
Zachary handed Biden a card he made for him that read: “I’m sure your parents are proud of you, Joe.” And then he got a hug from the president.
“It feels like I’m the president,” Zachary said after getting to meet Biden.
Zachary and his two sisters recounted their escape as Governor Phil Murphy and Senator Cory Booker looked on.
“I tried to get the [rescuers’] attention so, like, we could be saved because I didn’t want our family to drown,” Zachary told Biden.
“You guys are so brave and smart,” Biden said, according to a video of the encounter provided by Zachary’s mom.
Biden spent about 45 minutes touring the Valley listening to harrowing stories, including from one family whose home exploded due to a gas leak just down the block from Zachary’s home.
The president’s visit comes after FEMA declared six New Jersey counties major disaster areas and unlocked federal money for residents.
“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,” Biden said at the Somerset County Emergency Management Training Center in Hillsborough Township after he was briefed on the storm’s impact by local officials.
“I think the country has finally acknowledged the fact that global warming is real and it's moving at an incredible pace, and we've got to do something about it.”
Across New Jersey, 27 people died in the storm and four others remain missing. Most died in the flood waters, either trapped in their cars or homes. In Elizabeth, in Union County, a family of three and their neighbor drowned in a ground-floor apartment that was underwater. The fire department across from the apartment complex reported eight feet of water and the district’s schools pushed back the first day of school by a week. But Union County residents are not eligible for federal funding since the county has not been designated a major disaster zone.
Murphy told NPR he pressed the case with Biden.
“They're very much open-minded to this,” Murphy said. “They're doing all the things they should be doing. This is a work in progress when they named those first six. And we just need them to add another four or five to that.”
Residents in Bergen, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Passaic, and Somerset counties can apply for federal assistance under the disaster declaration.
But Dina DiMarco, who runs an auto body shop on Main Street in Manville, said the FEMA website kept timing out when she tried to seek help. Her corner business was overwhelmed by 16 feet of water. It ruined all of her equipment inside and destroyed cars, including new ones for sale.
“We were just completely wiped out,” she said. “You're trying to recover from a pandemic so you take a loss there and now you have this, I don't know how sustainable it is, it really just depends on what aid is out there to basically start from scratch.”
Biden’s motorcade was greeted by Trump supporters who waved large Trump flags and held “Impeach Biden” signs along Main Street. Up and down the commercial corridor, businesses were turned inside out. Debris piles towered over six feet. Sidewalks were blocked with rotting floorboards, splintered chairs and dining tables and torn out insulation from disintegrated walls.
One restaurant, Saffron, exploded during the storm due to a gas leak, officials said. Its remains were stacked in a charred mound of brick, wood and steel.
Manville’s Office of Emergency Management director John Bentz said the borough of about 10,000 residents received more than 10 inches of rain in three hours. About 600 people were rescued from their homes during the storm.
“It devastated us,” he said. “We need relief. We need help. And we need to get these people back in their homes.”
Bentz said the borough is bounded by the Raritan and Millstone rivers, which crested at 27.6 feet and 27 feet, respectively, higher than during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Along the Valley, entire basements and first floor apartments were emptied out on lawns. Piles of ruined couches, cabinets, refrigerators, washers and dryers, broken mirrors and cat trees partially covered the fronts of homes. One pile had a large brown teddy bear; another the remnants of a red toy car. Intermittently, signs that read “Help Manville” and “Manville Strong” stood alongside years of family memories and living spaces.
“I recently lost my father a few years back and I have his army picture and I don't think I can replace it,” said Holly Ganz, whose home was flooded and who had to be rescued with her husband and two cats.
“We lost everything, the cars are ruined,” said Marie Riquelme in Spanish. She lives with her 1-year-old son and her brother and his family and they all waded through the water, escaping through the train tracks to higher ground. Her sister-in-law, who is nine months pregnant, also escaped through the stench of the flood waters that rose past her belly.
“I was crying and my son was asking for help, ‘Mommy, water, Mommy, water,’” said Gloria Coronel. “Now, I have to start from zero and I’m pregnant and can’t work.”
As Manville and other hard-hit towns dry out, residents are bracing for a long recovery.
For Zachary and his family, they’re looking at the silver lining, like getting his mom a new kitchen.
“The only good thing about this,” said Luis Robles, Zachary’s dad. “She's going to get the tiles she wants in the kitchen.”