As dusk fell in Southampton Township late Thursday, the swollen Rancocas Creek stirred underneath Vincentown Bridge No. 3. A few more inches and it would have swallowed up even more of this rain-soaked Burlington County town.
A few miles away, as flashlights lit up the nighttime bilging of basements and other cleaning underway in houses along Route 206, Pam Brown kept the Red Lion Inn open for her regulars. It was otherwise a light crowd.
“People have come in and out, mostly for beer,” Brown said, spinning stories of men in hip waders carrying out six-packs. One woman, on a break from clearing out her house, said she found a family of worms wiggling in her pants. “These people haven’t had it this bad in a long time," Brown added.
Mercifully, the forecast for Thursday night into Friday didn’t call for as much rain, and waterways that overflowed their banks were “in the process of subsiding” Friday morning, said Michael Silva, meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly office. Still, a flood warning remained in place for the north branch of the Rancocas Creek near Pemberton, an area prone to flooding.
Nearly a half-foot of rain fell in parts of South Jersey overnight Wednesday into Thursday, leading to evacuations along the Rancocas, as well as further south along the Big Timber Creek. More than 4 inches of rain had fallen at Philadelphia International Airport since 12:01 a.m. Thursday, said Valerie Meolo, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly.
The Delaware River Port Authority, in a rare move, suspended PATCO service between the Lindenwold and Broadway stations early Thursday after flooding washed away track ballast and water damaged some stations. Service was restored by 6 p.m.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties.
In Southampton, 34 families were evacuated from their homes, according to Township Administrator Kathleen D. Hoffman. Seven of those households were issued hotel vouchers by the Red Cross and had moved into a room for the night, she said late Thursday.
But about 29 families stayed put, some placing ladders against their homes to make a late-night clamber to the roof if the creek crested.
“We’re on standby, just waiting for the water to recede,” Hoffman said. “After that, it’ll be a restoration and evaluation process.”
By early Friday, she said, she expected that the families affected by the flooding would start applying for relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But until the harsh light of morning, it will be unclear how much help will be needed.
Earlier Thursday, in Westville, a scummy line of grass, cigarette butts, and mud clung high to Steve Mugil’s 1988 Pontiac Trans Am, a marker of the deluge that swamped this Gloucester County town.
Mugil, 68, saw the same line on his Chevrolet Monte Carlo. He has loved and pampered both cars, and now he may lose them. In the lowest corner of the parking lot of the apartment complex off Broadway, cars were nearly underwater. Mugil muttered a few grunts of frustration to himself, then loudly cursed into the hot and stinky air.
“I just worry about high tide coming in, ” he said, banging his car keys against his leg. “This is awful."
Many in this blue-collar town of 4,200 people said they were used to flooding. One of its borders is the Delaware River. Big Timber Creek flows through town too. But most said they’d never seen this much water.
“I used to be a volunteer firefighter here, and this street always flooded, but wow,” Sue Meade, 73, said outside Macedonia Baptist Church on High Street.
Fifty yards away, a man waded through chest-high water.
In Westville, dozens of cars were submerged in parking lots on low-lying streets off Broadway. Residents at one apartment complex gathered on the lawn, wiping off sweat, waiting for the water to recede. One woman said minnows were swimming in the dingy water.
“Last night all you could see was the tops of the cars,” said Laura Banecker, 33.
Westville was just one of many auto graveyards on Thursday. Flooding closed I-295 in Bellmawr, Routes 38 and 70 in Cherry Hill, and Route 73 in Maple Shade for several hours overnight, with reports of broken-down cars on all of them. Tow trucks were called in to remove a number of vehicles that became disabled on I-295.
Camden County’s Department of Public Works was scrambling to clear inlets and roadways during the day while preparing for another storm system. County spokesperson Dan Keashen said the area was hit with one month’s worth of rain in less than seven hours. Flooding along the Cooper River was substantial, he said, and the county was monitoring a dam there and the coming tide.
High tide for the Delaware came at 4:48 p.m. Thursday, and with it Big Timber Creek and Rancocas Creeks swelled again, but not as much as feared.
Earlier in the day, the floodwaters toppled trash cans and dumpsters in Westville, and in the streets where the water had receded, birds were sifting through the leftovers.
One boy in calf-high rubber boots was hunting earthworms while heavier things weighed on his mother.
“Our basement has six feet of water in it, and there’s raw sewage pumping up out of our toilet,” said Heather Fenerty, 33.
Charles Murtaugh, Gloucester County emergency management manager, said the flooding was the worst to hit Westville since 1988.
Utility crews went door to door in the town, too busy to comment.
“Everything OK here?" they asked.
“No,” a man at the door replied.
The Rev. Rodney Bush-Roland, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Westville, rushed to his church on High Street early Thursday. The first floor was flooded, a dumpster filled with trash was swept away to about one-fourth a mile away, and a church school bus stood in several feet of water across the street in a parking lot that resembled a lake. The sanctuary was spared.
“We’re Noah’s ark,” Bush-Roland said. “We’re going to stand.”
Several utility workers hollered at Chris Smith, a Paulsboro resident who kept wading into the deep water outside the church. Smith, 42, works at the church and was trying to collect trash cans and right dumpsters that were floating in the distance, by a bank. Smith said he understood the dangers, but felt responsible.
“That’s our trash floating around out there,” he said about 11 a.m. “I just don’t want to have a problem with the community.”
Many people were showing up to see if the church’s food bank was open. It wasn’t, and could be closed for a while, Martin said.
“There’s a lot of water,” he said.
Earlier, Westville Public Works Director Donna Domico had stood in the same location, calling the situation “insane.” She said crews overnight rescued about 59 residents and several dogs.
"This is going to take a couple of days,” she said.