ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday that the devastation on the New Jersey shore is "unthinkable" and that the state will likely take months to recover from a massive storm that cut off barrier islands, swept houses from their foundations, washed amusement pier rides into the ocean, closed transportation systems and knocked out power to more than 2 million customers.
"To prepare the public for what they're going to see is beyond anything I thought I would ever see," Christie said at a news briefing. He said he would get a look for himself from a helicopter later Tuesday.
Christie said it would take at least a day or two to get a complete handle on the damage from Sandy, which once was a hurricane but combined with two wintry systems to become a huge hybrid storm just before it made landfall southwest of Atlantic City around 8 p.m. Monday, bringing record storm surges, hurricane-force winds and up to 12 inches of rain. Continued rain and heavy winds Tuesday were making assessing damage more difficult, he said.
The governor made a plea to private businesses to let workers stay home at least through Tuesday so crews could clear roads strewn with debris and toppled trees and utility poles.
Schools and state government were closed for a second day Tuesday. Towns were starting to reschedule Halloween festivities. Christie said the state was even looking at contingency plans for the Nov. 6 election, but he said that given the destruction across the state, that wasn't a priority for him.
Officials' top priority, Christie said, was trying to rescue people stranded on barrier islands.
The governor said two dozen small train freight cars were swept by a tidal surge off their tracks and onto an elevated section of the New Jersey Turnpike in Carteret.
He said the PATH trains connecting northern New Jersey with Manhattan would be out of service for at least seven to 10 days because of flooding at stations in Jersey City and Hoboken.
All the New Jersey Transit rail lines were damaged, he said. Bridges were battered and tracks on the North Jersey Coast Line were washed out. It was not clear when the rail lines would be able to open.
Christie also said attractions at amusement piers in Seaside Heights washed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Authorities in Moonachie launched a rescue effort after a huge tidal surge sent water over a natural berm in the town of 2,700 about 10 miles northwest of Manhattan. Police Sgt. Tom Schmidt said the rush of water put about 5 feet of water in the streets within 45 minutes. Hundreds of stranded people were rescued by boats and trucks.
Bergen County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Dwane Razzetti said people were clinging to rooftops after the first and second floors of their homes flooded.
Moonachie resident Juan Allen said he watched a dramatic creek overflow near his home. "I saw trees not just knocked down but ripped right out of the ground," he said. "I watched a tree crush a guy's house like a wet sponge."
The police and fire departments were themselves flooded. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Power outages stretched across the state. Christie said there were about twice as many homes and businesses without power Tuesday as there were at the peak of the outages from Tropical Storm Irene, which came ashore near Atlantic City in August 2011. He said all of the state's two largest cities, Newark and Jersey City, were without power.
In Atlantic City, which remained flooded Tuesday morning, several blocks of the first-in-the-nation boardwalk were destroyed by the storm. But a majority of it remained intact. Mayor Lorenzo Langford said floodwaters reached 8 feet in some spots.
Carol Mason returned to her bay-front home in Atlantic City to find it sodden from floodwaters that washed through overnight. The carpets squished as she stepped on them; cans of beer and soda she had stored on the porch had washed inside the house.
She had just made the final mortgage payment on the house last week. "Oh my God," she exclaimed. "I have insurance, but ...," she said, her voice trailing off.
Mason initially tried to ride out the storm, despite a mandatory evacuation order. But looking out a bathroom window, she saw the bay waters rapidly rising and reconsidered.
"I looked at the bay and saw the fury in it," she said. "I knew it was time to go."
Kim Johnson also tried to ride out the storm. When the front door to her home blew off Monday afternoon, she fled.
"It's just stuff," the nursing student said of her ruined possessions. "That will be fine. It's the near-term things I'm more concerned about, like how I'm going to get to class."
Mohammed Rashid, who lives above the ice cream store he owns in Atlantic City, said someone broke in and stole all the cigarettes he had stocked on the first floor, even while the building was flooded. Rashid remained on the second floor Tuesday, with 4 feet of water on the first floor. "I think I have nothing now," he said. "Everything is gone: my clothes, my everything. Nothing is left behind."
Officials were evacuating the Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, which lost power, sending 51 patients, including new mothers and babies, to Hackensack University Medical Center. Even though generator power was restored at Palisades Medical Center, officials feared the situation was too unstable.
The Garden State Parkway reopened to traffic Tuesday, but more than 200 other state roads remained closed, many of them inaccessible because of fallen trees and downed power wires.
Major flooding had hit Toms River, and several people were trapped on upper floors of their homes near Barnegat Bay.
Jersey City closed the city to vehicles because traffic lights were out, and Hoboken was dealing with major flooding as well.
The barrier island of Ocean City was cut off from the mainland by the storm; an estimated 2,000 people had no way on or off the island during the storm.
The pounding surf also caused erosion along New Jersey's 127-mile coast. Beach-related tourism is a major part of the state's $35.5 billion tourism industry. Some tourism spots won't be the same. Boardwalks in Belmar and Sea Girt were almost completely wrecked.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was keeping a close eye on the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township, which had to declare an alert Monday night amid rising water levels in its canal that provides cooling water to the plant's intake system. The plant had been offline for refueling when the storm hit.
The NRC said the plant remains "in a safe condition" and said inspectors were on site. In addition, because of the power outages, Oyster Creek also lost 21 of its warning sirens.
The Lincoln Tunnel was open, but the Holland Tunnel remained closed. Bridges connecting New Jersey to New York City and the Philadelphia area were reopened Tuesday morning.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
Associated Press writers David Porter in Moonachie, N.J., and Angela Delli Santi in Ewing, N.J., contributed to this report.
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