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Problems with Repetitive Flooding Mean Recurring Losses for Inland New Jersey

Buyouts are offered on a voluntary basis, and not everyone views them as an attractive option. Some residents are too attached to their homes and neighborhoods to ever consider moving. Others decline offers that they feel are too small.

“In the past, you’ve seen homeowners reluctant to buy out. They would still continue to want to maybe try to stay in a property, repair it, elevate it,” said New Jersey Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Mary Goepfert. She noted, however, that the flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011 appeared to be a turning point, at least for many residents in the Passaic River Basin.

“We saw a real visible change in homeowners wanting to have their property acquired and relocate rather than to try to continue to stay there,” she said.

But while buyouts may appear to be a successful strategy for dealing with repetitive flooding in places like Wayne, they’re not necessarily a cookie-cutter solution that would work everywhere, said Knowles, the disaster historian. “We’re not going to unbuild our coastline any more than we’re going to unbuild the Mississippi Valley or the wildfire corridors of California,” he said, regardless of how persistent flooding along some parts of the Jersey Shore may be.

Property acquisitions are also expensive, and coming up with the money is often a challenge. Prior to a post-Sandy infusion of $300 million of federal aid, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Blue Acres buyout program had a modest budget of only about $12 million a year, and securing a sustainable source of funding has always been a concern.

Higher property values along the coast as well as in flood-prone parts of Bergen County also present a unique dilemma for New Jersey when it comes to balancing available funding with what it costs to acquire homes. In cases like this, spending money on buyouts could essentially mean the state and federal governments are getting less bang for their buck, at least in the short term.

“We got $2 million to buy four houses!” said Westwood Mayor John Birkner Jr., whose borough -- along with neighboring Hillsdale -- regularly suffers flooding when big storms overwhelm the Pascack Brook, which funnels water out of the Woodcliff Lake Reservoir. Given the option, Birkner would have preferred to use the money in other ways, such as removing tree limbs and other debris so the water could flow more smoothly.

“If that $2 million were spent, we probably could have cleaned the whole darn brook, which would have had more of an immediate effect and impact on the neighborhood than the purchasing of four houses. We probably could have elevated 50 houses for that money,” he said. “The move is to purchases houses in these areas. And while that may do well for the people who get their homes purchased, it really is not doing a lot for the people who are left behind.”

Living on the Brook

People like Westwood residents Tom and Leslie Bisdale, whose backyard is separated from the brook by just a few hundred feet of forest, are victims of multiple floods.

During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the entire ground floor of their split-level ranch house flooded. In 2011, they flooded four more times, taking on several feet of water on each occasion. “We had to replace our hot-water heater every time,” Tom chuckled. “We were the proud owners of five, separate hot water heaters in 2011.”

In the 24 years they’ve lived in Westwood, they’ve filed at least five flood insurance claims.

“Now that’s the times that the water has come into the house,” explained Leslie. “There’ve been countless times when the water has come up in the backyard, and then you learn to gauge how things are going. So when it gets up to where the tiki torch is there,” she said, pointing, “you start worrying a little bit. When it gets up to the patio, you really start worrying. But you don’t really worry until it’s to the back door. That’s when you start moving stuff.” It’s not a precise science, however. The speed at which the water can rise is unpredictable and varies in every storm, her husband added.

The Bisdales said they always knew they were in a flood zone, but looking at the tiny brook that ran behind the house, they never really thought it was much of a concern.

“We had asked the previous owners what kind of flooding experience they had, and they indicated it was very minor. But then we started getting the FEMA statements after we were flooded, and it was a little less minor than they had implied,” Tom said.

They’ve taken small steps to remediate the situation like raising their air conditioner and water heater off the ground and installing waterproof tile flooring on the lower level of their house.

“Each time we flood, we try to do something different to mitigate the cost to alleviate some of our insurance claims,” Leslie said. “It’s not a fun position to think of yourself on the public dole,” she added, noting that while she’s received multiple payments from the National Flood Insurance Program, she’s also had to pay a $4,000 deductible each time, on top of her regular insurance premiums.

People sometimes ask her why she doesn’t simply move, to which she emphatically responds, “I would if I could! I would love to move!” The repetitive flooding had taken a toll on her home’s value, however, making selling it a difficult proposition. Short of that, being offered a buyout or money to raise her home are her only options, and she has yet to receive either one.

No Complete Solution

Mayor Birkner acknowledges that flood zones -- by their nature -- will always be prone to flooding, so he doesn’t think the problem can ever be completely solved, but he does believe it can be greatly reduced if certain steps are taken, starting with more leadership from Trenton.

“We can only yell and scream so much and so loud,” he said. “It really needs to start at the top, and we’re not really getting that trickle down to the local level for anything meaningful that will really help with the problems that we’re facing.”

Near the top of his list, above buyouts and elevations, he thinks the state needs a stream management and maintenance plan to clear blockages in rivers and brooks.

“That cannot be done by individual municipalities alone,” he said. “That must be done as a cooperative effort. It must be a regional approach.”

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