NJ towns experiencing more frequent flood events as climate gets wetter

The Passaic River quietly invaded Frank Chillemi’s backyard in Fairfield again as weekend rains pushed the river a foot over flood stage. He’s lived in the location for 51 years.

“Whenever it rains, you’ve got to keep your fingers crossed that it’s not going to be a monsoon,” he said. “When you have a flood, everybody’s up in arms. When the sun comes out the next day, they forget about it.”

“Whenever we have successive rains, or even snow melt, where the water has nowhere to go because the ground is saturated, then it’ll just pond up,” Ralph Iacobelli said.

It’ll be two weeks before the river recedes from Iacobelli’s yard. He’s relieved it’s not worse, but over the past 25 years he’s seen these floods come much more often.

“It’s certainly more frequent. The worst event that we had was Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. I had four feet of water in the house,” he said.

“We are edging toward this being the wettest November on record, statewide, with records back to 1895. We’ve had six, eight, nine inches of rain in different parts of the state this month. That’s two to three times normal. So with that you’re going have the rivers staying high. So the next rainstorm can flood that much more easily because we haven’t rebounded from the previous rainstorm,” said state climatologist David Robinson.

Robinson calls flash floods, like the one that carried off cars in Little Falls, extreme events. He says climate change creates a warmer, moister atmosphere and that Jersey’s gotten wetter over the last couple decades, and that 2018 could rank among Jersey’s top five wettest years.

“Nine of the first 11 months of the year have had above-average precipitation, and three of them have ranked in the top 10 going back over a century,” Robinson said.

The recent rainfall made Monday’s high tidal flooding along the shore even worse, according to Tom Herrington.

“Our coastal communities have a double whammy, if you will, because they are exposed to increased sea level and that added sea level doesn’t allow their streets to drain when they have heavy rainfalls like we had over the past couple days. And they also get flooding when there’s no rainfall at all, and that’s just going to get worse as we move into the future,” said Herrington, who is the associate director of Monmouth University’s Urban Coast Institute.

Herrington sees strong signals of climate shift in New Jersey, and globally, as outlined in the 4th National Climate Assessment released Friday by the White House, which predicted devastating economic impact. The President Donald Trump’s reaction?

“I don’t believe it. No, no, I don’t believe it,” Trump said.

The Chillemi family knows the destructive power of floods. They’ve been evacuated from their home twice — in 1984 and 2011 — both times by boat.

Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim, III.