Residents in Paterson and Wallington spent the night in shelters as flood waters from the cresting Passaic River in New Jersey overtook streets, businesses and homes.
In Paterson, police closed the McBride Avenue Bridge as the swollen river raged underneath. Officials started evacuating buildings Tuesday afternoon.
Some 4,000 residents of the Riverview Towers, some of the tallest buildings in Paterson, were ordered to leave in an unprecedented evacuation.
"I've been here for 56 years," said Paterson's director of emergency services, Glenn Brown. "This is the worst it's ever been."
The river in Paterson measured 13 feet above flood stage, the highest level since 1903, police Sgt. Alex Popov told Reuters. Search-and-rescue teams have been taking people from their homes throughout the day.
Emergency responders and fire crews have rescued 700 people in the city so far, including children and pregnant women. NBC New York caught some of the dramatic boat rescues Tuesday morning.
Paterson Mayor Jeffery Jones said the city is seeking additional resources to deal with the flooding.
Gov. Chris Christie, after touring Wayne, through which the Passaic also flows, said Tuesday night that he saw "just extraordinary despair."
He said inland flooding would probably continue another 48 hours and additional shelters were still being opened.
In Wallington, a reverse 911 call was made to about 1,000 homes around 4 p.m. ordering residents on both sides of Locust Avenue between the park and the river to leave their homes and report to the civic center or to go to a family or friend's home outside the borough.
The river was already 5 to 6 feet high as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, and officials were concerned that the river was expected to crest again with the high tide at 10 p.m. It's expected to crest at 14 feet; the flood stage is 8 feet.
With the Passaic River rising, water gushed over Route 23 along Hobson Avenue in Wayne Tuesday morning. The Willowbrook Car and Van Wash was submerged, and only the tops of car vacuums could be seen. At Mikado 23 Hibachi and Sushi Buffet, only the roof of a car could be seen in the restaurant parking lot. At the Hooters restaurant next door, water went up to the windows. The river rose dangerously close to a railroad trestle.
Flood-weary residents in Little Falls, N.J., told NBC New York Monday the record flood stage brought by Irene was forcing them to re-evaluate maintaining their homes and businesses there.
"It wears you out," said Ed Slattery of Little Falls. "Wears you out. I mean, it gets harder and harder to sell your house, you know. You keep hearing, 'Little Falls is flooding.' I mean, how could you sell a house? Nobody wants a house that's in a flood zone."