By Paul Thomasch
LITTLE FALLS, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey residents struggled with flooded homes, blocked roads and power outages on Wednesday as rivers and creeks overflowed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for five counties of New Jersey, making residents eligible for federal assistance.
Obama plans to visit Paterson, one of the hardest hit cities, on Sunday, the White House said, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate toured areas heavily damaged by Passaic River flooding on Wednesday.
Swollen rivers throughout northern New Jersey, including the Passaic, Ramapo, Rahway and Pequannock have reached or surpassed record flood levels since the storm hit over the weekend, authorities said.
In Little Falls, about 20 miles west of New York City, the flooded streets were eerily quiet after many residents fled.
Police hung signs reading: "No Scavenging."
Cecilia Ginter, 82, said she has lived through dozens of floods in her 45 years in Little Falls. She said locals complain about the Passaic flooding but said authorities have done little to address the problem.
"They don't do anything. Just study after study," she said. "It's getting to the point where people can't take it."
Ginter said she hoped to move but has taken down the "For Sale" sign on her lawn.
"Who is going to buy this now?" she asked.
Sean Mathews of Little Falls said he could only wait for the flood to recede along Williams Street, where he owns a two-story house swamped in several feet of water.
Mathews, who installs sheet metal for a living, said he feared it could be weeks before FEMA assessors survey the damage, and he said his neighbors worry that there will not be enough government money to help with repairs.
"If FEMA comes up with some story about being broke, people will just lose their minds," he said. "I would not be surprised to see rioting on this street."
About five miles north, in Paterson, the Passaic was destroying parts of the city along its banks. Many of the now-closed factories in the once heavily industrial city were powered by the river's Great Falls, the second largest waterfall by volume on the East Coast.
"It's raging right now," said Police Sergeant Alex Popov. "We've had to close streets we never had to close before,"
Some 1,500 people who live near the river have been evacuated, he said. Two shelters have been opened up.
From overhead, water could be seen covering much of Paterson's old industrial area, and two bridges were submerged along the roaring debris-filled river.
Highly impoverished, Paterson is home to many immigrants and is New Jersey's third-largest city.
Fewer than 20 miles south, the Rahway River was flooded but far less ferocious in Maplewood. Residents of the upscale suburban town were busily bailing out their basements.
"This was not an earthquake and a tsunami. We're probably quite lucky," said Arthur Moorhead, 56, as he dumped ruined clothing and books into a garbage container and spread others on his lawn to dry.
"I've gotten rid of a lot," he said, "but frankly that's stuff we would have gotten rid of in any case."
Governor Chris Christie said on Tuesday he was seeking expedited disaster assistance from the federal government, calling the hurricane "a catastrophe of enormous severity and magnitude."
About 190,000 homes and businesses remained without electricity.
(Additional reporting by Brendan McDermid in Paterson, Grant McCool in Maplewood and Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)