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As seas continue to rise, New Jersey buys residents out of flood zones

Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents live in flood zones that can become inundated with storm water. But the state is trying to move some of them out of harm’s way in one of the biggest home buyout programs in the nation. Newshour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports. This story is part of our ongoing series, “Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.”

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Sea levels will rise between one and four feet by the end of the century. That's according to the National Climate Assessment released last year. That rise — along with damage caused by an increased number of storms and hurricanes — could be catastrophic for people living in flood prone areas — nearly 41 million Americans, by one estimate.

    In New Jersey – close to 700,000 people live in a flood zone. Now the state, as NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports, is involved in trying to move some of those people out of harm's way

    This segment airs as part of our ongoing series on climate change, "Peril and Promise."

  • EVELYN YORK:

    This is the big Woodbridge River here. This is my property.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Before she moved four years ago, 72 year-old Evelyn York spent nearly her entire life in Woodbridge Township, a working class community of about one hundred thousand people in northern New Jersey. A single mother to two children, she owned her home in Woodbridge for nearly 40 years.

    What did that mean to you? To own that home?

  • EVELYN YORK:

    As a single parent since I was 33, you have money to pay your bills. But you really don't have a savings account. So the only thing I had to leave my kid, so I thought, would be my house.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But over the years, what started as a minor nuisance in her neighborhood became a regular hazard: flooding.

  • EVELYN YORK:

    I would always have a bag packed. Always. 'Cause I never knew if I had to leave at a moment's notice to move my car to higher ground. And I did that for years and years and years.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Several rivers run through Woodbridge. Two large ones border the township and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. Climate change has contributed to more frequent and severe storms and subsequent flooding here. About 19% of Woodbridge lies within a FEMA special flood hazard area.

    John McCormac is the mayor of Woodbridge.

  • MAYOR JOHN MCCORMAC:

    We were subject to a lot of tidal flooding. That's a problem without even any rain. You throw rain, you throw hurricanes, you throw these, you know, 100 year storms on top of that. I've been mayor for 12 years and I think I've had five 100 year storms.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Mayor McCormac says that the township asked the federal government for funds to build flood walls, but was ultimately turned down. The Army Corps of Engineers said that new infrastructure was, quote "not practical due to limited cost-effectiveness."

    The height of Woodbridge's flood damage occurred in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy inundated the area with up to twelve and a half feet of water.

    Monique Coleman—a former neighbor of Evelyn York's—remembers Sandy's devastation.

  • MONIQUE COLEMAN:

    It was the same thing over again. You know, we were repeating the cycle of—you know, water just engulfing the whole area, and then leaving in its wake, just devastation out—outside and within.

    You can see how the water just inundates the street…

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Coleman and her neighbors found their home values plummeting while their flood insurance premiums skyrocketed. As they assessed their options, they heard about a state-run program called "Blue Acres".

  • MONIQUE COLEMAN:

    And we found out about that program, and the fact that they were making it available for communities like ours. Immediately, I was like, this is something we need to pursue.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Blue Acres' mission is to buy up houses from homeowners in flood zones, demolish them, and then rezone the land so that nothing else can be built there. It's run by New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.

    Fawn McGee is the program's director.

  • FAWN MCGEE:

    We buy the homes at pre-storm value. It allows folks to sell us their home, take the proceeds of that sale, move to higher ground. We demolish the homes and then open up that are as open space, conservation land—as flood absorption.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    That new open space will help absorb flood waters, which means areas further in will be protected from rising water levels.

    The Blue Acres program also ensures that less state and federal funds will be spent on rescue, clean-up, and rebuilding from future floods.

    Blue Acres originally began in 1995 with a thirty million dollar voter-approved bond. That money was initially used to buy 126 homes in several towns along the Passaic River, about 30 miles north of Woodbridge.

    But after Superstorm Sandy, the program expanded. It's received over $300 million in federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With this funding, the Blue Acres staff has bought 683 properties in towns and cities all over the state. They're hoping to buy 265 more soon.

    McGee says that even if they do buy those houses, there are still thousands of New Jersey homes that are repeatedly flooded.

  • FAWN MCGEE:

    We've got thousands and thousands of people that are on the national flood insurance programs' repetitive loss lis—list, and severe repetitive loss list. So there's—there's more people that we can get to—that are out there in these affected areas.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    McGee says that in order to get the most out of their funding, Blue Acres only does buyouts in areas where multiple homeowners agree to take part. If enough households apply for a buyout, McGee and her staff ask the municipal government's permission to begin working in the community.

    Monique Coleman and others in Woodbridge lobbied their neighbors and the local government to bring the program to the township.

  • MONIQUE COLEMAN:

    We knew that the buyout was really our only way to get out, and also prevent others from having to go through the cycle again.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Coleman also began a grassroots movement to educate her neighbors about the buyout process. But convincing many of them was an uphill struggle.

  • MONIQUE COLEMAN:

    They weren't as in tune with—you know, climate change and sea level rise. The state really wanted to see communities buy in, not just one home here, and another home there. And that meant that we needed everyone else to sort of—or at least most of our neighbors to—to buy in—to the buyout.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Evelyn York didn't want to sell.

  • EVELYN YORK:

    I was totally, totally against it. That's my home. 38 years. Where I raised my kids. I was not going anywhere. Nowhere.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But her thinking changed when she learned that her home's value had nose-dived because of the flooding.

  • EVELYN YORK:

    I called a real estate agent in to get the value of my home. He said, "You better take whatever you can and run."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Over the past six years, 160 Woodbridge homeowners have sold their houses to Blue Acres–the largest concentration of buyouts in the program's history.

    Most of these homes have been demolished, leaving empty patches around the structures that still remain. But even houses outside of Woodbridge's current flood zones are in danger—as flood waters rise due to increased storm activity. So the township has decided to turn the new open space into a natural floodplain, which will absorb future flood waters before they can reach any more homes.

  • MAYOR JOHN MCCORMAC:

    It's a very coordinated, structured approach to restore everything to the right look and the right ecological system. You have to plan it and you have to have the experts who know what they're doing to set the whole thing up.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Woodbridge has partnered with Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, to make the land ecologically suited for flood water storage.

    Dr. Brooke Maslo is a Rutgers ecologist and is heading up the restoration efforts in Woodbridge.

  • BROOKE MASLO:

    We've removed about three acres of roads in this neighborhood. We've—planted about 1,000 native trees and shrubs—which we've also protected from deer. We have installed about three acres of warm season meadow. And we've done quite a bit of invasive species management.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Maslo says that new plantings will help soften the soil so that it can absorb more water. The new trees will also help to physically slow down flood waters, which will help protect, not just the remaining homes in Woodbridge, but surrounding towns and cities as well.

    Not everyone in Woodbridge's flood zones has taken a buyout. One homeowner we spoke with who refused to sell said that Blue Acres simply didn't offer enough money. Others don't want to leave the place they've called "home" for so long.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Some people might look at what Woodbridge is doing and call it retreat. What do you think about that?

  • MAYOR JOHN MCCORMAC:

    I think it's an attack. I mean, we're attacking the problem—and we're making—the quality of life better for the rest of our community—by doing this. The houses that were on the fringe now are in much better shape near the zone than they were before.

  • BROOKE MASLO:

    It is not a defeat. It's—it's a way of adapting. The—the landscape adapts and will continue to adapt and change to—to the climate, and—and how the climate is changing. And—and we as a society have to do the same thing.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Monique Coleman—who now lives ten miles southwest of Woodbridge in Highland Park—says that selling her home to Blue Acres, rather than to another homeowner, was a moral decision as much as a financial one.

  • MONIQUE COLEMAN:

    There is no way that I could ethically—sell the house, knowing that—I would just be perpetuating an ongoing flooding—situation, and putting someone else in that situation. I wouldn't wish that on anybody.

  • EVELYN YORK:

    I love my kitchen and I love the whole house.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Evelyn York now lives ten miles south of Woodbridge in Sayreville, New Jersey in a house her son-in-law restored for her. She says she has no regrets.

  • EVELYN YORK:

    I love the rain now. I love the rain. For 38 years when it rained, I would be upset. I'm looking out the window. Now, when it's raining, I'm so happy. It's like, "Oh good, I'm gonna make a pie. Maybe I'll bake something in the–" I love the rain.

  • Editor’s Note:

    Peril and Promise is an ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, Climate Change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation.

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