A decade after Sandy, devastated Meadowlands towns still adding defenses, still vulnerable
Joy Ortiz remembers looking out the window of her Little Ferry home a decade ago at some light rain and a few trees down and thinking perhaps the worst of the storm had passed. Then in a matter of minutes, a storm surge that overwhelmed the Meadowlands’ flood control systems brought water nearly up to the second floor.
When they lost power, she and her father yelled for help from the third floor — and were rescued from their house on Pickens Street by a neighbor paddling a boat. The home was badly damaged, the family lost four cars, and the inventory of her fledgling food business was flooded out.
“What I left that house in was all I had,” she recalled. “We had to start over with everything.”
Superstorm Sandy knocked out power and downed trees across North Jersey in 2012. But the storm wreaked particular havoc in the Meadowlands region, where a massive storm surge pushed a deluge of water from the Hackensack River into streets and homes.
Thousands of people were evacuated, and houses, businesses and cars were severely damaged. People spent the days and weeks after cleaning out waterlogged furniture and debris, and months — even years — rebuilding their homes.
‘Longest night of my life’
Mauro Raguseo, Little Ferry’s mayor since 2008, was at borough hall the evening of Oct. 29 helping manage the borough’s storm response when calls started coming in from people inundated with water. A shelter had been set up at St. Margaret of Cortona Church, but that also became flooded. Raguseo’s wife called to tell him that the home the newlywed couple had bought just eight months before was also flooded.
“My wife said she was putting down towels and the towels were just floating away,” he said. “Everywhere it was the same situation — water coming into first floors and basements. It took over 70% of the town. At the police department, phones were ringing off the hook. It was probably the longest night of my life.”
When it was safe for people to return home, a massive cleanup project began. Tow trucks hauled flood-damaged cars away. The streets were like canyons as residents piled everything they owned — clothes, furniture, cherished family mementos — out on the curb, Raguseo said. The residents who were on higher ground came to the aid of their neighbors and donations poured in to help people clean up and rebuild.
In the decade since Sandy, infrastructure improvements have made the borough more resilient, Raguseo said. The state installed a pump station near the old Rt. 46 traffic circle, which would flood even in light rains. A generator was added at the Willow Lake pump station, and another generator was installed at borough hall, which was the hub of storm response but lost power during Sandy.
The borough acquired boats and trucks that can fit 20 people in the back in case residents ever have to evacuate again, and extra generators to help people pump water from their homes. Each time a road is repaved, or a new development is built, drainage issues are addressed, Raguseo said.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to be as vocal as I can that we need the resources to deal with ocean surges — the whole state needs to deal with that, not just our community,” he said.
Shoring up defenses, but area remains vulnerable
Much work has been done in the years since to shore up the Meadowlands region’s defenses against similar storms, but experts say the low lying, densely populated area remains vulnerable, particularly in the face of a changing climate.
The Rebuild by Design Meadowlands project, an initiative of the state Department of Environmental Protection, was created after Sandy to improve flood resiliency in the hard-hit towns of Carlstadt, Little Ferry, Moonachie, South Hackensack and Teterboro.
The initial cost estimate for the project, which would have involved surrounding 14 towns with earthen walls called berms, adding a transportation system and building millions of square feet of commercial and industrial space, was well over $1 billion. The project was eventually pared down after a feasibility study was completed to a much less ambitious plan that fit into the $150 million awarded by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development in 2014.
Photo of the generator that they installed after Sandy, photographed at Borough Hall in Little Ferry, Wednesday on 10/26/22
The first phase of the project, a pump station on Liberty Street in Little Ferry that will remove excess water during heavy rain and floods, will be completed next year.
Construction contracts for another pump station and improving the East Riser Ditch in Carlstadt and Moonachie by widening and deepening its banks to collect road runoff and planting vegetation along its edge, is expected to be awarded in 2023, said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
Other improvements and additions of public parks and planting trees and vegetation are in the design phase, he said.
The DEP also awarded Little Ferry a $900,000 grant to install a trash rake and conveyer system to collect debris at the Losen Slote Tide Gate, to ensure the pumping system keeps working during floods.
Flood gates to block storm surge
The Rebuild by Design plan would add capacity at the bottom of the watersheds and allow future projects to build off the improvements, but more will eventually have to be done to address the region’s flood risk, Hajna said in an email.
“While the Rebuild by Design Meadowlands project will improve recovery time by evacuating floodwaters after the next Sandy event, it will not provide protection from storm surges,” he wrote.
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a plan that would involve building a 1,900-foot gate and a series of flood walls and berms along the Hackensack and Passaic rivers to protect the region from a tidal surge. Funding for the plan, part of a $52 billion proposal by the Corps to protect the metropolitan region from a Superstorm Sandy-like weather event, has yet to be secured from Congress, and construction would not begin until 2030.
But environmental groups and some local officials have criticized the plan, which they say would just push a storm surge to other communities along the river and damage the area’s ecology.
“I don’t want to see construction along the riverbanks. There should be nothing to impede the water cycle,” said Bill Sheehan, executive director of the Hackensack Riverkeeper advocacy group. “One of our biggest assets is the tide’s ability to push some stuff out of the river. Gates will back pollution up into people’s homes.”
The most effective protection against flooding would be to return some of the Meadowlands back to nature, Sheehan said.
“The wetlands provide billions of gallons of flood water storage,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing they do for communities, and it’s always discounted. They are our best defense against flooding.”
‘One of the scariest things I’ve ever lived through’
Roberta Henriquez, a Little Ferry councilwoman when Sandy hit, had just rebuilt the ground floor apartment of her home after 10 inches of flooding from Hurricane Irene.
Henriquez knew she might get some water from Sandy. Her niece had come over earlier that day to put plastic on the inside of the doors to try and keep it out. They had put some of their furniture, much of which had been recently replaced, on risers to protect against any water that might get in.
But Henriquez was unprepared to see the water rushing from the yard into her home with a ferocity she had never seen.
“It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever lived through,” she said. “We rushed to go upstairs and didn’t even make it to the first step when water started coming in through the sides of the doors. By the time we got to the top where our bedroom was, we had 4 feet of water.”
She heard a bang, and saw her refrigerator and furniture floating.
Henriquez, her husband and her two sisters stayed in the home until they could be evacuated to a shelter in Teterboro the next day. She stayed with her niece in River Edge for several weeks until she could return safely home but came to Little Ferry every day to talk to neighbors and help with the cleanup.
Because her ground floor apartment was a 2-inch step down from the rest of the house, the insurance company considered it a basement and paid only about $35,000 of the $100,000 it would take to replace the kitchen and living room furniture and repair the damaged home. Henriquez lost old family photos and Christmas ornaments passed down from her mother and grandmother, but she didn’t want to leave the town she grew up in. She finally moved to Metuchen in 2017 when stairs became difficult for her and her husband to manage.
“I love Little Ferry. I wouldn’t have left at all, but my husband couldn’t do the stairs anymore,” she said. “But you’re never the same after having been through something like that. It was our third flood. You see a storm is coming and you know it might affect you.”
Fish swimming down the street
Don Torino remembers carrying his two dogs out of his home at Metropolitan Mobile Home Park in Moonachie as the water reached chest high. He and his wife balanced their dogs on pieces of Styrofoam or wood they found floating down the street as they made their way together to higher ground.
“It was pretty scary,” said Torino, who has lived in the community since he was 12. “Years ago, you got evacuated, you could walk right out. Some nor’easters people did have to use a boat to get out, but this was different. The water came up so fast. All of a sudden it was coming in the door and up through the floors.”
When Torino returned home, he found fish swimming on his street. Some neighbors rebuilt their homes with the help of FEMA money, raising them higher. Other neighbors he never saw again.
“They just packed up and left. Some people couldn’t afford it, or didn’t want to take the risk anymore,” he said. “I think in some ways, people are still rebuilding.”
Superstorm Sandy took an unusual path that pushed a tremendous amount of water into New York Harbor and ultimately the Meadowlands, right when the tide was at its highest, said Anthony Broccoli, the co-director of the Rutgers Climate Institute at Rutgers University. As the climate changes, Sandy-like flooding will likely become more common, he said.
“The flooding the storm produced in 2012 was greater than it would have been if it happened 100 years ago, because of the rise in sea level as a result of climate change,” he said. “If we fast forward to 2050, it won’t take a storm as unusual as Sandy to produce that level of flooding. What was for everyone living in the area a once-in-a-lifetime experience, may not be all that rare in the future.”
Ortiz, who endured four floods before Sandy, said the devastation wrought 10 years ago is something she hopes to never see again. The 47-year-old Little Ferry native rebuilt her home with the help of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Bergen County.
“It was a nightmare I wouldn’t wish upon anybody,” she said. “Every time it happens you lose a little more. But my roots are here. I grew up here.
“You can walk away, but my memories of my father are in this house,” she said. “You’re walking away from everything you’ve had here.”