No Easy Answers: Decision-Time in Sandy-Wracked Sayreville

Scott Gurian | September 11, 2013 | Sandy
The funds have come through for the next round of buyouts, but emotional attachments to the community run deep

Sayreville resident Joe Kloc -- who does not plan on taking a buyout -- is instead building dirt and stone fortifications around his property.
Frank Fallon stepped out his front door and sat on his front steps yesterday afternoon to have a smoke and enjoy the nice weather during what he expects will be the last of the 40 summers he’s spent living in the Old Bridge section of Sayreville.

“The neighborhood’s a perfect neighborhood, I love the area, my kids grew up here, but when you’re 63 and go through this three years in a row, I’m looking forward to a buyout,” he said.

He was referring to the flooding from Sandy and other recent storms that has progressively become more common and more severe. “It’s time to go for me,” he continued.

A few doors down, Corianne Simmons says she and her family just moved to the neighborhood six months before Sandy hit, sending eight feet of water from the nearby South River into their basement. “We like living here, but if the price is right, obviously, we’re willing to go somewhere else,” she said. “But we don’t really want to leave. I think a lot of people are still going to stay.”

Gov. Chris Christie walked these streets the day after the storm last fall, meeting with homeowners and promising to help. It’s taken nearly a year, but after much anxiety, impatience, and frustration from local residents, that help finally seems to have arrived, with the state offering to spend $13.8 million to purchase 67 flood-prone homes in this and other parts of Sayreville, according to an announcement from the governor’s office on Tuesday.

This latest round of buyouts brings the total number of offers so far to 272, in both Sayreville and nearby South River. The goal is to spend $300 million to target a thousand properties in tidal areas affected by Sandy, and another 300 prone to repetitive flooding in the Passaic River basin. Land acquired will be preserved as open space.

Some Sayreville residents had protested loudly that they had been left out of the first round of 129 buyout offers — announced back in July – which focused on a different section of town where some people argued the flood risk was less severe. But after all the outcry, now that the state has announced a second wave of property acquisitions, reaction in the neighborhood is mixed, with many people saying either that they’d prefer to stay or that they have yet to make up their minds.

With concerns about the potential for future flooding, safety issues, and rising repair and insurance costs on the one hand, and tradition, attachment to community, and the feeling that Sandy was a “once in a lifetime event” on the other, the choice of whether to stay or whether to go given the offer of a buyout is a difficult and intensely personal decision for many people, with differences of opinion among friends, neighbors, and even members of the same family.

Andrew and Sharon Kloc’s two young sons are the fifth generation to live in a house on John Street that the Kloc family built over a century ago. The couple spent the first six years of their marriage remodeling the home from the ground up, in their free time after work. “We didn’t have the money to hire anybody, so for a long time, we did it our self,” explained Sharon. “We learned how to do electrical, plumbing, all that stuff. There’s a lot of history, a lot of attachment here, so it would really stink to leave.”

Still, after several years of flooding, the experience of Sandy was the nail in the coffin that made them conclude they had little choice but to move. During the storm, Sharon had gone to the basement with her kids to make sure the sump pump was plugged into the generator, when a surge of water blew out the windows, quickly flooding the area and sending everyone running for higher ground.

“I remember after everybody fell asleep, I’m looking out the window, and I can’t even see the top of the chain link fence over there,” she recalled. “I hear my house creaking, like it’s gonna collapse, and bubbling water coming in. It was creepy! It sounded like you were in a sinking ship.”

In addition to the emotional toll the storm took on everyone, she says she just got a letter from her insurance company, notifying them that they were being dropped from flood insurance because they had flooded too many times. While they’re able to reapply for a new, higher-risk policy, it would be over ten times the price, and that could increase even more once the new FEMA flood maps go into effect. “Between all the things, how could you afford to stay here?” she asked.

Just up the street, where Andrew’s father Joe Kloc lives, it’s a different story. The home is at the end of a dead-end street, right along the bank of the South River, but it’s raised on a hill, slightly higher than the other homes on the block, so the flooding wasn’t as bad, and Kloc doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

Rather than offer buyouts, he thinks the state should undertake more remediation measures, like building levees and seawalls, to make it possible for the residents of the neighborhood to stay put. That hasn’t happened in this neighborhood, so he’s taken matters into his own hands, mounding dunes of dirt and rocks around the perimeter of his yard as a homemade fortification that he hopes will offer a degree of protection from future storms. He’s been working on it all summer, as he gets the supplies.

“My sister-in-law brought a whole bunch of rocks, my grandkids bring rocks, they know that Pop needs rocks. They find a big rock, they put it in the wagon and bring it over,” he said, adding that everyone seems to be embracing the project.

“They think I’m a little crazy,” he said. “I might be a crazy man, but I’m not a stupid man. This project will work, and it will look nice when it’s done.”

For others, the question of whether to accept a buyout will come down to whether they’re offered what they feel is a fair value for their homes.

But the process of conducting appraisals and issuing offers will likely take several months, and that’s a concern to everyone, as hurricane season reaches its peak.