Lou Szabo’s street near the Raritan River has flooded for as long as he can remember.
“When we were kids, we used to have boat races down the street,” said Szabo, now in his 40s. “We’d jump into inner tubes and race each other down the street, that’s how much it would flood.”
On Wednesday, Szabo watched as his childhood home was demolished as part of New Jersey’s intensifying push to buy houses in flood-prone areas and knock them down. As the second summer after Superstorm Sandy approaches, the goal of the state’s Blue Acres program is to create open space to act as a buffer against future storms and avoid the need for costly repairs on homes that are likely to flood again.
It was a natural decision for Szabo and his mother, who is moving to the Poconos.
“It seems like every year the storms get worse and so does the flooding,” he said. “We had a nor’easter in 2010, Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. My mom lost everything. We went through three sets of washers and dryers. How many times can you keep going through this?”
The $300 million program is for willing sellers only; they are offered the pre-storm value of their homes, and no one who doesn’t want to sell will be forced out. New Jersey plans to acquire and raze 1,300 homes but will only do demolitions in areas where large groups of homes can be bought out and razed. Officials say cherry-picking individual homes in otherwise intact neighborhoods will do little to reduce future flood damage.
The most activity has been in two Middlesex County communities: Sayreville, the childhood home of rocker Jon Bon Jovi, and South River, parts of which were inundated when the Raritan River surged during the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. So far, 193 homeowners have accepted buyout offers in the two towns, with 39 others approved in nearby Woodbridge. The state has targeted 900 homes for buyout offers statewide.
But none of the money so far has gone to the areas hardest hit by Sandy: Monmouth and Ocean counties, where the oceanfront storm surge destroyed thousands of homes and flooded thousands more. While the state has approached some coastal communities, none has indicated a serious interest in participating, said Fawn McGee, who runs the program for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“We’re hoping as people see this program succeeding, that they’ll be interested,” she said.
Szabo’s home in Sayreville took less than five minutes to come down. Another home down the block took slightly longer to demolish. Before they were demolished, only four homes statewide had been razed as part of the post-Sandy buyout program. But 47 homes on that street and another nearby are slated for demolition by the end of June.
The street already looks like a ghost town, with most of the homes vacant, orange spray paint on their vinyl or aluminum siding, and portable fencing keeping them inaccessible. But a handful of holdouts isn’t going anywhere.
“We’re staying put,” said Stan Grabowski, whose house is across the street from Szabo’s on a slightly higher piece of land that kept floodwaters out during Sandy. “The amount of water we got came up to the third step on the porch; I don’t foresee it happening again.”
Grabowski said he and his parents considered the buyout offer but rejected it as insufficient. He also said it won’t bother him to live on a largely depopulated street.
“When my parents first built this house, there was nobody here, either,” he said. “You get used to it.”
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