Millions of dollars in state funds are heading to North Jersey towns, providing a measure of relief to at least a dozen households devastated by Hurricane Irene.But even as officials cheered the Blue Acres grants — part of a proposed 14-town, $13.3 million state package that would match, in part, $40 million in federal funding for purchasing and razing flood-damaged properties — they said the buyouts should be part of a broader state strategy for long-term flood mitigation.
“Clearly, there is not enough money to really have much of an impact statewide,” state Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, said of the funding. “The bigger picture is, this is probably something the federal government should be doing. We are looking for things that state and local governments can do to mitigate the problems, ranging from stream cleaning to major capital programs.”
Two Bergen County towns will receive nearly $1 million in state funds — $400,075 went to New Milford and $517,000 to Westwood — while Little Falls and Pompton Lakes were awarded a combined $2 million. Municipalities use the funds to purchase homes at pre-flood market value and convert the land to open space.
The Blue Acres block grant covers 25 percent of each municipal buyout fund, with the rest guaranteed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. New Milford will receive $1.2 million from FEMA; Westwood is slated for $1.5 million.
“We cannot prevent flooding,” said Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Blue Acres program. “Over many decades, for various reasons, there was a lot of development where water would naturally run. The number one point is to move as many people as possible out of harm’s way.”
Governor Christie urged FEMA to push the Irene buyout program through, Ragonese said, even as relief for earlier storms winds its way through the red tape of various agencies.
Buyouts were at the top of a list of recommendations in Christie’s Passaic River flood commission report, released in January. Other recommendations included river dredging, improved flood warning systems and large-scale projects to alleviate the floods.
“It’s small, but it’s a start,” said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, D-Paramus. “We need to have a long-term commitment. The problem right now is that we have so many needs in regard to the infrastructure. We have not done what should have been done for years, and all of a sudden it’s raising havoc in our communities.”
An Army Corps of Engineers study is a possibility in the near future, Ragonese said.
Two weeks ago, Gordon introduced legislation that would authorize $100 million to expand the Blue Acres program.
“Flooding has gotten worse,” said Gordon, who attributed the problem to rising precipitation and overdevelopment. “Homes that have never flooded before are now flooding. You’re seeing major floods and major damage.”
In Westwood, nearly 100 homeowners expressed interest in selling their homes, but only eight were identified as eligible for this buyout. Mayor John Birkner is not certain the Blue Acres-FEMA money will cover the cost of those purchases.
“You can’t fight Mother Nature,” Birkner said. “But we can certainly mitigate some of the smaller storms.”
“We’ve spent a lot of resources to get the residents through this,” Birkner said. “Is the money enough? I don’t think so. How will buying out impact the water flow in the future? I don’t think it’s going to have a great impact, but it certainly helps those families get out of a tough situation.”
New Milford is flanked by the Hackensack River on the west, and Hirschfield Brook along the northeast. Both are prone to flooding, and the borough has seen several major floods in recent years. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, FEMA coordinators ranked the borough among the top 13 New Jersey towns in terms of destruction, and more than 40 families submitted requests for acquisition.
Borough Administrator Christine Demiris said the borough has selected five “substantially damaged” properties for acquisition.
Police Chief Frank Papapietro sees the buyouts as a way to rectify the mistakes of overdevelopment.
“I see so much repetitive loss,” said Papapietro, who also coordinates emergency management in the borough. “If we can get people out of these areas for a fair price, and let them get on with their lives, I think that’s a great thing.”