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 now lining the roads.
“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 repeated 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 and erosion of wetlands and open space, which 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 has cost 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.
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.
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 pre-flood 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 were 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 the state identifies measures it's taking to reduce the number of properties that flood on a regular basis and also works with local municipalities on the crafting of flood reduction plans.
New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Management, in turn, has its own strategy,laid out in its Hazard Mitigation Plan. 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 says. “There were a relatively small number of properties in the overall portfolio of the flood insurance program — the program that covers 5.5 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.”
Federal lawmakers considered several solutions, including denying flood insurance coverage to any repetitive-loss property after its owner filed a certain number of claims.
The answer they finally settled on came in the form of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, a rare instance of bipartisan consensus that something needed to be done. Rather than cutting people out of the National Flood Insurance Program, Biggert-Waters enacted premium increases for homeowners who sold their homes, had a lapse in their coverage or suffered severe or repetitive flooding. Their rates would go up 25 percent per year until the amount they were paying accurately reflected their risk.
Biggert-Waters became law, but less than two years later — amid widespread lobbying from a small but vocal group of coastal residents and the National Association of Homebuilders — many of the provisions were repealed this March. Though many owners of repetitive-loss properties will still see their insurance rates go up, most increases will now be capped at around 15 percent annually.
Also repealed were measures that would have done away with low, subsidized insurance rates for some older homes that have filed multiple flood claims.
“What the grandfathering was doing was allowing a lot of these repetitive-loss properties to stay in the flood-insurance program without any changes,” Knowles says. “So if your house was built before 1968 — before the flood-insurance program went into effect — and it floods every five years, you still get to keep your flood insurance. Biggert-Waters did away with the grandfathering. The ‘reform’ of Bigger-Waters brought back the grandfathering, so all those homes are still in the program.”
In addition, subsidies for repetitive-loss properties that would have expired when properties were sold have now been reinstated.
Knowles acknowledges that there were valid financial hardship concerns Biggert-Waters presented for some coastal residents, but he thinks legislators could have modified the law to address those concerns rather than largely abandoning it. For example, he says owners of repetitive-loss properties unable to afford increased insurance premiums could have been offered vouchers to offset the increased costs as well as grants and low-interest loans to make their homes more resilient to future flooding.
“Since World War II, Americans have been building themselves into disastrous areas at an alarming rate. And the implications of that, the bill of that, is now coming due,” he says. Though he saw Biggert-Waters as a moment of optimism, he feels its repeal and the general lack of political will to make any substantial changes to deal with repetitive-loss properties is disheartening. Until federal lawmakers take that initiative, he said, it will be up to state and local officials to confront the issue.
With more residents per square mile than any other state, New Jersey is particularly vulnerable. And at the top of the list of municipalities dealing with this problem is Wayne Township, sandwiched between the Passaic and Pompton Rivers. Wayne has over 600 repetitive-loss properties according to FEMA, the state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan put that figure at 762.
Of those 600 properties, more than 60 percent are classified as “severe repetitive loss,” which means four or more separate flood insurance claims have been paid, with the amount of each claim payment exceeding $5,000 and the cumulative amount exceeding $20,000. A property can also be classified as SRL if it’s had at least two separate claims payments that add up to more than the reported value of the property.
“There’s no simple solution to flooding, and if people think someone’s going to come up and wave a magic wand, and it’s going to stop, they’re crazy,” says Wayne Mayor Christopher Vergano. Still, over the past few years, his township has been able to make a significant dent in its flooding problem by negotiating with FEMA and the state for buyouts of about 220 homes. Plans are also in the works for the federal government to acquire an additional 113 residences.
“FEMA has found it’s more effective for us to purchase the homes than for them to pay out millions of dollars in damages during the flood. So we’re probably the most successful town in the state of New Jersey when it comes to buyouts,” he said, noting that whatever short-term blow is dealt to the township’s property tax rolls is more than earned back through eventual savings on first responders, debris removal and damage repairs.
“We don’t apply for any funding for elevations,” he adds, “because elevations don’t take people out of harm’s way. It takes their house out of harm’s way, but at 3 in the morning, if they’re having chest pains and their house is elevated, we still need to put people in boats to go get them. I see our volunteers that are risking their lives. Our police department’s out there. I think the best way to go is buyouts to take people out of the situation.”
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,” says 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 says.
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, says 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 says, 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!” says 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 says. “The move is to purchase 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.”
People like Westwood residents Tom and Leslie Bisdale, whose backyard is separated from the brook by just a few hundred feet of forest.
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 chuckles. “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,” explains 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 says, 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 adds.
The Bisdales say 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 says.
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 says. “It’s not a fun position to think of yourself on the public dole,” she adds, 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.
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 says. “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 says. “That must be done as a cooperative effort. It must be a regional approach.”
Some Westwood and Hillsdale residents have called on the state to ask United Water, which operates the Woodcliff Lake reservoir, to start releasing water in advance of big storms to prevent the brook from being overwhelmed and overflowing its banks. Birkner agrees that that may help.
His biggest request, however, is that the Department of Environmental Protection follow one of the recommendations of a 2011 engineering study commissioned by the borough and maintain a year-round limit of 91 feet of water in the reservoir. That would allow for a four-foot buffer during the rainy summer months, potentially reducing the frequency and amount of flood discharge into the brook when the lake reaches capacity and keeping the brook from overflowing its banks as a result of freak storms.
After the study came out, Birkner sent multiple letters to the state DEP, asking officials to take the recommendations into consideration. For a long time, he said, his pleas mostly went unanswered.
“It is now at the point beyond frustrating that your office continues to ignore the plight of our residents that have been the victims of severe and repetitive losses due to flooding,” he wrote in January. “Quite frankly, I find the lack of response from the NJDEP to be unacceptable.”
A meeting he organized last September to discuss the issue with various stakeholders, including Hackensack Riverkeeper and United Water was also cancelled after the DEP backed out, citing active litigation.
He eventually was able to arrange a private meeting with state officials, but was not allowed to discuss the issue of flooding. The meeting was not particularly helpful, he says.
After three years, he finally got a written response.
“Addressing flooding is a top priority of Governor Christie and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin,” wrote Deputy Commissioner Michele Siekerka, in a letter dated April 28.
But referencing the findings of the Passaic River Basin Flood Advisory Commission, she says that the amount of time it takes for water to drain means that attempting to lower water levels in advance of a storm wouldn't have any measurable effect on flood reduction. In other words, given the size of the reservoir, if it rains enough to cause flooding, it’s nearly impossible to release enough water in the days before a storm to make a meaningful difference. Plus, she says the DEP lacks the legal authority to require a private utility operator to do so.
As for the argument that the reservoir owner should preemptively keep water levels below capacity, Siekerka wrote that "New Jersey reservoirs are the source of water for millions of New Jersey residents and businesses. In many cases, there is not a significant abundance of 'surplus' water available to reduce storage and still meet the region's water supply needs," she continued, adding that "the inability to correctly predict precipitation events sufficiently ahead of time” makes New Jersey water-supply reservoirs “poor candidates for flood mitigation."
That viewpoint is echoed by John Miller, legislative committee chair with the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management and one of seven members of the Passaic Basin Commission. While he acknowledges that altering the operation of the floodgates could affect the amount of time that residents and first responders have to prepare for advancing floodwaters, he says, in the end, it most likely won’t impact whether the flooding occurs. Given a long history of unpredictable weather patterns, he also worries that officials might start trying to prevent a flood but end up causing a drought.
“There’s great uncertainty on the track of a storm and how much rain’s going to happen,” he says. “You have projections, but they’re not certain. And especially if you have a water supply reservoir, making that choice of relieving enough water to make a difference in a flood event, and then not getting that rainfall to refill that reservoir, it could be a very critical situation.”
Managing a reservoir, he adds, is a difficult and often thankless job.
“It’s kind of like the Monday morning quarterback,” he says. “You’re going to be questioning, 'Well, should they have released it earlier or maybe not enough?', 'Or now what are we going to do with this thing that’s supposed to be our backup water supply and it’s not available now?' And the storm didn’t come or did come . . . . It gets really tricky.”
As for Mayor Birkner’s suggestion that more emphasis be placed on clearing snags from the brook, Miller says that might help in some instances, such as when debris is blocking a culvert or preventing water from flowing under a bridge. But in general, while it sounds good, it usually won’t increase much of the capacity. During a flood, he said, “the channel proper carries a smaller fraction of the floodwater than the floodplain,” the area adjacent to the banks of the river.
Instead, Miller said the focus needs to remain on downstream flood management practices, beginning with changing development regulations to prevent homes from being built in high-risk areas.
“New Jersey’s flood problem is not going to be addressed in our lifetime. We will make incremental improvements in our vulnerability,” he says, adding that it appears the state is making progress.
“Risk is consequence times probability, and the probability is increasing with climate change and sea-level rise. By buying out homes, by elevating homes, by doing these other mitigation techniques, we’re starting to buy down some of that risk.”