The state is offering buyouts to residents of flooded neighborhoods, but not everyone can take them.
Residents of Weber and MacArthur Avenues in Sayreville -- which borders the South River and the Washington Canal -- had long been used to occasional flooding. But in the 14 years Diana Casey lived there, the waters had never come higher than her basement. Sandy was actually the seventh time her home flooded, and it was by far the worst. Interviewed the evening after the floodwaters receded, she told a harrowing tale of wading to safety through chest-deep water, afraid for her life. Casey was extremely upset and frustrated with the governor and other politicians, who she said had promised over the years to build levees, but never came through with the money.
Casey and her family had been struggling financially prior to Sandy. She lost her job in 2008, and with income only from her husband working his delivery route, they fell behind on their mortgage. They successfully negotiated with their bank for a loan modification a few months before the storm, with the agreement that the extra $50,000 they had incurred in late and legal fees would be forgiven if they stuck to a payment schedule for the next three years. But with their home still uninhabitable and rental costs eating into their income, they’ve now fallen behind on their payments yet again, and the home is in danger of foreclosure. Some of Casey’s neighbors are considering taking buyouts offered by the state, but that’s not an option for her family, since the amount she’d be offered for her home is less than what she owes.
A year after Sandy, the house sits vacant and gutted. Casey says it smells really bad from the mold, and it’s become infested with “enormous, hairy spiders,” the likes of which she’s never seen in her neighborhood. She received a sizeable check from her flood insurance, but it’s not enough to do all the repairs, and first she’d need to come up with the money to elevate it in accordance with the new FEMA flood maps. She’s sought out every aid program she could find, but has been put on waiting lists and told that she’ll be contacted “when funds are available.” She also applied for a resettlement grant, but due to a computer glitch, her application never went through, so when she called to check on its status, she was told she missed the deadline.
In the meantime, Casey and her family have been crammed into a tiny bedroom at her mother-in-law’s house, and with everyone in such close quarters, tensions have been running high. It’s also been difficult with money as tight as it is. Recently, Casey said her son was supposed to go on a hayride at school, but she didn’t have the ten dollars to give him to pay for the trip. She was embarrassed that he was the only kid in his class unable to go.
“You work your whole life for a little piece of heaven, and in a matter of a couple of hours, it’s gone,” said Sal Filannino. “This is what’s left.” He pointed to a pile of soggy furniture, carpets and children’s toys in his driveway, awaiting the next trash collection. Similar piles stood in front of his neighbors’ houses, up and down the block. This wasn’t the first time the homes on Weber Avenue in Sayreville had flooded, but even with Irene, Filannino just got 16 inches of water in his garage. This time, it was six feet high, and four feet in his kitchen. Filannino didn’t have flood insurance. When he built his home a couple of decades ago, he followed all the regulations at the time and elevated it high enough that he thought he’d be safe. He paid off his mortgage several years ago, so there was no longer a requirement from a bank that he be insured. Plus, he said, flood insurance was expensive.
Now he was looking for a way out. “Hopefully they’ll condemn the block,” he said. “This is ridiculous. You can’t keep living like this. This storm brought it to the next level.”
Eight months later, he got his wish, with the state announcing plans to extend buyout offers for most of the neighborhood. Filannino is currently in the process of negotiations, and says the amount he’s been offered is not nearly as much as he would have liked, but “you can’t put a price on peace of mind.” “Sometime you have to take a step back to move forward,” he added. He also said that the past year has been trying at times, and was especially difficult going through the holidays last year, but he’s glad there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel.
Filannino’s family has been staying in an apartment in Piscataway, and much of their belongings are in storage, but once their buyout if finalized and they receive a check for their property, they’re anxious to move back to town -- albeit to a neighborhood not prone to flooding -- so they can move on with their lives.