Sell us your homes, but we won’t pay to lift them anymore, N.J. tells flood-prone towns

Sell us your homes, but we won’t pay to lift them anymore, N.J. tells flood-prone towns / August 14, 2023 /

By Steven Rodas

Eric Vaughn stands in the middle of his gutted house in Manville on Thursday, May 11, 2023. Vaughn’s house took devastating damage in 2021 during Hurricane Ida and has since been living in an RV with his two sons.Julian Leshay | For NJ Advance Media

Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Irene in 2011. And then Ida in 2021.

Manville has overcome a streak of storms — and the deluge they inevitably bring — for decades.

But in early August, some victims of the latest major flooding event were told for the first time that federal funds typically earmarked to lift homes to build up their defenses would no longer be provided and instead, the only financial help available would be in the form of a buyout — moving and selling your home to the state.

A policy change by Gov.  opens in a new windowPhil Murphy’s administration and multiple state agencies has re-prioritized how federal resources are allowed to be spent. In short, the state does not plan on spending money to lift homes in specified areas at risk for flooding.

The  opens in a new windowNew Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit that is led by and advocates for storm survivors, said the shift came as a surprise. Some Manville storm victims, the New Jersey Organizing Project said, have already spent money — which they can now no longer get reimbursed on — lifting properties after the storm, which marks two years in less than a month.

So far, about 79 Manville residents were told they must opt for a buyout or bear the brunt of elevation.

Residents in Manville are slated to receive about $20 million, half of the state’s Ida buyout budget, due to the heavy toll taken by the borough. The storm claimed 30 lives in New Jersey, but in Manville, where there were no fatalities, the damage ran the gamut — from homes that exploded due to gas leaks, mangled rail system infrastructure and mud-caked belongings strewn along sidewalks.

The area impacted by the new policy change encompasses more than 500 homes, local officials confirmed.

That’s 17% of Manville’s homes where approximately 2,000 of the borough’s 11,000 residents live and located in some of the region’s most low-lying areas. It includes the entirety of “Lost Valley,” a natural flood plain flanked by the Raritan and Millstone rivers — where empty lots in which homes once stood dot neighborhoods.

President Joe Biden notably visited nearly a half-dozen homes in the borough after Ida — remembered for the ruinous amount of inland flooding it caused.

“(With) the increase of more  opens in a new windowpowerful storms due to climate change, there is no doubt that another event will occur sooner rather than later. Despite these catastrophic floods, little has been done over the last several decades in Manville to truly mitigate the clear public safety risks,” said Tyler Jones, a spokesperson for Murphy’s office. “This policy was not made lightly.”

Jones added: “As the first locality in which the policy is applied, Manville will inform how buyouts are conducted in large flood-prone areas across the state.”

Even as more storms — exacerbated in both their frequency and furor due to climate change — continue to place New Jerseyans in precarious situations,  opens in a new windowmany continue to reside in vulnerable areas. These same residents nationwide are being forced to reckon with state, federal and private policy changes striving to reconcile with the realities of an ever-warming planet.

On the West Coast,  opens in a new windowit’s manifesting in several big insurers pumping the breaks on some new policy sales in wildfire-threatened areas.

The newest policy here, some advocates in New Jersey believe, could be a harbinger over how homeowners and local governments handle an issue only bound to worsen: flooding due to heavy rain.

‘I’m going to rebuild’

New Jersey officials said the flood-prone areas impacted by the policy were determined through a multi-agency effort — comprising the Office of Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Protection, and Department of Community Affairs — that relied on a  opens in a new windowRutgers University laser-imaging tool and Manville’s 2018 acquisition action plan.

However, Manville Mayor Richard Onderko said the news was sudden.

“I got busted up homes that are still sitting on my floodplains that people have walked away from. They haven’t been offered a buyout yet, two years later,” Onderko said over the phone, growing louder while discussing the aftermath of Ida. “And they’re still paying property taxes and sewer bills in homes they don’t live in. Basically, disaster recovery is now a disaster in Manville. You can tell I’m a little angry.”

Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, said in making the policy determination the state was also mindful of emergency response.

“Floodwaters at this height are treacherous,” Ryan said, speaking of the more than five feet of stormwater that overtook parts of Manville during Ida. “The water has velocity, and it is impassable for residents and first responders. Only waterborne rescues can occur. According to engineering data, the ‘Lost Valley’ neighborhood in Manville is under designed for a 1% flood event … Elevating these homes or the surrounding homes simply would not fully mitigate these types of dangers.”

Ryan said that as part of improving the buyout process, the state aims to create a 6 to 9-month window for new buyouts following the policy change. On average, it  opens in a new windowcan take 12 months, which can be grueling for families struggling financially after a storm.

She also highlighted that the state has allocated more than $70 million in federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, or HMGP, funds to assist with elevations that were previously green-lit and buyouts post-Ida. Part of those funds, which have not been disbursed, includes $40 million in Blue Acres state-led buyout money. The Department of Community Affairs will also get $30 million for home elevations.

DCA officials noted the policy doesn’t cancel elevation grant awards that have already been approved, instead focusing on grant applications that are still in review.

“Given the resilience and risk reduction areas in Manville, DCA will be referring approximately 30 homeowners to Blue Acres along with approximately $10 million in HMGP funds originally earmarked for elevations,” Ryan said of money being repurposed following the start of the policy.

The state felt the new policy was also necessary given the “limited federal money” it has to work with post-storms, Ryan said.

But Cameron Foster, of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said the policy decision was not only about what was implemented. His group also took issue with how residents were informed of the change.

“A buyout isn’t a bad option to have in the storm recovery toolkit. But this decision is coming nearly two years after the fact, after many have already endured a long period of applying and waiting for aid to repair, elevate, and remain in their homes,” Foster said. “If New Jersey intends on making policy decisions like this one in the future, they need to be clearly communicated way further in advance, allow plenty of room for input from the communities they will affect, and grant survivors a real choice and chance to recover instead of backing them into a corner.”

Eric Vaughn, a 42-year-old  opens in a new windowfather living in his RV with two sons even two years after Ida, said Friday he was among the residents who wouldn’t be able to use federal money to prop up his home to a higher level.

But Vaughn, a lifelong resident who hasn’t found an affordable home elsewhere, said he’s going out-of-pocket and staying.

“I’m going to rebuild. I’m moving back in,” he said, with a goal to finish renovations this fall.

“I think homeowners should be given the choice of whether or not they want to be in this area,” he added. “Whether they want to elevate or get a buyout. It shouldn’t be forced upon us by the state government.”

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