N.J. town, flood-soaked and weary, tries to back away from the water

SAYREVILLE, N.J. -- Jittery residents entered town hall here two weeks ago. A line of them formed by lunchtime as they waited to submit the paperwork that they hope will take their homes away.

Many want to leave this riverside town of 43,000 people, where Superstorm Sandy pushed stinking water up front steps one at a time. Then it began climbing staircases inside.

One man rescued himself with a boat tied to the front railing. It sat on his lawn before the water came out of the man-high reeds that normally hide the wide river plain. Down the block, a woman rode to safety with her dog in the front scoop of a backhoe plowing through the water. Another neighbor was yelling for help in the wind as her home filled with water.

Now, six months after Sandy, they're hoping for a different kind of rescue: These homeowners were pressing to be included in a local plan to buy out 250 houses along this spill-prone branch of the Raritan River in northern New Jersey.


"I wouldn't mind if I lose money. I wouldn't mind if I lose a hundred grand," Rosa Lucas said of her brick home. "I'd say, 'Take it.'"

Sayreville officials see the buyout program offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as key to alleviating the pain of future floods. That's in sharp contrast to the plans of other New Jersey towns. While many communities are raising homes, Sayreville is planning to raze them.

The difference between here and the beach towns 10 miles away is the frequency of flooding, locals say. Sayreville unfolds along the edge of a wide river plain. During big storms, the Raritan stops giving water to the Atlantic Ocean and begins taking it in. Sections of Sayreville have been dunked three years in a row as tides and storm surge soak the plain like a sponge.

Local officials are asking for at least $60 million in federal funding to buy the 250 homes so they can be torn down. The empty streets would be surrendered to the yawning river plain, marking an unusual admission that it might have been best to leave the area undeveloped in the first place.

The government buyout program offers the purest sort of risk reduction: complete retreat. There's no need to guess when the next flood will come, and how high it will reach. There's no debate about raising homes on pilings. No reason to replace ruined floors. No more rescues.

If Sayreville is successful, three neighborhoods will be largely stripped of homes and never be rebuilt. It's a difficult decision, and a voluntary one, but many homeowners are ready to move after the bouts of flooding drained them financially and emotionally, said Dan Frankel, the town's business administrator.

"Their spirit has been damaged," he said. "I mean, they're broken."

No buyers, except the government

Along Weber Avenue, in a half-mile stretch of modest brick homes hugging the river plain, Sandy's floodwater smashed holes in brick foundations. Basements filled up like fish tanks. Then the rising water gurgled onto first floors through walls, windows and flooring. The street is still nearly deserted, apart from a few owners who are remodeling. It's still guarded by the police to prevent looting.

"The water was up to here," said Nella Ferro, holding her hand waist high in her living room. "What if they don't buy us out? That's my fear."

She had just finished repairing the damage caused by Hurricane Irene in 2010 when Sandy struck. The project was supposed to toughen the place up. The washer and dryer, for example, were moved from the basement to the first floor to prevent Irene-like damage.

But Sandy was more ferocious and the new machines were destroyed, along with floors, walls, windows, cabinets, the electric panel and the furnace. Now Ferro doubts that anyone would buy the house. Anyone, that is, but the federal government.

She can't afford to elevate the brick structure. That means future flood insurance prices offered by the federal government will likely be sky high. She's already decided she can't afford the coverage. Nobody else can, either, she worries. The collision of costly flood insurance and the likelihood of inundation makes the little brick house unattractive, to Ferro and to buyers.

"I'm hoping for the buyout," Ferro said. "That's what I'm hoping for."

Sayreville officials unleashed a round of robocalls two Mondays ago to encourage people with homes in the floodplain to apply for a buyout. The response seemed to surprise Frankel, the business administrator, who watched residents file into a carpeted hallway in town hall with concern on their faces and applications in their hands.

"Oh, God, they're coming left and right," he said at one point. By 2 p.m., about 65 homeowners had applied for a buyout, adding to a larger number of residents who turned in the paperwork earlier in the storm's aftermath.

'A remarkable event' for some

Buyouts, known in FEMA parlance as acquisitions, are considered one of the most effective hazard mitigation techniques. Altogether, the agency has acquired more than 44,000 structures at a cost of $2 billion, according to a FEMA spokesman. That can remove the most vulnerable, and expensive, homes from a future reach into the public pocketbook.

New Jersey had about 9,800 properties in 2008 that had flooded on average three times in the last 40 years. They receive subsidized federal insurance. Together, they've resulted in $597 million in damage claims paid by the National Flood Insurance Program. That was before Sandy.

But buyouts are tangled up in a difficult process. Strict criteria and a shortage of funding are common frustrations, experts say. The government will pay the market price of a home as it was before the storm, but only if that cost is less than the damage it's likely to sustain in the future.

Ed Thomas, a former FEMA official who's now president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, said the Sayreville effort is a "remarkable event" because of its size. But he expressed skepticism that everyone there would be approved for a buyout, especially homeowners who experienced minor damage during Sandy.

"When we say buyouts, I always get kind of a little antsy," Thomas said. "Acquisition alone is rarely going to give you the answer you want."

He advises communities to use the whole arsenal of flood-protection techniques, including buyouts, elevating homes, repurposing land for condos that are built farther away from water, and, sometimes, expecting your basement to be flooded now and then.

Alternatively, more aggressive flooding might require a matching response in firepower. Several residents of Weber Avenue blamed the town for not building a defensive wall to keep the river back. It's been a topic of debate for 20 years.

3 strikes and she's out

Michael Kaliczynski, whose basement filled with water when the corner of his foundation collapsed, applied for a buyout even though he hates the idea. He wants $500,000 for his brick house, a condition that all but rejects his application.

Instead, he says the town's request of $60 million should be applied to the construction of a 1½-mile wall.

"Build the wall, fix people's houses -- beautiful," Kaliczynski said.

But for some in Sayreville, the scramble to abandon the floodplain is infectious.

The thought of buyouts conjures images in some residents of being left alone as the homes around them are crushed. They fear that their house would be a lonely island surrounded by future floodwaters.

"My fear is they'll let everyone else go and I'll be the only one left standing," said one woman who thought her chances for a buyout might suffer if she spoke publicly. "I don't need that. I want out."

Lucas, who's willing to lose money on her home, is the woman who escaped from Sandy by riding in the bucket of a backhoe. The first floor of her house was filled with water up to her chest. Furniture was floating.

It was the third time since 1992 that Lucas had experienced a flood, including two in the past three years. She says the neighborhood along Weber Avenue should never have been built.

"Nothing will stop the water," she said.

Tomorrow: A beach town plans to rebuild.

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