By Karen Yi
A change to state policy has left some New Jersey residents in one of the areas opens in a new windowhardest hit by Hurricane Ida two years ago with two choices: Pay for repairs themselves or sell the state their property so it can be razed to the ground.
State officials say dozens of residents in parts of Manville that were deemed high risk for flooding are no longer eligible for federal aid that the state administers for rebuilding.
“We were not warned, we were not involved in the process,” said Robert Leigh Simpson, 75, who has been living in a hotel since the storm destroyed his home. Simpson used most of his insurance money to structurally repair and elevate his single-story ranch house, but was hoping to get federal aid to finish interior repairs.
Now, he’s stuck with an unfinished home — 10 feet off the ground.
Many residents were counting on federal funding to finish repairs or elevate their homes but received rejection letters denying their federal funding applications last week, and were instead offered state buyouts. State officials say they notified Manville’s borough government last month.
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, said federal funding is a limited resource — so several state agencies agreed not to spend it on for repairs or elevations in areas where homes are very likely to flood again. They used flood-mapping technology from Rutgers University to identify high-risk areas.
She said with climate change waterlogging areas that have never flooded before, the state is focused “on doing the most we can to help as many households as possible with the limited federal money we have.”
To help residents in Manville, the state is directing $49.5 million — more than half its statewide opens in a new windowbudget for post-Ida buyouts — to the working-class borough. The state offers homeowners market-rate prices for their properties to relocate while the structures are demolished so the area can better absorb future flood waters.
Tyler Jones, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy’s office, said for now the policy applies only to Manville, which has suffered from three major flooding events in a little over two decades, dating back to Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
“This policy was not made lightly,” Jones said, adding that the changes aligned with Manville’s plan to buy out 400 homes using FEMA funding.
But Manville residents and disaster recovery advocates were shocked by what they considered a sudden policy change, nearly two years after the storm hit on Sept. 1, 2021.
“It is unacceptable to suddenly revoke options that were previously available, especially when the buyout process itself is dysfunctional, slow-moving and does not guarantee a fair payout proportional to a housing market that is drastically different than the one we had in 2021,” said Cameron Foster, a spokesperson for the opens in a new windowNew Jersey Organizing Project, which works with storm survivors. “Manville’s Hurricane Ida survivors deserve a choice and a chance — not a disaster recovery system that constantly changes the rules on us.”
Foster said some families are interested in buyouts and have applied for them, but it’s unfair for others who spent the last two years applying and waiting for federal money to be able to remain in their homes. Now, their only other option is to pay for repairs on their own or sell.
Simpson, who is staying at a hotel in nearby Franklin Township, said he’s determined to find a way to move home, back to the brick house he shared with his late wife for 30 years. His wife died unexpectedly last year and Simpson said he wants to rebuild their home in her memory.
He used the insurance money he received to lift his home and was waiting for funding from the Homeowner Assistance and Recovery Program, or HARP, to rebuild the interior of the house and connect to gas, electricity and water.
“We are essentially being penalized for being proactive,” he said. “It’s soul-crushing in many ways.”
Cleighton Smith, Manville’s floodplain manager, said local officials weren’t included in the process and feel blindsided by the new policy.
“We certainly believe that there’s definitely areas within here that elevations don’t make sense, but we would like to have worked together on creating the map and the policy,” he said.
He said the areas of Manville that were designated at high risk of future flooding and are now ineligible for federal aid for home repairs encompass about 500 residential structures, or 17% of the residential building stock. The areas largely include sections of Manville’s Lost Valley neighborhood, which was devastated by Ida.
Smith said FEMA requires the town to inspect new construction in flood zones and the borough can’t issue a final certificate of occupancy — which deems a unit legally habitable — unless a home has been elevated. He said residents were trying to comply and some already elevated their houses but were hoping for federal help.
“Seems like a bad investment to me to spend money on an elevated house and then spend more money to tear it down,” he said.
The Lost Valley neighborhood, which opens in a new windowPresident Joe Biden toured in the storm’s aftermath, sits mostly in a flood zone, bordered by the Raritan River in the north and the Millstone River in the east.
Ryan, from the Department of Community Affairs, said parts of Manville were inundated with more than 5 feet of water. The northeastern part of the Lost Valley neighborhood, which is not in a flood zone, was flooded with 3 feet of water. She said there are only two evacuation points in Lost Valley, which are inaccessible when floodwaters rise.
“In essence, a few feet of floodwater cut this neighborhood off from the rest of the community and future flood events are likely to do the same,” she said.
The Department of Environmental Protection, which administers the state’s buyout program known as opens in a new windowBlue Acres, said more than 174 homeowners have requested buyouts in Manville, with 58 of those applications made after Ida. DEP spokesperson Larry Hajna said buyouts are in process for seven homeowners.
Another $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be used to buy 31 other properties throughout the borough. The state is also waiting on approval for another federal grant to buy 20 additional Manville homes.