President Biden toured storm-ravaged neighborhoods in Manville after Hurricane Ida in September 2021. Credit: Photo by Edwin J. Torres / NJ Governor’s Office

By Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

After Hurricane Ida flooded his Manville, New Jersey home almost two years ago, Eric Vaughn parked an RV in his driveway and moved into it with his two young sons.

He figured it would be a short stay until he received the federal disaster-recovery aid he needs to rebuild. But since then, the family hasn’t gotten a cent of assistance.

Last week, their plight got exponentially worse.

State officials told Vaughn and other residents of Ida-ravaged blocks deemed “risk reduction areas” that their only option is to take a state buyout and move. Anyone who wants to elevate their home above flood levels, rebuild, and stay will have to do so on their own dime.

The sudden policy change, which impacts flood-prone areas of this blue-collar Somerset County borough where more than 500 homes sit, infuriated many residents, who have long implored state lawmakers to reduce delays and flaws in storm recovery relief programs.

“We should have the choice of buyout or elevation. We shouldn’t be forced into a buyout that might not even cover your mortgage. Because then what?” Vaughn said. “I’ll owe the bank money, I’m going to lose my house, and my credit is shot because of all this so I’ll have nowhere else to live. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Manville Mayor Richard Onderko said he and other borough officials were “blindsided” by the change.

“When they changed this policy, they never included me, the mayor of the borough. They never included my certified floodplain manager, Cleighton Smith. We had no idea of this policy change. We questioned them. They will not answer us,” Onderko said.

The designated risk reduction areas contain 17% of Manville’s housing stock, and about 2,000 of the borough’s 11,000 residents live there, borough officials said.

Losing that many tax-paying residents “could be potentially devastating to Manville and its future,” Smith said.

“It makes no sense to me from an economic viability standpoint of how you can run a municipality and keep ratables. If people want to live in these areas, we assume the risk of the municipality, when it floods, to rescue these people or have them evacuated,” Onderko said. “You can live in these areas. These areas are not unlivable.”

Daniel Kelly, executive director of the governor’s disaster recovery office, told the New Jersey Monitor that the policy change was a “multi-agency decision” that relied on predictive flood mapping by Rutgers University; input from state agencies, including the Office of Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Protection, and Department of Community Affairs; and an acquisition action plan Manville did in 2018.

The policy change, for now, applies only to Manville, whose residents stand to get half of the state’s Ida buyout budget as one of its most Ida-battered communities, said Taraun Tice, deputy director of Kelly’s office.

But areas with a high risk of repeated flooding like Manville exist around the state, Tice noted. Tice and Kelly declined to say whether the policy change would be applied to those areas too, saying aid decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

President Joe Biden touring Ida-damaged homes in Manville on Sept. 7, 2021. The state is telling some homeowners there that they can either accept a buyout of their properties, or remain and rebuild without aid. Credit: Edwin J. Torres / NJ Governor's Office

Safety concerns

Manville borough ordinances and Federal Emergency Management Agency rules allow residents who want to rebuild after devastating floods to do so as long as they lift the living space of their homes above typical flooding levels.

But states deciding how to direct FEMA disaster-recovery money can set whatever flood-mitigation priorities they want if they comply with FEMA regulations and guidance, said Thomas Song, a FEMA resiliency specialist.

Evacuation risks and increasingly common catastrophic flooding prompted the state to determine that elevating homes in Manville’s lowest-lying areas, including a natural flood plain between the Raritan and Millstone rivers known as the Lost Valley, “is just not a good solution,” Kelly said.

The change is part of a paradigm shift in state policy as climate change causes more flooding, he added. Manville has endured three so-called 500-year floods in just over two decades — hurricanes Floyd in 1999, Irene in 2011, and Ida in 2021.

Floodwaters can cut entire neighborhoods off from emergency services, forcing first responders into dangerous situations if someone needs to be rescued and endangering homeowners who try to navigate floodwaters to escape or return to their homes, Kelly said.

“If you’re elevating in an extremely dangerous area, you’re still in that extremely dangerous area,” he said. “Maybe you’re protecting the property, but are you really protecting the homeowner — especially as we have an aging population? Do you want elderly or potentially disabled homeowners to be trapped inside their homes?”

Manville will get $20 million of New Jersey’s $40 million Ida buyout budget, Tice said.

“That is an historic investment that no other administration has invested in Manville itself. We have to use the money wisely — $20 million is a very small pot, considering the overall need in Manville,” she said.

Funding for home elevation and repairs will be directed to areas with less risk of future flooding, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, which administers that type of aid. The biggest program for Ida repairs has about $77 million to disburse in New Jersey, but the state has asked the feds for an additional $60 million, Ryan said. About 2,225 homeowners statewide have applied for relief through that program, she added.

“The state is focusing on doing the most we can to help as many households as possible with the limited federal money we have,” Ryan said.

About 80 Manville homeowners awaiting assistance for Ida damage are impacted by the buyout-only policy change, she said.

New Jersey got nearly $400 million in federal funds to help residents recover from Ida, including $228 million in May 2022 for repairs, buyouts, new affordable housing in low-risk areas of flood-prone communities, and storm-resilience projects, and another $150 million in November 2022. The state is accepting public comment through Friday on its plan to spend the $150 million to rehabilitate Ida-damaged rental units in 12 counties and improve stormwater management in Newark’s flood-prone, low-income Ivy Hill neighborhood.

The state aims to spend all Ida relief funds within six years, but the feds could extend that deadline, Ryan said.

Kelly acknowledged relief disbursement has been slowed by bureaucratic hurdles at both the federal and state levels.

That includes buyouts. While other property sales typically take 60 to 90 days, state buyouts of flood-prone properties usually take up to a year, he said. Officials now are implementing “process improvements” to complete buyouts within six to nine months, Ryan said.

‘A personal choice’

Smith, the Manville floodplain manager and a civil engineer, gets why residents would want a buyout.

Elevation is expensive, and sometimes people just want to escape the headaches that come with living in a flood plain during a time of increasingly extreme weather, he said.

So many properties already have been bought out that the borough’s flood-prone areas have become “a patchwork of empty lot, empty lot, house, empty lot, empty lot, house” with long-deserted driveways that lead nowhere, Smith said. About 175 homeowners in Manville have applied for buyouts since Ida, with about 60 approved so far through various federal and state programs, Ryan said.

Still, Smith said, elevation should be “one of the tools in the toolbox.”

“It’s a personal choice, and people should have that choice,” he said.

The policy change doesn’t make sense in some ways, Smith said. It applies to all homes in the designated risk reduction areas, even those that have never flooded, as well as homes that residents already elevated using flood insurance dollars, loans, or personal savings, he said. Those residents, who were awaiting federal aid to restore gutted interiors, now are ineligible for that relief.

“One of the questions we asked was: ‘What about people who already lifted their houses?’ And the answer we got was: ‘We don’t have any problem tearing down an elevated house,’” Smith said.

But even residents in the risk reduction areas who want buyouts say it’s a faulty strategy because of regulations that keep relief out of their hands.

Maryann Morris applied for a buyout two days after her Lost Valley home was damaged in Ida. She got a disaster-relief loan through the federal Small Business Administration so she could repair and return to her home faster while waiting for buyout approval.

But the state won’t buy out homes with a lien, and SBA wouldn’t transfer her loan to another property or even permit her to sell to the state, she said. So after nearly two years of negotiating with state officials, she gave up on a buyout and instead decided she’d use federal aid to elevate her home.

Under the new policy change, she’s ineligible for that aid.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I sit here every day trying to figure out something, and I’ve got nothing,” Morris said.

The flood traumatized both Morris and her 8-year-old daughter, who now panics when it rains and when she hears sirens, Morris said.

“I don’t want my daughter to feel like this anymore. I want her safe. And I can’t even do that for her right now. And it’s killing me,” Morris said.

Such a drastic policy change after two years of waiting, along with the trouble residents like Morris have had getting buyouts, have prompted some to call on the state to change course.

“I just hope that they will reconsider and come back and work with us here to bring hope back to the people that want to stay,” Onderko said.

Meghan Mertyris is a community organizer with New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots group that has advocated for storm survivors.

“Stringing storm survivors along for years just to trap them in a slow-moving and dysfunctional buyout program is absolutely not fair,” Mertyris said. “We deserve a chance and a choice.”

But Kelly said the change is final.

Vaughn called the public safety concerns that drove the policy change “ridiculous.”

“If you know the flood’s coming, you evacuate, your home doesn’t get destroyed because you’re elevated, and you come back when the water recedes. That’s it. It’s pretty simple,” he said.

Long out of patience, he’s not sure of his next steps but thinks he’ll rebuild, even if the state refuses to help.

“Whether I want a buyout or whether I want to elevate, that should be my choice,” he said. “Who are they to make that choice for me?”

This article first appeared on the New Jersey Monitor and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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