In a hot and overcrowded room, the Millburn Township’s Irene subcommittee met with residents, mostly of the area, on Wednesday night to gather information about everything from the to the river overflowing its banks, to the residual effects of the flooding including contamination and the new mosquito breeding ground the area has become.
At the first of the township's subcommittee meetings, engineers who helped the town with its flooding remediation after Hurricane Floyd discussed short, medium and long-range possible plans as well as action residents and the township can take to help prevent flooding in the future – unless there’s another .
Both town representatives and the engineers stressed that there is nothing the township can do to protect the neighborhood in the event of a storm the size Irene, which surpassed Hurricane Floyd as a the “record storm” with 8.92 inches of rain and 8,620 cubic feet per second (CFS) flowing through the Rahway at its peak. (In Floyd, said engineer Leo Coakley, that number at its peak was 7,990 cubic feet per second.)
The 100-year rainfall amount is 8.5 inches in a 24-hour period, said Coakley, who works with the firm Hatch Mott MacDonald and worked on the fixes for Millburn after Hurricane Floyd.
“By the time Irene got here the ground was already completely saturated. We got more run off than we would have if we had not had the rain that preceded it,” Coakley said.
Said Mayor Sandy Haimoff: “There’s nothing that can be done if you get a catastrophic event like this. Nothing we do now will prevent flooding in a situation like Irene.”
Township Committee member Jim Suell, who is leading the subcommittee, said the township is looking at ways to prevent flooding other bad storms that don’t reach that level and looking for information from residents to help them figure out exactly what happened and what needs to be done.
The engineers suggested that short term, the town can do a few things:
- Start work on local drainage improvements, getting easements for residents to replace an 8-inch pipe with a 24-inch pipe and address groundwater issues and sanitary sewer issues.
- Look into to why New Jersey American Water Company doesn’t seem to routinely pump like the former water company – Elizabethtown Water, did.
- Put a bigger pump station at Gilbert Place and Horan Circle.
- Talk with the Joint Meeting of Essex & Union Counties about improving the sanitary sewer infrastructure and find out exactly which part of it is Joint Meeting’s responsibility and which falls to the township.
Medium range actions the town could take include working with Essex County, Union County and the state to make improvements to the Morris Avenue Bridge, and look into the state de-silting of the Rahway at I-78.
Talk with other jurisdictions about offsetting operating the containment ponds on the reservation differently.
Suggestions for long-range plans include a comprehensive study of the Rahway River Basin by Essex and Union Counties and coordinate with Union County improvements.
“When you involve other counties,” said Suell, “it becomes a trickier issue.”
Residents want Millburn officials to start work now toward fixing the problems, namely the overflowing sanitary sewage, the drains that allow water into the storm sewer and the river overflowing its walls.
Two and half weeks into the residents are also extremely concerned about the fact that nothing has been done to de-contaminate the streets, yards and the playground at , all of which were awash in sewage water.
On the Ridgewood Road, residents said the river was not the problem. Before the river rushed over the retaining walls, the sanitary sewer and the storm sewer were exploding with geyser-like force, popping manhole covers off the street and filling the neighborhood with sewage.
When the water finally receded, yards and basements had human feces, sanitary napkins and other waste in them.
“The problem is not with the wall,” said Matthew Lipp, who lives on Ridgewood Road and said he was waste-deep in sewage before the river flooded. “The problem is with the sewer system. Besides destroying our homes, this has exposed us to contamination and posed a health hazard in our neighborhood.”
The contamination issue remains a major concern for residents.
“I asked this last week and I need an answer on this – when is it safe for the children to go back into our yards?” asked Greenwood resident Andrew Fingerman. “Someone from the township needs to go out this week and test the soil and tell us if it’s safe.”
Suell and Haimoff told the crowd that the town’s health officer has said that owners are responsible for cleaning their property and that the town will put that information on how to do that on the town’s website.
In short, manmade areas should be cleaned with a bleach-and-water mixture and residents should call an environmental waste clean-up company for natural surfaces.
The school grounds and playground are the responsibility of the Millburn School District to clean up, they said.
“The school district doesn’t have a health officer,” Fingerman said. “You are my advocate. I need you to do something.”
“This is a safety issue for everyone,” said Yi He, also of Greenwood Drive, who lost two cars and the contents of her garage and basement in the flood.
Residents collectively told Suell and Haimoff that if they clean their own yards, their kids are still walking to school on town streets and getting to school where everyone else could contaminate them.
In addition, since Irene, some backyards in the area still have standing water, which has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
“We cannot go outside without getting at least eight to mosquito bites,” said Sheryl Cohen of Greenwood Drive. “I’m concerned about West Nile.”
Many residents in the neighborhood don’t have flood insurance because they were told they didn’t need it. And they wanted to know if they are in a flood zone.
“When I bought my house, I was told I am not in a flood zone,” said one resident. “How am I not in a flood zone? How does that make any sense?”
Suell told residents they could find out by checking with the latest information from FEMA. Coakely said one way to do that is to go to Google Earth and use an overlay of FEMA’s flood zone maps.
“You can see exactly whether your house is in a flood zone or not,” he said.
Some residents said they are uncomfortable with the same firm that made the fixes after Floyd, which didn’t hold up to Irene, working on a new set of fixes and that the town should seek another opinion.
At the same time, residents fear that the process is going to take too long – with too many meetings and what they want is some relief now, before there’s another 100-year storm, since there already were two in 12 years.
Haimoff told residents the township will work as fast as possible. “We put this meeting together a week ahead of schedule,” she said. “We are doing everything we can.”
Former Mayer Dan Baer, who lives in the neighborhood but did not get the same amount of flooding that some of his neighbors experienced, said he thought it would be helpful if the township put all the past engineering reports online or on a disk or offered to let residents review them somehow.
“My neighbors need more information about what happened during this catastrophe,” he said.
Another resident suggested that the township subcommittee enlist the help of residents, in gathering and disseminating information.
“It would make it less overwhelming for you and less for the residents,” said Carol Kirsch.
Suell said he welcomed residents’ help.
Afterward, residents whose homes were flooded but weren't in the designated flood areas on the old map the engineers were using, asked that the maps be updated.
"Don't forget about us," Sheryl Cohen said.
The township has set up an email specifically for residents who have information, pictures or video that they want to share with the subcommittee: firstname.lastname@example.org. Patch is also happy to run them. Feel free to upload them here.