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There's No Easy Way Out for Sandy Survivors Looking to Move On with Their Lives

In Sayreville, some residents await FEMA checks, others wonder if they'll get buyout offers at all.

Condemned notice on front door of house belonging to Sayreville resident Fran O'Connor
Condemned notice on front door house belonging to Sayreville resident Fran O'Connor

As part of this editorial package NJ Spotlight has developed an interactive poll to demonstrate how many complex factors affect decisions to accept buyouts or stay on and rebuild

A small photo of Fran O’Connor’s parents rests on an otherwise empty mantel. It’s the only personal item left in her gutted, gray split-level in Sayreville after 16 feet of water from the nearby Raritan and South Rivers surged through the house during superstorm Sandy.

“Shelves were ripped off walls when this water came in, and this little plastic frame just stood there,” she explained. “So I thought it was important to keep it there to keep my house safe . . . until they demolish it.”

For many homeowners and businesses recovering from Sandy, the mantra has been to rebuild stronger. But some New Jersey residents like O’Connor have concluded that their best option is not to rebuild at all. In the aftermath of the storm, $300 million of federal aid money has been set aside to acquire groups of damaged homes in flood-prone parts of the state, through the Department of Environmental Protection’s Blue Acres program. Nearly 140 homeowners in Sayreville have been accepted into the program and will receive the pre-storm value of their homes, which will then be demolished and likely turned into a park.

Appraisers have completed inspections of the homes and formal offers are expected in the coming weeks. However, for everyone who receives a buyout, there are dozens more homeowners still looking for a way out. Further, while the buyouts are a good deal for homeowners financially, the decision to leave is still difficult for many residents.

For years, neighbors on Weber and MacArthur avenues fought to save their neighborhood. They had long been accustomed to streets flooding during storms, but the amount of water -- and the damage it causes -- has been increasing in recent years. In 1992, a storm sent water rushing into their homes for the first time in recent memory. They were severely flooded again with a Nor’easter in 2010 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Some 138 homes on Weber and MacArthur Avenues (green arrow) are in the process of receiving buyout offers from the state. The Old Bridge section of Sayreville (red arrow) experienced severe flooding during Sandy, but residents there have not yet been offered buyouts.

Still, residents campaigned for floodgates and a levy system on the river, but for many that fight ended after Sandy. The storm marked the third time in three years that residents needed to gut their first floors, throw out barely used furniture, and replace pricey appliances.

“It was a devastating moment to realize that we needed to shift gears and move on and not come back here,” said O’Connor, who lives on Weber Avenue. “It was heartbreaking.”

“I still teeter with it,” said Mike Zollinger, who lives next door to her.

Zollinger built his house with his father 42 years ago. By the kitchen, there’s a wall made of stones he dug out of the Delaware River. He says if he lived alone, he wouldn’t sell.

“But, [my wife] wouldn’t deserve this again,” he said. “Nah, I’m moving, that’s it.”

The vast majority of Zollinger’s neighbors will go with him. Appraisals have been conducted on their homes, and residents will have a chance to review purchase offers from the state in the coming weeks.

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