Flooding leaves damage, anxiety in N.J. capital

Twice in six months, Delaware River, usually tame, has overflowed

April 06, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

TRENTON, N.J. -- The second major flood of the Delaware River in six months has left more than 1,000 residents in New Jersey's capital temporarily homeless, exhausted and demanding answers. In meetings yesterday with city officials at an American Red Cross shelter here, evacuees repeatedly asked, "Why?"

They wanted to know why a waterway that seemed so tame for so long has overflowed its banks twice since September.

No river was affected more by the weekend downpours than the bulging vein of the Delaware that cuts through prime real estate in Trenton, where the Delaware's 25-foot flood crest sent people scurrying Saturday night.

Thousands of residents were evacuated in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania as tributaries swelled. In New Jersey, which was hit hardest, the Delaware River caused most of the damage.

Until recently, the river had been relatively quiet for half a century. A lesser flood caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan in September chased many of the same residents from their homes. Before that, the river had not caused a major flood since 1955, when it crested at a record 28 feet. It also flooded in 1903 and 1904.

Calvin Thomas, a 52-year-old Trenton resident, was evacuated from his brick duplex in September and again over the weekend. During the flooding last fall, he returned home to find 4 feet of water in his basement, enough to cover the water heater. He doesn't know whether there is new damage.

"I would think about moving this time," Thomas said. "But the question now is, who would want to buy my home?"

Richard J. Codey, New Jersey's acting governor, said he expects the flood damage to at least match the $30 million caused in New Jersey by Ivan, and he is requesting that studies be conducted to determine the cause of the Delaware's renewed vigor.

Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, who spent much of yesterday touring the damaged neighborhoods and fielding questions from anxious residents, speculated that construction on major wetlands or runoff from dams north of Trenton might be contributing factors.

He said the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be asked to undertake a feasibility study that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take three years to complete.

"In the meantime, we will try to find some factors that could mitigate the problem," Palmer said. "I don't know yet what those will be."

No river study was requested after the September flood because state officials considered the Delaware's unusual 23-foot crest to be an anomaly caused by the storm. "One time may be a blip, ... but now things are much different," Palmer said. "This was totally unexpected."

Resident Joan Van Gilson was quick to volunteer a suggestion. "Build a wall," she yelled a city officials who had gathered for a public meeting at the Red Cross shelter in Trenton.

Her Trenton community, The Island, was under several feet of water before dry weather helped draw the water back toward the river's banks yesterday.

Over the weekend, about 1,300 people were evacuated from The Island, a tranquil and usually desirable place to live. Of the 3,500 evacuees in New Jersey, two-thirds fled the waters of the Delaware. Others were affected by flooding along the Passaic River in the northeastern part of the state.

One fatality was blamed on the weekend storms when a sport utility vehicle flipped over in rushing floodwaters Saturday in southern New York state. At least two other people in New York were reported missing after a flooded creek swept away a van.

In Trenton, the murky Delaware rose to the front doors of several neighborhoods, and residents who gathered in the gymnasium of a local high school yesterday asked city officials to let them go home.

One woman appeared to speak for the crowd when she raised her hand and said politely, "I need to see, I need to see, and then I will go back to where I am staying. But right now I need to see what has happened. We've all lived through this once already."

Len Pucciati, Trenton's director of inspections, said the city had begun its cleanup, and he promised that 11 teams comprising police officers, firefighters and city health and building inspectors would descend on The Island's many homes no later than tomorrow.

Island resident Carolyn Lewis-Spruill, the city's director of health and human services, told her neighbors that they should expect to move back into their homes Saturday or Sunday.

Before Van Gilson left her three-story house late Saturday, she stacked 20 sandbags around her cellar windows and placed her new Maytag washer and dryer on stacks of cinder blocks. Then she watched as river water seeped through the ground in front of her house, gurgled up through city storm drains, then gushed over the muddy banks.

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