President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Gloucester County and other parts of New Jersey and New York on Monday in the aftermath of the storm generated last week by remnants of Hurricane Ida.
In this region, the move will unlock funds for the hardest hit areas, including Mullica Hill, where homes were flattened and torn into piles of debris by a mammoth 150-mph tornado as rare as it was destructive. No fatalities were reported in the county.
Officials from FEMA, who confirmed the declaration Monday afternoon, gathered behind the Gloucester County Library in Mullica Hill to begin the task of helping those who suffered property damage find compensation.
“We’re here to reach out to the community and help register them for FEMA assistance,” said crew leader Ron Winward. He said that help could come in the form of grants and loans. He added that FEMA is working with the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management.
Residents can see FEMA officials in person or register for help online on the agency’s website, fema.gov.
Other municipalities in the county that were affected include Mantua Township, Harrison Township, Deptford, Wenonah, and Woodbury Heights. Officials said a second, smaller tornado touched down in Edgewater Park, Burlington County, where it uprooted trees. Five other tornadoes spun through Pennsylvania.
Marshaling carving winds and destructive downpours, the storm killed at least 50 people in six Eastern states as record rainfall overwhelmed rivers and sewer systems, according to the Associated Press.
On Monday, the federal disaster declaration was welcome news.
“Obviously, it’s a big deal the president saw fit to do this,” said Robert Damminger, director of the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners. “I just found out about it. It’s much needed. There’s been amazing damage.
“It’s so sad to see people lose their homes.”
Also on Monday, Gloucester County Commissioner Heather Simmons, who oversees economic development, said it’s too soon to estimate how much the damage cost.
But, she added, “the federal declaration will make resources available in a timely manner to help families pick up their lives and get back some of what they lost. We’re really grateful.”
In a statement Monday, the office of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D., NJ), said that in addition to mobilizing emergency responses from various federal agencies, Biden’s declaration unlocks three main streams of federal funding to affected counties via FEMA.
These include assistance to individuals and households; assistance to state and local governments as well as some nonprofit organizations for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities; and hazard-mitigation assistance, given to state and local governments to prevent or reduce long-term risk from natural hazards.
Booker’s office added that in addition to Gloucester County, Biden’s declaration covers Bergen, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Passaic, and Somerset Counties. More counties could be added.
Learning of the disaster declaration late Monday, Gloucester County residents were glad to hear that help was on the way.
But at least one person believed Biden took too long to make his announcement.
“Finally!” said Barbara Diaz, a retired woman who declined to give her age. She was rolling a shopping cart of purchased food toward her vehicle in the parking lot of the ShopRite of Mullica Hill. “Making that announcement should have been a no-brainer from day one.”
Diaz said that her Mullica Hill-area home sustained downed trees and fences and that an out-building was destroyed.
“I’m just grateful no one was hurt.”
Lance Werner, 52, who works in banking and lives in Mickleton, adjacent to Mullica Hill, said he was saddened to “hear about neighbors hit hard. We’re very blessed our own house was unscathed. I’m really happy to hear the government will be giving these folks some relief.”
Meanwhile, Hugh McStay, also of Mickleton, a 61-year-old scheduling manager for a construction company, said it seemed like “bombs went off” in houses around him blown apart by the tornado.
He’s elated to hear about the federal declaration.
“I’m glad Biden’s response was immediate,” he said. “I’m not happy with the president myself, but I’m happy he came through.”
Amid the destruction, Dammiger took pains to point out that the storm is bringing out the good in people.
“It was heart-warming to see neighbors helping neighbors affected by the storm cut trees and limbs and drag things to the curb,” he said.
“I went to tell one person I thought was a property owner who suffered damage about the disaster declaration, but he wasn’t the resident. He was part of a group of folks helping the resident out.
“I thought that was pretty nice.”