Last Wednesday, Carl was driving from Texas to his home in Manville, New Jersey, when the weather started to turn ugly around Nashville. He had caught up with the remnants of Hurricane Ida as the storm spun northeastward. He pushed on through the weather, hoping he’d eventually outrun it. He never would.
Less than a week later, Carl, who didn’t want to give his last name out of concern for his family’s privacy, stood in his driveway sifting through a sodden hill of belongings from the many parts of his life. Much of the pile was books, his kids’ as well as his own, including a particularly beloved copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“Having to throw these away breaks my heart,” he said, working through the books one by one. “I could’ve never imagined that by the time I got home 24 hours later, I’d still be in the storm.”
Not far away, President Biden, Gov. Phil Murphy, and an entourage of New Jersey politicians and policymakers were touching down at Central Jersey Airport, where they’d first receive a briefing from local officials on the flood damage wrought by Ida in Somerset County, then tour the worst of the destruction in Manville’s Lost Valley neighborhood, where dozens of homes were destroyed.
Carl and his family were among the lucky ones. His home is located on Camplain Road, on the higher side of the railroad tracks that service nearby Port Reading Junction and sever Lost Valley from the rest of the borough. In the end, the flooding in his basement only rose 14 inches.
No flood insurance
“We don’t have flood insurance,” Carl said. When he and his wife bought the house in 2019, they learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood zone ended just short of their house, running through the center of their backyard. But that worried them little. “We knew about Lost Valley, so we knew there was a chance of flooding, but everybody said it was a one-in-ten-thousand chance.”
It was from Lost Valley that some of the most dramatic scenes of Hurricane Ida’s impact on the Northeast emerged last Thursday. The entirety of Manville is wedged between the Raritan and Millstone rivers, but Lost Valley sits at the confluence of the two, on land that is floodplain.
Over 8 inches of rain fell on Somerset County in 24 hours, the worst being around 3 inches in a single hour. In Manville, the Raritan River crested at 27.4 feet at 11:15 a.m. Thursday, breaking a record set by 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, a storm that still haunts this flood-prone community.
That was about the time Carl and his wife heard the boom. The first of several homes in Lost Valley and elsewhere in the borough had exploded, due to leaking gas. A beloved historic building, home to the recently opened Saffron Banquet Hall, would later explode and burn to the ground on Friday morning. Jumping in his truck to survey the damage, Carl and his wife quickly learned they were trapped.
“There was no way out,” he said.
Living in Manville, a new perspective
They had only moved into their home two years before, but, Carl went on, “this has changed my perspective on living in Manville — the process of looking for somewhere else to live has definitely been sped up.”
Hurricane Ida will be remembered — and its name most likely retired — for many extremes: Its sustained 150 mph winds at landfall in Louisiana; the length of its path across much of the eastern United States; the tornadoes it spawned across six states, the worst, an EF3, touching down in Mullica Hill;. and, most notably, in the Northeast, the staggering amount of rain it produced in such a short time — a byproduct of climate change.
“If you look at the most recent [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate] report, there are four categories of events which give us quite strong ability to say, yes, human effects are making these stronger,” said Bob Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences and one of the authors of the IPCC’s latest report, which concluded that global temperatures have risen by 1 degree Celsius over the last 150 years, due to fossil fuel emissions.
Kopp’s colleague, Anthony Broccoli, a meteorologist and co-director of the Rutgers Climate Institute, explained how Ida, after spending days traveling over land, was able to produce so much rain.
“As the climate warms, the amount of atmospheric water vapor increases because its upper limit increases sharply with increasing temperature,” Broccoli said. “For a warming of 1 degree Celsius,” Broccoli continued, “the upper limit on water vapor increases by 7% — studies of past observations have shown that heavy rain events have become heavier as the climate has warmed, and climate models simulate this behavior as well.”
In his visit to Somerset County and Manville, Biden also pointed to climate change as the cause for the increasingly extreme weather being experienced across the United States today.
“We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse,” Biden said. “We don’t have any more time.”
The President also argued that global warming, and the extreme events it spawns, like Ida, present an “opportunity” for action, especially with regard to the passage of an infrastructure plan that takes into account the rapidly changing climate.
“Sometimes my mother used to say out of everything bad, something good will come if you look hard enough for it,” Biden said later on Tuesday, after touring Ida’s damage in Queens, New York City. “Well, I think we’ve all seen, even the climate skeptics are seeing, that this really does matter.”
‘The loss of life and the pain and the trauma’
By Tuesday, the death toll in New Jersey had reached 27, more than half the total in the Eastern U.S. Most were killed after being trapped in their cars, or fleeing their cars after being caught in rising waters.
In Somerset County alone, six people died in the storm, as of this past weekend, according to the county’s administrator, Colleen Mahr. She also said that their 911 call center received a record-breaking 1,600 calls.
“We’re speechless by the loss of life and the pain and the trauma that so many families, friends and communities are experiencing right now,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped between 8 and 10 inches of rain in parts of Manville, submerging parts of Lost Valley in up to 17 feet of water.
Maite Martinez didn’t live in Manville at the time, but when she moved to her home on North 10th Avenue, just across the street from the Raritan River, she heard the stories.
What happened after Hurricane Floyd?
After Floyd, the state, along with FEMA, initiated a $6.2 million buyout program in Lost Valley, to purchase and demolish homes so that the land they sat on could be converted to open space and, theoretically, provide a buffer zone for future floodwaters. Ultimately, some 290 lots would be purchased in Manville.
In the years after Martinez moved into her home, she watched floodwater from the Raritan lick her home three times. But nothing compared to what arrived in the early hours of last Thursday morning. Within 15 minutes, she said, the water in her yard had gone from a few inches to several feet. She and her family frantically tried to pack up clothing and documents, as well as pull a brand-new generator upstairs from the basement, but everything happened too fast. When a neighbor paddled a canoe to their front door around 2:30 a.m., Martinez and her family had no choice but to leave.
By Tuesday, she’d bounced from a temporary shelter at the local VFW to a hotel room paid for by the county’s social services department. But the hotel had only offered her two nights’ stay. While helicopters associated with Biden’s arrival pounded the sky above, Martinez stood among the wreckage of her home, not sure where she would stay that night.
She had no insurance to cover her home’s belongings.
“Material [things] are no problem,” she said. “But help, I have no help. I don’t know what to do.”
Imagining another flood made her shudder. For the first time, she said, she was pondering leaving.
“I love this town,” she said. “But my daughter says it’s time to go — the water is unpredictable.”
Just up the street from Carl was Roberta Walters, who was born and raised in Manville. The rain in the early hours of Thursday morning, she said, “sounded like a thousand pounds of rocks being dropped on your roof.” While it was alarming to see “water coming through the concrete” of her basement walls, Walters was also lucky in that the flooding would never reach her home’s first floor.
With her family safe, Walters shifted her focus to her duty as the Manville representative for Somerset’s County Animal Response Team. As people fled their homes across the borough, pets had been left behind. Other residents who had taken their pets with them, but who no longer had homes to return to, found Walters and her team of volunteers at Manville High School, where a temporary shelter had been set up for pets.
For the next four days, Walters and her team watched over 22 dogs, 13 cats, one rabbit, and one parakeet. Walters barely slept, spending her days and nights at the high school. She memorized all the animals’ names. One by one over the past week, residents have returned to pick up their pets. The photo album on her phone is full of tearful reunions.
“For some people,” she said, “a pet is more than family.”
Worried about the future
As a lifelong resident of Manville, Walters worried about the future, especially the low-lying areas of the borough, like Lost Valley.
“We can probably expect more buyouts — it’s a good idea because we have to reduce the risk of life in these places,” she said. “But we’re only two square miles of area; we don’t have other areas for people to build, and Manville is worth saving.”
This is the challenge going forward for local leaders like Mahr, who instead of just the familiar “stronger than the storm” rhetoric that follows disasters like Ida, said she is hoping for a combination of strength and intelligent foresight.
“Where my head is right now is assessing the damage to our county infrastructure, making sure that every resident is accounted for and providing immediate on-the-ground help to those towns that need it the most,” she said. “A secondary conversation coming out of this tragedy is what do we do now in these areas that are prone to flood, and then seeing where we have areas that we have never seen flooding in. We have to be really smart about understanding where climate is creating issues for us, and that’s going to really be a larger conversation within Somerset County about how we move forward and how — and where — we help our residents rebuild.”
— This story has been updated to give more precise rainfall amounts.