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'By far the worst storm': Manville residents talk Ida and hope Biden visit brings good news

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MANVILLE – Residents whose lives were forever changed by the remnants of Hurricane Ida are pleased that President Joe Biden is coming to town on Tuesday.

And they hope he will be bringing some good news.

“I hope he will tell us something good,” said Abdul Savage, who was staying at the borough shelter at the VFW on Washington Avenue with his family since the storm. “I’m waiting to hear from FEMA. I’m just waiting to hear what Biden has to say.”

“I’m a big fan of the President,” said Harrison Dillard, who owns a home on Washington Avenue that he rents out. “I’m glad he is coming to the town. It looks like a war zone now and I’m glad he is coming to see it for himself and to help and to rebuild.”

“I am hoping Biden sends us some relief,” said Melissa Bueno, Dillard’s tenant. “It isn’t just us. The entire town got hit hard.”

“It’s good to have a caring president who really seems to care about his people,” said Eugene Wojcak, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force. “I am very happy he is coming. I think he is a wonderful man. I am so happy he is president.”

And if President Biden asks, they will tell him harrowing stories of survival and inspiring vows of perseverance in the face of unfathomable adversity.  

Ida's ferocity and suddenness was “by far the worst storm” they had ever experienced.

“No doubt,” said Dilllard, a retired law enforcement officer who witnessed Floyd firsthand. “Definitely, it’s by far the worst. This is the first time it got into the house – about a foot in.”

“It was 10 times worse than Floyd, than Irene,” said Wojcak.

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But this is Manville and most say they plan to rebuild - again.

Déjà vu

The borough is their hometown and they intend to stay – helping each other along the long road to recovery.

For Wojcak, the past days have been “a déjà vu experience.”

Ten years ago, his dogs had puppies and Irene flooded his home. As a result, Wojcak, a diabetic who also suffers from hypertension, got an infection and had to have his right foot amputated.

This time, his dogs had puppies and Ida flooded his home. Only difference was he had just come back from the hospital after an amputation of his big toe on his left foot.

The other difference – two and a half feet more water in his Huff Avenue home.

Stranded for more than two days with limited resources, Wojcak came to the VFW and went to another shelter at Bernards High School in Bernardsville when the borough’s shelter closed Sunday night. Though he cannot clean up his home, his friend James Green is helping do that and is looking after his dogs.

It was a harrowing few days, Wojcak said, capped by a rescue of one of his dogs – Sheba - who was trapped in water for days. Another dog – Flyboy – is still missing. The others made it out safe with Wojcak.

“Just as I got home from the hospital, the rain started,” he said. “I was already getting drenched. It soon started coming down much faster. Me and the dogs tried to get out. Sheba and Flyboy got caught. The water started flowing to my bedroom and I had just had an amputation the week before. I couldn’t get it wet.”

'He rowed us out on a boat'

Down the street from the VFW on Washington Avenue, Bueno, Ayala, their three kids and two dogs made their way out of the borough by foot early Thursday morning. Their cats remained safe on the top floor of the home.

“We walked out,” Bueno said. “When the storm started, we had thought it would be ok. Then about 1 a.m., the alarms started going off and we saw our cars were halfway under water and before we knew it, the water was at the top of our steps.”

They moved everyone to the top floor of the home, but at 5 a.m., the water was coming into the first floor. Bueno heard a man outside calling to help them. He also told her another three feet of water was on its way.

“He rowed us out on a boat – all five of us and our two dogs,” Bueno said.

After that, they walked up to the railroad tracks and tried to find a way out of town, Ayala said.

“There was no way out of town,” she said. 

“It all happened so fast,” Bueno said. “Nobody expected this.”

The family ended up being rescued again by boat - and almost by a helicopter – on Route 206 by the bridge by Orlando Drive in Raritan.  They are now staying with family.

The couple said they take turns “breaking down” but try to remain positive for the kids. Their bikes and soccer balls were saved.

Their home of 10 years is destroyed but Dillard, their landlord, said it will be rebuilt.

“I was about to redo the siding,” said Dillard, who was helping Bueno and Ayala clean out the house. “When it is all said and done, it will be better than it was, but we have a long road ahead of us. They are great tenants. They were safely evacuated and that was my main concern. They want to stay in the house and I will help them rebuild.”

At a shelter

Savage, his wife and five children have only been in their Brooks Boulevard home one year. They stayed at the shelter since Thursday and he was not sure where they will go when the shelter closes

And that worries Savage because the pandemic is ongoing and his wife and child are immuno-compromised. Like the Bueno-Ayala family, the Savage family were rescued by first responders.

“We got totally flooded out – from top to bottom,” he said. “In the beginning, it was manageable. Went outside – clear as day. Hour or so later, I hear water coming in and I opened the door to the basement and I see water flowing inside the basement. It was ankle level.”

Going back and forth between checking his basement and outside, Savage saw the water steadily rising faster and faster. By the time he and his family made their way out, it was at knee level on his 6’1” frame and much higher on his wife and small children.

Their eldest son slipped off a curb under water, almost drowning. By the time, they were rescued, water was at navel level.

“Scariest night of my life,” Savage said. “The water just came out of nowhere. We were watching waves come in, like we were at the beach and all of a sudden, a police car came by, and then water was pushed inside my house. And I didn’t know that water was already inside from the back. I checked out the basement and we only has two steps. We grabbed anything we could and headed out the door.”

“We walked it out – we swam it out,” he said. “I tried to go back there the next day and see if maybe…it was impossible. Everything is destroyed.”

'Sense of community'

Adam Gamal, son of Abdul Gamal, the owner of  Adam’s Pizza on South Main Street, has the same philosophy you hear everywhere in Manville.

“Things are definitely replaceable,” he said. “Floods come and go but the people stay.”

The invincible community spirit will help Manville recover, he said.

“The sense of community is the only thing we have around here,” he said. “I love the people here. Everyone is like family.”

And that’s why the business has stayed in Manville.

“You grow this sense of community here and a brotherhood and that's the reason why we're still here,” he said

Ida was a surprise

The ferocity and speed of the flood took everyone by surprise.

Usually, he said, you have time to prepare for a flood. But not this time.

“That's the craziest part, nobody saw it coming,” he said. “There was no time for preparation. It's just it is what it is at this point.”

And the flood, when it came, was unbelievable.

“It was above my head, about six feet in from the step, up to the signs, above the oven,” he said.

And the aftermath of the flood was just as unbelievable.

Gamal knew you had to turn off the gas in a flood. But some people didn’t and that led to explosions.

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Manville NJ: Former Rhythms Nightclub explodes in Somerset County
The former popular Rhythms Nightclub on the Manville and Hillsborough border on S Main Street exploded around 2 a.m. Friday. The building is still smoking Saturday.
Alexander Lewis,

“We've experienced  floods. We know what it's like,” he said, but for others, it was their first flood.

“I remember seeing their faces the day it happened,” he said. “They were shocked.”

But the strong sense of community survived the flood.

“I get random texts from customers asking us if we’re okay,” he said

According to Sheri Ferreira, communications manager for the New Jersey Region of the Red Cross, the organization has served more than 600 affected by Ida for overnight stays, of which the borough’s shelter saw a couple hundred come through. Many affected were transported to the shelter at Bernards High School as it is a larger facility. 

As for help for those in need, Ferreira said that if they haven’t yet been contacted by an American Red Cross representative, “they will be as long as they have been registered.” Each will have a Red Cross caseworker to help them navigate and determine the next steps.

“We will take care of sheltering them and feeding them and keeping them warm and dry for the time being,” she said. “The Red Cross comes out and takes care of your immediate needs and then will help with a little guidance and partner referrals to community organizations. The caseworkers will follow up to make sure they have the knowledge of what those next steps will possibly be.”