City of Paterson under water in more ways than one

theGRIO REPORT - Paterson residents reported that when the flood waters recede Hurricane Irene is likely to be remembered as one of many set backs that the resilient community has taken in stride...

Paterson, N.J. residents say that Hurricane Irene has only added to the city’s list of challenges.

“If I lived on that side of town, I would probably be angry. At the same time, it’s expected they know it’s a flood zone,” said Paterson resident Oronde Haggans. Haggans, a 34-year-old truck driver for a major shipping company, expressed sympathy for those who were directly impacted by the flood.

However, he insisted that the community would be able to move forward. Several Paterson residents reported that when the flood waters recede Hurricane Irene is likely to be remembered as one of many set backs that the resilient community has taken in stride.

President Obama is scheduled to survey the neighborhoods where Irene left her mark on Paterson on Sunday. Patersonians seem to appreciate the intent behind the presidential visit, but they want President Obama to understand that the problems in Paterson extend beyond the current emergency situation.

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Budget shortfalls due to a diminished tax base mean that cities like Paterson have to depend upon financial assistance from the state and federal government in order to recover from natural disasters. When asked to respond to Republican calls to suspend FEMA in favor of state only disaster relief, Paterson Mayor Jeffery Jones, told CNN that he was “outraged for those who can’t speak for themselves.” He went on to say, “Mother Nature has a mind of her own and a will of her own we can’t have the petty ranglings going on when we have folks who are in dire need.”

Communities often look to their local elected officials for answers during difficult times. In Paterson, there is a sense that the hands of local officials are tied. “The mayor and the city council are bankrupt. There is only so much that they can do,” said Tom Farrow, a local senior citizen. “They have to go to someone else for funding.”

Like Mayor Jones, Farrow, a 50-year Paterson resident, directs his grievances back to the federal government. “It is up to the congressmen and the senators to make sure that services are in tact on the local level. And I have not seen a face.”

A walk through downtown Paterson reveals remnants of the city’s history. For some Paterson may hold a greater association with the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter case, than with actual storms of the past.

Once a vibrant manufacturing town, Paterson was known as ‘Silk City’ because of its wealth of silk factories. The legacy of Paterson’s past can still be seen in today’s landscape. Some former factories have been redeveloped into housing units; most are boarded up and appear to be vacant.
Caroline Waterman and Jim Walsh of Oasis, Haven for Women and Children, say that the need for better schools and affordable housing are two of the most pressing issues in the lives of clients they see on a daily basis. Oasis provides educational resources, clothing and daily meals to low-income women and children. Waterman and Walsh, say that the real test will be to see how the government continues to respond to Paterson’s needs.

Oasis was forced to scale back some of its daily services in the week following Hurricane Irene due to the storm. Waterman expects that the organization will see several flood victims in the coming weeks.

“In the next two weeks we will see people leaving the [evacuation] shelters and they will come here for blankets, sheets and pantry items.” Waterman, the Executive Director of the organization stated. Paterson is accustomed to flooding, but Waterman says in the wake of Irene, they are taking additional precautions.

“We have been in touch with the local hospital in order to find out what we can do to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. And, have also spoken about getting Hepatitis B shots for our clients and the staff.”

There is some concern that Irene’s floodwaters will affect the safety of the sanitation system. Paterson’s industrialization was spurred by its proximity to the second biggest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. The Great Falls provided a natural source of energy to the manufacturing plants along the Passaic River. It is this same connection to the Passaic River that regularly places several of Paterson’s geographically low lying neighborhoods in jeopardy of flooding.

“New Jersey’s industrial past located many of its biggest facilities right along water fronts or in flood prone areas,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “So when we get this type of flooding, the concern is many of these sites will leak toxic chemicals into our waterways.”

The city has warned citizens to avoid contact with floodwaters, workers in flooded areas have been provided with technishots. According to Tittel economically disadvantaged cities like Paterson need FEMA the most during disasters. Without federal help, “people in places like Paterson are at risk.”