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Problems with Repetitive Flooding Mean Recurring Losses for Inland New Jersey

It lacks the drama and damage of Hurricane Sandy, but repeated flooding is taking a heavy toll on houses and businesses far from the shore

Tom Kelley repetitive flooding
Hillsdale Fire Department Captain Tom Kelley looks out on Pascack Brook, a source of regular flooding in his community.

As fire department captain Tom Kelley gives a tour of his quiet, suburban neighborhood, it’s hard to reconcile the place he describes with the neatly manicured lawns and shade-dappled streets you see in front of you.

“This house has been flooded maybe a dozen times,” he says, pointing out his car window. “The water flows down this street, and it flows right into the house. So every time they renovate it, they finish it, someone moves in, and it floods.”

Another home he points to belonged to an older woman who moved out after Hurricane Irene and never came back. “She couldn’t deal with it anymore,” he says. Then Kelley drives past his own home, which was destroyed during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when six feet of water flooded his block.

“We were coming through here on boats, and we could barely see the top of that street sign. That’s how high it was,” he recalls. He later rebuilt the house, elevating it 11 feet off the ground -- far beyond insurance requirements and so high that he had to get a variance to allow him to exceed town height restrictions.

For Kelley and his neighbors in the small Bergen County town of Hillsdale -- situated along the banks of the Pascack Brook -- flooding has become more and more common over the past few years. But unlike others grappling with this situation, the talk here doesn’t revolve around dunes, sea walls, or storm surge.

While Sandy’s devastation brought renewed attention to longstanding concerns about sea-level rise and vulnerabilities along the coast, much of the recurrent flooding in the state has historically occurred inland straining the resources of municipalities that in some cases are located nowhere near the beaches and the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore. This is due to a variety of factors, including overdevelopment in sensitive areas, erosion of wetlands and open space that would provide natural buffers for stormwater runoff, and the increasing frequency of heavy rainfall and severe storms.

Since most homeowners living in these areas are insured through the National Flood Insurance Program, this ends up costing taxpayers, who until now have been forced to subsidize residents to repair houses that continually flood. According to claims data supplied by FEMA, one condominium building in Kearny, for example, has filed 30 separate claims over the past 36 years totaling more than $5.3 million in pay-outs. Another, single-family home in River Vale is listed as having filed 16 flood insurance claims, adding up to $1.3 million, while a home in Pompton Lakes has flooded 20 times over the years.

Both the federal and state government have plans and strategies in place to deal with the issue, but while progress is being made, there are no easy answers, and all approaches are likely to be expensive. It’s frustrating for local officials, who sometimes don’t understand the science and who question whether the state is doing enough to remediate the situation. Homeowners, meanwhile, often find themselves trapped, with few options to remove themselves from a difficult situation.

Much of the problem involves older structures that were built prior to current flood-zone construction standards.

Here’s the dilemma: Homes that are deemed “substantially damaged” following a major storm -- where the cost to conduct repairs is greater than half the building’s market value -- are required to be elevated above the flood plain to become less vulnerable to future storms.

But those with less severe damage can often be rebuilt as is, even if flooding has occurred on numerous occasions and repairs collectively add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the property is worth. So some homeowners in this situation are using their flood insurance money to make minor repairs but basically rebuild in the same place and the same way, only to be hit yet again by the next big storm.

Repetitive-Loss Properties

A 2011 study from the General Accounting Office noted that across the country, so-called repetitive-loss properties -- which have flooded on two or more occasions and where the cost of the repairs averages, equals, or exceeds a quarter of the structure’s preflood market value -- account for just 1 percent of all those insured by the National Flood Insurance Program, yet they’re responsible for 25 percent to 30 percent of all claims that are paid. In some coastal states like Florida and New Jersey, these properties can exact an even higher toll, said Scott Knowles, a disaster historian and professor of history at Drexel University.

It’s a matter of growing concern, and various attempts have been made to address it. On the federal level, FEMA has adopted a Repetitive-Loss Strategy that offers more funding to states like New Jersey if they identify measures they’re taking to reduce the number of properties that flood on a regular basis and also work with local municipalities on the crafting of flood reduction plans.

New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Management, in turn, has a strategy in its Hazard Mitigation Plan that lays out a number of programs and policies to tackle the issue. Those include providing outreach and technical expertise to county and local officials, disseminating funding for home buyouts and elevations, and encouraging municipalities to join FEMA’s Community Rating System, the flood insurance “good driver” program that rewards communities that build above and beyond the minimum flood-zone construction standards.

“People had wanted to address this for a long time, but it really wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina that the gravity of it became so obvious,” Knowles said. “There were a relatively small number of properties in the overall portfolio of the flood insurance program -- the program that covers five-and-a-half million households across the country -- which were costing well outside of a reasonable percentage of the overall losses. It seemed like if you wanted to try to balance the books on the flood insurance program, then the sensible place to start was to look at these repetitive-loss properties and find some way to either move them out of the program or to increase their rates.”

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