‘A $1 billion problem’: Why floods keep ravaging some New Jersey towns

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By Dan Sears

When a powerful rainstorm hit the region in mid-December, Janette Martinez of Little Falls, N.J. became trapped in her home. First-responders rescued Martinez’s family as flood waters moved in on their house, a few hundred yards from the bank of the Passaic River.

“The rescue was frightening. It was all last-minute,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”

But then a few weeks later, another storm pounded North Jersey. Martinez, her husband, three kids and father-in-law had to leave their home again. For two days, they lived in a hotel.

“It was irritating and expensive,” Martinez said. Since then she’s packed a bag of clothes and saved money in case another flood forces her family to leave again.

Little Falls Mayor James Damiano said the major flooding in part of his town — which prompted hundreds to evacuate temporarily — is the first that the community has dealt with in more than a decade. For days after the rains stopped in December, the Passaic River remained well above its major flood stage, spilling water onto residential streets. The same happened again in January.

The Passaic has flooded badly enough to prompt federal disaster declarations more than a dozen times since the late 1960s, with some floods proving deadly. Meanwhile, rainfall is increasing rainfall each year in New Jersey, and state environmental officials said climate change will only make it worse. But the most talked-about project for alleviating flooding sound alarm bells for environmentalists — and any options carry hefty price tags.

“I would probably target it in the, if not billion, maybe multi-billion dollar range to solve this type of problem that we are experiencing,” Damiano said.

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat who represents the 11th District in New Jersey, which includes Little Falls, said Damiano’s assessment that it’s a billion-dollar problem is “likely not far off the mark.”

Flooding is an issue around the state. But local officials said what’s happening with the Passaic River Watershed is unique. A network of seven rivers converge in Wayne, N.J. and need to run down the Passaic through the state until the water can drain out in Newark Bay.

“I would refer to it as a kind of a choke point here in this area,” Damiano said.

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Little Falls, New Jersey Mayor James Belford Damiano uses his cell phone to show a map of areas prone to flooding because of the path of the Passaic River.

Mike Hayes/Gothamist

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since 1900, at least 26 lives have been lost to the Passaic River’s floods. A flood in 1984 killed three people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. An April 2007 flood prompted the evacuations of more than 5,000 people.

In 2022, Sherrill and other members of Congress secured nearly $150 million in federal funding for a flood tunnel on the Peckman River, which flows into the Passaic. During Hurricane Ida in 2021, flooding from the Peckman damaged many homes in another section of Little Falls and the surrounding area.

And Mayor Andre Sayegh, of nearby Paterson, said that after these recent storms his administration applied for a state grant to build a wall behind the city’s fire headquarters, which sits in a flood zone.

“You’re talking about a flood resiliency wall, so it’s a multi-million dollar grant there,” Sayegh said.

But those repairs don’t solve the fundamental problem, officials said.

Decades of debate

Officials are considering several mitigation efforts for New Jersey rivers prone to flooding. Sherrill said the possibilities range from ideas like “desnagging and desilting” waterways that aren’t flowing well to pushing for more funding to buy out or raise houses in areas prone to flooding.

Damiano said failing to spend the money on the front end will only lead to higher costs later on.

“The amount of money being spent to repair these homes, the amount of money being spent by our federal insurance companies is going to be more than the cost to solve this problem,” Damiano said.

For decades, officials have debated building a different diversion tunnel for the Passaic, starting north of the choke point in Little Falls and carrying water to Newark Bay. In 1990, the idea received congressional approval and $2 billion in funding. But after environmentalist groups organized against the effort and key proponents of the tunnel retired from Congress, plans dried up.

“It wasn’t going to work. And we fought that and we won,” said Laurie Howard of the Passaic River Coalition, a New Jersey environmental group founded in 1969.

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Howard said the project would have wiped out trees and hurt the wildlife in the area, while severely curtailing river access for recreation. She also said it could negatively impact how rainwater recharges itself in the soil as part of the process to become clean drinking water.

But in 2019 the Army Corps of Engineers studied options for the Passaic, and after a briefing with local officials concluded that the tunnel plan was “overwhelmingly supported as the only comprehensive option.” Yet Sherill said the initiative once again stalled out after it failed to gain the support of some local municipalities. And the Army Corps said it’s not planning further work unless New Jersey requests it.

Other local leaders continue to push for the project. In 2022, after two floods caused about $21 million in damages to homes and businesses in Fairfield, N.J., then-Mayor James Gasparini spoke out in favor of a flood tunnel over other state efforts such as buying out homes that he called reactive and not responsive to the underlying problem.

“I think we need to take another look at that,” Sherrill said on the tunnel project. “We simply can’t continue to pay for rebuilding all these areas.”

Howard said the Passaic River Coalition remains opposed to the tunnel.

“It’s a lot of concrete. And what are you going to have then? More heat,” Howard said.

She said their group favors initiatives like buying out people’s houses in flood-stricken areas and replacing them with open space. However, she acknowledges that this poses challenges as well.

“What’s happening now is that the price of real estate has escalated so much, these people have no place to go,” Howard said.

Lasonia Newburry’s basement was destroyed in December’s and January’s floods.

Mike Hayes/Gothamist

Struggling with the status quo

Like Little Falls residents, some living in Paterson were hit twice by flooding from the Passaic in this winter’s two back-to-back storms. Lasonia Newburry stayed with her sister after the December storm caused a fire in her basement, forcing the city to cut the power to the Bergen Street building where she lives in with her two kids..

In January, it got worse for the Newburrys. Lasonia said the basement was flooded with a couple feet of water and the boiler broke down, leaving the family without heat and hot water. It would take nine days — and a call from the mayor’s office — to persuade her landlord to come fix the problem, she said. For heat that week, Lasonia left her oven on. Then at night, she turned it off and they huddled under blankets to keep warm.

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“I managed it. I get up early to make sure the oven on for the kids … I have a pot on the stove just for them to wash their face, brush their teeth,” she said.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office recently announced that at least $10 million in FEMA Swift Current funding will be dedicated to elevate or buyout homes in areas impacted by the December flooding. Murphy’s office said it is currently working with local governments to identify homes that may qualify.

The New Jersey Office of Emergency management is also assessing damage for a possible application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance. That process typically takes up to 30 days. FEMA, though, has seen its disaster relief fund rapidly depleted after a record-setting year of major catastrophes around the country.

Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Resource Project, a nonprofit organization founded after Superstorm Sandy to help storm survivors, said her group is still working with New Jerseyans trying to get aid after Ida damaged their homes in September 2021.

“We just had a Zoom meeting [last week] and folks from Paterson were on and they’re still waiting for some of the federal aid that we got after Ida, which has been two and a half years,” Devecka-Rinear said. “So it is always better to be a federally declared disaster. However, there’s a lot of issues with the disaster recovery system that we still need to repair.”

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