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

Just a few miles from Zollinger's and O’Connor’s neighborhood, the Old Bridge section of town -- at the far southern edge of Sayreville -- also experienced massive flooding. Gov. Chris Christie walked the streets the day after Sandy, meeting with residents and promising to help, but more than nine months later, many of the houses are vacant, and residents say they’re still waiting for help to arrive.

Dawn Obel has been living in an apartment since last October, when flood waters damaged her home’s foundation and sent raw sewage flowing through her first floor. Today, it remains uninhabitable, with the floors ripped up, portions of the walls gutted, and the basement still caked with mud from the nearby river.

“It was a pretty house,” said Obel. “Now it just looks dirty and smells, and it’s disgusting! I’m sad that it’s my house. I wish it was somebody else’s house so I could feel bad for them and not me!”

She said she can’t afford to raise her home to comply with the new FEMA flood maps, nor will she be able to foot the bill for the increased cost of flood insurance, so she’s been holding off on doing repairs, hoping for a buyout so she can leave the neighborhood and move on with her life. If she’s not offered a buyout, she said the alternative looks bleak.

“I’m most likely gonna have to lose my home, foreclose on it, and then wind up living in an apartment the rest of my life,” she said.

Close to 80 percent of the 50 or so homeowners in Obel’s neighborhood agree that they’ve had enough and want out. They claim that they’ve historically flooded more often than some of the homes that have been offered buyouts in the other part of Sayreville. Plus, they said flooding blocks the two bridges in and out of the neighborhood, trapping residents during storms and making it nearly impossible for emergency help to arrive.

Residents said they’ve been speaking with various state and local officials, trying to figure out why no one in their part of town has received a buyout offer so far, but they’ve had difficulty getting their phone calls returned and their questions answered. Mans of New York/New Jersey Baykeeper agreed that the Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the Blue Acres program, needs to be more transparent with its process.

“How many applications have they gotten? Where have they done appraisals? Where are they targeting?” she asked. “That should all be public knowledge.”

The DEP responds that it’s weighing a number of factors, including how many homeowner applicants are in a group, how much land they have, and how often and severely they’ve experienced flooding. The department gives individual towns a large say over which of their neighborhoods and how many of their homes get bought out, since property acquisitions erode their tax base. And federal money is in play, so FEMA needs to sign off on all decisions.

“We have to go through a 54-step process to get an approved application out of FEMA. It’s an art,” said Rich Boornazian, who oversees the Blue Acres program. “We have to put certain homes in, take certain homes out. It’s not easy.”

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