When the remnants of Hurricane Ida barreled across New Jersey, Maryann Morris had just started to settle into her newly purchased home on a quiet residential block in Manville.
Less than a year after she moved in with her 7-year-old daughter, Ida’s flood waters inundated her basement and sloshed up another four feet on the first floor.
“There were still my daughter’s baby blankets and stuff from the hospital when she was born,” Morris, 43, said. “There were presents down there that she hadn't gotten to open from her birthday.”
Seven months after the storm, Morris and her daughter, Ember, are still living in a nearby rented apartment as they wait to settle an insurance dispute and receive a government loan to start construction. Morris said her insurance company agreed to cover part of the repairs but it isn’t cooperating with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which will make up the rest.
“I have run out of ways to answer my daughter about when we're going home,” Morris said. “Because I don't even know.”
The recovery for Morris has been slow; the inside of her house is completely gutted. But even when she returns home, she’ll have to decide whether it’s safe enough to stay. She’s one of 200 home and business owners in Manville who received letters from the Somerset County borough telling them they have to elevate their properties or sell to the state’s buyout program, known as Blue Acres.
It’s a dilemma many more homeowners across New Jersey will face as storms worsen with climate change. Federal and state officials are launching new initiatives to proactively target flood-prone homes and find long-term solutions before a disaster strikes.
“Most of these [places] have flooded six or eight times, if not more, in the past. So what are we doing here?” said Cleighton Smith, Manville’s floodplain manager. “We can't just let this happen again and again.”
He said requirements from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency mandate the town inspect buildings in flood zones. About 200 (6% of the town’s buildings) suffered damages to more than half the value of the property, which means any construction on them is considered new and has to be built up to code. Smith said residents can get permits to restore their homes but a final certificate of occupancy — which deems a unit legally habitable — won’t be issued unless a home has been elevated.
“It ends the cycle of: flood, rebuild, flood. We want to break that cycle,” Smith said.
Danielle Matthews, 33, finally returned to her Manville home on Wednesday after months of staying with a friend. Her home in the ominously-named Lost Valley section of town, which sits mostly in the floodplain, was severely damaged and had to be rebuilt.
“It's almost like a new house,” she said.
But Matthews said she doesn’t plan to stay there long. She’s going to apply to the Blue Acres program — which purchases flood-prone properties and demolishes any structures so the land can absorb flood waters — and find a home more inland.
“While we do love it here, lifting the home – it's a little crazy,” she said. “A lot of the houses around us are being demolished. The ones across the street are slated to be taken down and we're the last house on this block now.”
Lifting a home can cost more than $100,000. It’s a cost not many can afford. Smith said the town is applying for federal grant programs to reimburse residents for lifting their homes but that hasn’t been approved yet.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said federal disaster relief money from Ida is starting to trickle in, which will mean help for homeowners like Morris. He said the Blue Acres program will start to help Ida victims in the coming weeks.
“The reason that the folks in Manville have not seen the influx of buyouts yet is because the federal dollars haven't been allocated,” LaTourette said. “We just received the indication of what federal dollars New Jersey will get this very week.”.
He said 250 homeowners have applied to Blue Acres since Ida. LaTourette said he’s also redesigning the program to be more proactive and offer opportunities for homeowners before more major disasters hit the state.
“It's necessary to provide the vehicle for folks to get out of harm's way after they've been harmed over and over again,” he said.
“It is also necessary to establish a climate resilience identity that is more forward-looking and that we're not just looking at properties that have been repeatedly damaged, but those that can foreseeably be damaged because the truth is our floodplains are much bigger than they are currently identified on any FEMA map.”
Most of Manville’s Lost Valley neighborhood, a working-class section of the borough, is in a flood zone. It’s bordered by the Raritan River in the north and the Millstone River in the east. Officials say Ida flooded more than 500 buildings in town. While some residents are back on their feet, others haven’t returned and their homes sit empty and gutted.
Manville’s Borough Administrator Gian-Paolo Caminiti said the borough hasn’t seen much federal help.
“We have the greatest sympathy for our residents, it was a horrifying event, it was biblical,” he said. He said he’s still waiting for the help President Joe Biden promised when he toured the area after Ida.
Morris, a business analytics manager, said she wants local, state and federal officials to do more to help residents who are still struggling. Relief needs to come sooner, especially for those who can’t afford to front the repairs and flood mitigation needed on their homes.
“What a lot of the homeowners are looking to do is to lift and be safe and to stay,” she said. “But as each day goes by, each week goes by, each month goes by, that hope fades.”