State and federal programs offer homeowners in North Jersey’s flood-ravaged areas a buyout. But the combination of red tape and limited funding is keeping many from that promise and a fresh start in a new and drier location.
Nelly Della Porta is one of the hundreds of owners of these “orphan” homes. Her tidy house along the Passaic River in Little Falls has endured four floods in the last 15 years. In August, several feet of muddy water surged across her first floor in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The damage — the worst the river had ever inflicted on her property — was enough to convince the 76-year-old real estate agent that she could not take another one.
But Porta had only filed three flood damage claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency’s Severe Repetitive Loss Program requires four before it will consider buying a home.
“A FEMA representative told me, `I don’t have you on the list because you haven’t flooded enough,”‘ she said sitting in a living room of donated sofas and chairs. Among her possessions, only the cats around her ankles were hers before the storm.
“What do you have to do, float away for them to pay attention?”
For many flood victims, the problem comes down to simple supply and demand. After Irene, the state Office of Emergency Management received $400 million in requests for FEMA’s hazard mitigation grants, which, among other tasks, cover buyouts. It has $40 million to spend.
The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Blue Acres Program has received about 500 buyout applications the past two years, a spokesman said. It is prepared to provide FEMA with a 25 percent matching grant for 130 acquisitions.
The disparity in need and availability has led towns and their residents to compete for buyout money, just as New Jersey does with the rest of the country in the quest for FEMA’s limited pool of funds.
About $16.5 million from the total FEMA mitigation pot has been set aside for 84 buyouts in Wayne, Little Falls and Pompton Lakes. Another $11.5 will to go various towns in Morris, Essex, Somerset and Middlesex counties.
In Bergen County, New Milford and Westwood will receive a total of $3.7 million, less than a quarter of what Passaic is getting.
The remaining $8 million should be allocated by the end of the month, though it’s unknown whether Bergen County will be included, according to Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management, which distributes the FEMA funds. Paterson officials already have said they are confident the city will receive $5 million, and Lyndhurst has asked for $500,000.
The outlook can be bleak for property owners who don’t secure buyout money. Their homes’ locations within flood areas and a depressed real-estate market make a private sale all but impossible.
Some Bergen County residents and officials have criticized the allocation of the FEMA funds.
Saddle Brook Mayor Karen Chamberlain sent a letter to the Green Acres chief, Fawn McGee, this month, pleading for help for residents “held hostage for nearly a decade” by the perpetually overflowing Saddle River.
She complained about a maze of bureaucratic hurdles in the buyout application process and sought clarification on several rejection letters to homeowners.
“I’m extremely perplexed,” she wrote.
“I walked door to door after the storm, particularly along the river, where people haven’t been hit once or twice but hit repeatedly,” Chamberlain said later by phone. “I feel like I let them down. I feel like I gave them false hope.”
Even for homeowners in the few recipient towns, chances of an acquisition are slim. More than 40 residents in New Milford have sent in letters, requesting that their homes — in some cases lifelong residences — be bought, razed and made into open space forever.
The $1.6 million earmarked for the borough will buy three to seven houses, depending on fair market values, the town’s administrator said.
Jon Jones, 73, used to enjoy long stretches between floods. Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 brought the first flood in a decade to his doorstep on New Milford’s Columbia Street. Now, he braces for almost constant assaults _ three floods in 2011 alone.
“We can’t get our feet back on the ground before we’re hit with another one,” he said recently. “It’s not even a matter of money anymore; it’s just a matter of never feeling secure anymore.”
In Little Falls, FEMA and Blue Acres plan to buy out 15 homes. Floyd Dupas’ property won’t be one of them. Before a town’s buyout plan is approved, emergency management officials analyze the flood damage history and current value of each targeted home to determine which would cost the federal government less in the long run: continued disaster aid for future floods or a one-time purchase that severs the funding line for good.
“We need to demonstrate to FEMA that we’re saving at least one dollar for every dollar spent,” said state police Lt. Robert Little, New Jersey’s hazard mitigation officer. A house worth $400,000, for example, has “got to have quite an extensive claims history to make the benefit-cost worthwhile.”
Dupas, the victim of at least a dozen floods since he and his family moved into the Woodcliff Avenue home in 1971, has never filed a disaster assistance claim. He’s always done the repairs himself. And he was too late in applying for post-Irene buyouts, meaning he’ll have to hope for another round of grants attached to a different storm.
“I tried to be the rock,” said the 63-year-old, who has had to come out of retirement and drive limos to afford the $30,000 in damage from Irene.
In the common room where he stood, donated rugs covered raw floorboards, and sheets of unhung drywall leaned against the walls _ offering some insulation to a home that hasn’t had heat in more than four months. The air reeked of mold.
“I tried to convince my family that it wasn’t going to be that bad,” he said. “But after this, I admit — it will only get worse.”
And there’s another twist: FEMA’s cost-benefit analysis requirement for a buyout can only be bypassed if a local inspector deems the home substantially damaged. But if a buyout bid is still rejected, the home must then be brought up to the most current code required under the inspection. Rather than selling and moving on, the owner is stuck with even more costs for upgrades, like raising the foundation above the flood plain.
Jerry McLean, realizing the risk, removed himself from the list of buyout contenders in New Milford.
“I didn’t want to be caught between a rock and a hard place,” the 60-year-old said. “I don’t have $100,000 in my pocket to raise if FEMA doesn’t buy my house.”
Activists have made many “orphaned” homes their personal projects, fighting to get them on a FEMA list or soliciting private foundations for financing with some success. The Passaic River Coalition has, over time, bought about 40 flood-plain properties.
Passaic County learned recently that its flooded regions will benefit from other, less likely government sectors: $6 million from the Army Corps of Engineers for acquisitions and at least $12.5 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that can be used, in part, for property buyouts. It’s still unknown how the money will be distributed.
Yet, as many as 100 distressed homeowners in Little Falls alone remain outside any program. A coalition attorney, John Veteri, said some township families had walked away from their flooded houses because they were worth less than the mortgages.
While questioning the federal and state commitment to his flooded constituents, state Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, whose 38th Legislative District is mostly in Bergen County, suggested that part of the blame rested with a lack of coordination and sophistication on the local level. Bergen County is unique in its number of municipalities, some which have the expertise to respond to disasters while others don’t know how to put together a federal buyout application.
“Literally, some would show up with a shoebox of receipts,” said Gordon, who used to run an emergency management consulting firm. “My guess is things haven’t changed all that much.”
State officials, however, point to progress toward better organization. To date, 20 out of the state’s 21 counties have completed flood mitigation plans, helping New Jersey become one of the country’s leading recipients of federal mitigation dollars, which pay for physically raising houses, buyouts and flood control projects.
That aid, however, will still never come close to rescuing all those who need it, Little acknowledged. It has long been outpaced by an increased rate of flooding _ nine disasters in less than two years. Homes normally safe from cresting rivers have been destroyed, and demand for aid has “spiked off the charts,” Little, the state police lieutenant, said.
It’s enough to make Nelly Della Porta long for someplace else.
“I just want to go somewhere dry and have some peace of mind,” she said. “I never thought I’d feel that way.”