By Ron Leir
Get the feds to buy your home or press them to dredge the river.
Those were posed as the two choices facing Lyndhurst residents as politicians pondered how to prevent future flooding of the Passaic River in the wake of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irene.
Nearly 50 residents turned out for a press conference organized by Township Public Affairs Director Brian Haggerty last week on the lawn of Bill Bernard’s Peabody Ave. home to demand federal intervention to tame the Passaic.
But the Sept. 13 confab – intended to rally public support behind the proposed dredging of the river – quickly turned into a public debate between impatient residents and officials, and even between pols, over what course to pursue.
Haggerty, Public Safety Commissioner Robert Giangeruso and State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), advocated dredging as the long-term solution to the Passaic’s overflowing its banks.
“We need the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal government to work together to come up with viable, workable solutions to address what has become a major issue which shows no sign of abating,” Haggerty said.
In Lyndhurst, Irene contributed to the flooding of more than 100 homes, Haggerty said. Some, including one on Peabody whose foundation was washed away, and two on Riverside Ave., are reportedly beyond repair.
All told, in Lyndhurst, Irene accounted for more than $8 million in damages to 154 homes, 80 apartments and 20 businesses; temporarily displaced more 800 people from their residences; damaged a municipal sewer line and two pumps on Riverside Ave., and inundated the Little League field and recreation building, according to Police Chief James O’Connor, the town’s emergency management coordinator.
“This took a heavy toll,” O’Connor said. “More than (Hurricane) Floyd (in 1999).”
Communities hit hard in the Bergen, Essex and Hudson regions are focused on getting help from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), but last week, Sarlo and State Sen. Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) said that $8 billion in federal storm relief aid was being blocked by a Republican filibuster in Congress.
“I’m urging the Republican members of Congress to stop the nonsense,” Sarlo said. “We need that money right here on Peabody . . . Stop the partisan bickering.”
Sarlo added: “There are those who say that buying out property (in the flood zone) is the solution. It’s not a solution. Dredge the river.”
But Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, who grew up in Lyndhurst, countered that there is federal money available “that buys out homes” in flood zones, and “we’re absolutely out of our minds if we don’t look at that in Lyndhurst and Bergen County” because “dredging the river is never going to get done. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will take 15 to 20 years to do.”
This, however, prompted Rutherford Ave. resident Kathy Johnson to interject that the construction of the new Rt. 3 bridge between Lyndhurst and Rutherford has interfered with the river’s flow.
“The river’s impeded to the point where it’s dangerous,” said Johnson. “Two-thirds of the river is closed in; only one channel is open.” The construction, she said, “has left all kinds of debris” in the water, including “an outhouse and lumber – huge 4-by-4s – were floating down. There was no place for the water to go, so it came up on the street.”
Donovan said she would follow through with the state Department of Transportation to check on the status of the job.
Giangeruso insisted that “the river must be dredged. I came (to Lyndhurst) in 1947 and I’ve never seen anything like this. These people can’t live through this again. If the river is dredged, there is a possibility that this will never happen again.”
But Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, cautioned that dredging could stir up elements of dioxin, a toxic substance dumped into the river decades ago by a Newark factory, resulting in the lower Passaic being declared a Superfund site. (See related story Firm must pay for Passaic Cleanup.)
“There’s a good chance dioxin is in the flood water, along with bacteria and raw sewage,” Sheehan warned residents who experienced flooding. “You need to be thinking about getting your homes cleaned.”
And, he added, “we need to think about curtailing development along the river. Both sides are bulkheaded, and that makes the water move faster, go where it feels like going.”
That prompted Park Ave. resident Marty Worrall to interject: “Dredge the shipping lane and keep the river open. It’s the only answer and that’s it.”
O’Connor, who tried to serve as a peacemaker among the frustrated residents, observed: “People are scared – and rightfully so – they’re afraid they’re going to become Hoffman Grove in Wayne.” That town tapped FEMA funds to buy out bunches of homes in its riverfront section.
In the meantime, municipal officials in the region are meeting with FEMA agents to begin the process of seeking reimbursement for the storm damage. Home and business owners can also approach FEMA for help, but not before they’ve exhausted private insurance resources, officials said.
Peabody Ave. residents Michael Kolodij and Bill Bernard were among Irene’s flood victims.
“I had 3 feet of water in my living quarters,”Kolodij said.
“All our furniture went in the dumpster.” The onrush of water came so fast and furious it “blew my basement door off the frame,” he said.
Bernard said he “had water up to my windowsills” and “within an hour, I was inundated. I lost my furniture, everything.” Still, he didn’t despair: The Air Force veteran pulled out his aluminum canoe and paddled out 10 trapped neighbors and five dogs.
Court Ave. resident Michael Kovacks said he had 3 feet of water in his backyard and saw his car submerged.
Elsewhere in the region, the storm caused similar havoc.
In Kearny, Irene’s winds upended 50 trees and its 10 inches of rain caused major flooding damage to 40 homes on Devon Terrace and Tappan, Duke and Hoyt Sts., all east of Schuyler Ave., said Police Sgt./OEM Coordinator John Manley.
And, Manley said, the storm dislodged four Forest St. retaining walls, which then toppled down into the backyards of four Davis Ave. homes below. “This damage is in the millions,” Manley said.
Among those Davis Ave. folks victimized was Rita Voci, who remembers being shaken, between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, by what sounded “like a freight train” outside her home.
“My husband Joseph ran to our kitchen window in the rear of the house and saw what happened,” Voci said. Sections of a retaining wall had collapsed and tumbled down onto their garage, crushing it, and shoving the ruins up against their back porch.
“It was just jaw-dropping,” she said. “And very scary – we didn’t know if (the debris) would go into our house.”
No vehicles were in the garage, but a snow blower, lawn mower, gas grill, patio furniture and tools for her husband’s business, all stored there, were ruined, she said.
“Our insurance claim was denied,” said Voci. “We’re overwhelmed.”
The town has advised all eight property owners affected by the landslide to work together to retain an engineer to assess how corrective work should be undertaken, Voci said. “We’ve been told to ‘make the property safe but don’t touch anything until you get one contractor to remove (the debris)’. ’’
FEMA agents have been called in to check the site, she said.
Here are preliminary municipal storm-related expenses (including storm prep work, overtime, debris removal, contractor equipment and labor) from communities in the region: Kearny, $200,000; Nutley, $309,000; Harrison, $200,000; Bloomfield, $165,000.
North Arlington reported $150,000 – plus an estimated $4.8 million in damages to private property.
The private-property damage totals for the other towns were not available.