Keeping their heads above water

Photo by Ron Leir Rich and Diane Mitchell at their newly raised Riverside Ave. home
Photo by Ron Leir
Rich and Diane Mitchell at their newly raised Riverside Ave. home


Rich and Diane Mitchell live close to the Passaic River in Lyndhurst but please don’t mention water to them. They’ve seen enough up-close to last a lifetime.

The couple has lived through four wicked storms that have attacked their Riverside Ave. home and left them nomads for much of the time.

So much so, in fact, that in order to keep their wits – and furniture – about them, they ended up putting their house up on jacks and raising it more than eight feet to keep out of the flood zone.

And they’re not alone: the owners of some 15 properties spread among Riverside, Peabody and Park Aves. were faced with varying degrees of home hardships due, primarily, to the combined ravages of Hurricane Irene and Super Storm Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Nine homeowners had their foundations compromised so they “couldn’t just repair the concrete,” said township Construction Official Mark Sadonis. Instead, they had to elevate their homes to be out of harm’s way from any future storms.

And that did not come cheap.

In some cases, he said, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) offered an owner $30,000 to raise the house but the job ended up costing twice as much when items like new entrance steps and relocation of utilities, from the basement to the first floor, were included.

“Maybe 10% of the people who got hit by the storms ended up leaving,” he said, either because they were not eligible for federal or state recovery funding or just decided they had had enough.

The Mitchells – Diane is a receptionist/secretary at the Board of Education and Rich is a retired postal employee and township crossing guard – were among those who stuck it out, despite their ordeal.

It started out innocently enough, said Rich. “We bought our house [in the 200 block of Riverside off Tontine Ave.] in 1979 and had no flooding whatsoever.”

None until September 1999 when Hurricane Floyd struck, tore shingles off their roof and dumped 15 inches of water in their living room, ruining their furniture and personal items, and forcing the couple to vacate the property for some time.

That was followed by the Nor’easter in mid-April 2007 that deposited 18 inches of water inside, reaching “just above our [electrical] outlets,” Rich said. This time, they had managed to save their memorabilia and such but not their dining room, Diane recalled.

In October 2011, the family was greeted by Hurricane Irene with 48 inches of water that came up to a level “just below our light switches,” Rich said. After the water was pumped out, the first floor was treated with mold remediation, the couple said.

Then, in October 2012, it was Sandy’s turn. “We got 52 inches,” Rich said, “and this time, the water was just above the light switches.”

“We lost everything,” Diane said. “We started from scratch.”

While accepting invitations to stay with a few different local relatives at varying intervals, Rich, Diane and daughter Kelly hunkered down to research what options to explore to “reassemble” their home.

They concluded they were eligible for a federal grant of up to $150,000 to raise their house under the federally-funded, state-administered Reconstruction Rehabilitation Elevation & Mitigation Program, part of the Sandy recovery effort.

After applying in 2013, the Mitchells were told, initially, they did not meet the qualifications, but six days later, the government reviewers changed their minds, Rich said.

In July 2013, the couple went to the government agency office in Paramus to sign the grant papers. Rich said they ended up going back “four or five times” just to complete the paperwork. That process continued through February 2014 when Rich returned to Paramus to meet with the government-sanctioned general contractor, DSW Homes of Toms River. That, he said, is when he learned, “we had to turn over all of our flood insurance and home insurance covering contents to add to the grant money to cover all the costs of the job.”

Meanwhile, “we still had a mortgage and taxes on the house to pay,” Rich noted, “even though we weren’t living in it.”

The grant contract specified that the job – to be undertaken by the G.C. and sub-contractor Baumgartner Housing Lifting of Egg Harbor – was supposed to take three months, said Rich.

Work began Aug. 15, 2014, and progressed until early November when the job stopped and some supervisory changes occurred,” Rich said. By mid-December, work resumed and in February 2015, the government project manager did a “walk-through” of the now-elevated house with the Mitchells and declared it “livable,” with some “punchlist” items still to be finished, Rich said.

Finally, on May 6, 2015, the Mitchells moved back into their home. Aside from having to deal with two newly installed doors that “stick” when closed and a disputed payment for railings, “we’re pretty much back to normal,” Rich said.

With all the displacements logged due to floods and replacement of walls and floors and roof repairs since 1999, “we’ve been out of our home for almost five and a half years,” he noted. “So, yes, it’s taken a toll but we’ve gotten stronger.”

Has the family regretted making their home here?

“You know,” Rich said, “when we first bought the house, the old-timers living here warned us about this area flooding and we had no problems for 20 years.” And, despite the adversity they’ve faced, the Mitchells are staying put.

“I love this town of Lyndhurst,” said Rich. “I get along with everybody here, from the mayor on down, and I know that if I need help, there’s always someone I can turn to.”

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