By Chelsea Emery and Walden Siew
TETERBORO, New Jersey (Reuters) - A wall of water, at times greater than 5 feet high, swept through three towns in northern New Jersey early Tuesday, a parting shot from Hurricane Sandy that prompted the evacuation of a few thousand people from their homes.
The tidal surge up the swollen Hackensack River started just after midnight, and there was little time for the unprepared towns of Little Ferry, Moonachie and Carlstadt to rouse their roughly 19,000 residents and urge them to seek higher ground.
No fatalities were immediately reported, and rescue workers evacuated residents from the flood zone to temporary shelters. One county official estimated 2,000 people were brought to safety, while others left of their own accord.
"We've been involved since last night with urban search and rescue with the local folks in Moonachie and Little Ferry. We've saved hundreds already," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said in a televised press briefing Tuesday morning.
"It was not a dam or a levee; it was just a natural berm that was overwhelmed by...an unprecedented tidal surge," a raspy and haggard-looking Christie said.
The area located in Bergen County was hit between midnight and 1:30 a.m. and residents had almost no warning.
"From start to finish this wall of water, in some places a wave much higher than 5 feet, hit this unprepared area. The full impact was felt in less than 30 minutes," said Jeanne Baratta, chief of the Bergen County Executive.
She described house-to-house searching by rescue teams using boats and trucks to move residents to safety at a nearby school in the town of Teterboro.
"There are probably more than 2,000 residents affected by this and a lot do not realize they cannot go back home tonight," Baratta told Reuters by telephone.
"They are wet and they are cold and they have lost their homes and their property. It is very sad," Baratta said.
The surge came after the brunt of the storm had passed. Sandy had dropped below hurricane status just before it hit the coast farther south in New Jersey on Monday evening.
Residents interviewed by local TV said while they had experienced some flooding, perhaps ankle deep, in the past, they were wholly unprepared for what happened.
"We expected this (some flooding) but not as bad as it is now," said Daniel Novak, a security guard at nearby Teterboro Airport. "It's madness," he said.
HIGH TIDE LOOMS
The Teterboro airport, operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is where many businesses, including multinationals keep their corporate jets. Its runways, initially flooded, have started to clear.
An unidentified Port Authority police officer at the airport said the evacuation from the area was being hindered somewhat by the relatives of flood victims heading into the area as rescue workers were trying to get people out.
Initially there was confusion as to what actually happened with speculation the river had overflowed its banks countered by early reports from the New Jersey State Police that a levee had in fact broken in the borough of Moonachie.
While low tides might pull some of the extra volume of water out of the area, officials were concerned it could all come flooding back with the upcoming high tide on Tuesday evening, leaving conditions unsafe for residents.
The lack of power in the area and the coming evening caused many in the area to seek car chargers for their mobile phones.
"I'm almost out of chargers said Sedat Kukul, 26, a salesman at a Verizon Wireless store in nearby Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey.
(Additional reporting Edward Krudy, writing by Daniel Bases,; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)