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Residents Want Answers to Flooding; Worry About Rain

Township Committee sets up subcommittee to review infrastructure and other challenges during the storm.

Updated; 12:40 p.m. See editor's note at the end.

While rain fell all day and evening, residents in neighborhoods hit particularly hard by flooding during Hurricane Irene, waited, watched and worried.

Some took a break to attend the Township Committee meeting Tuesday night to seek a special town hall meeting so residents can find out why their homes flooded and what’s going to be done to prevent it from happening again.

“We want to be reassured, and even proud that, we have a local government willing to take swift and immediate action to investigate the persistent flooding problems,” said South Mountain resident Andrew Fingerman, who surveyed his neighbors to bring their concerns to to Town Hall.

The Township Committee created a subcommittee to address the flooding and all the other issues associated with the storm that left the town without water and thousands of residents without power for the better part of a week.

Mayor Sandy Haimoff said the subcommittee will meet with various departments and review challenges during Irene to better meet these challenges in the future. It will also take a look at infrastructure improvements and meet with representatives of neighboring municipalities, as well as state and county officials. 

“The problem with a river is what happens up stream affects what happens downstream,” she said.

Residents in South Mountain neighborhood and on Rector Street near downtown said the water was rising again and they were afraid if keeps up they’ll flood a second time in little more than a week.

“There’s water coming in my basement now,” said Fingerman, who lives on Greenwood, one of the harder hit streets in the South Mountain area.

Residents praised the police, fire, sanitation and public works department for their hard work during the hurricane and its aftermath, but took the committee to task for lack of communication.

The township and residents agreed that JCP&L’s handling of the power outages “a disaster” and that the company needs to be held accountable.

Millburn Police Lt. Peter Eakley of Millburn’s Office of Emergency gave the committee a run down of what happened in the township before, during after the hurricane. 

"We did every possible action to prepare for this storm," said Eakley, who had repeatedly told residents through reverse 911 and the media to prepare for the worst.

Millburn and Short Hills received nine inches of rain in that 24-hour period, Eakley said.

During the last week, police answered 281 calls for assistance,  the fire department responded to 500 calls and the Public Works Department cleaned debris, cleared streets of mud and silt.

The Office of Emergency Management sent out 15 to 16 reverse 911 calls, sent out two dozen press releases.

Eakley said water flowed over the walls protecting the South Mountain neighborhood that were designed for a 50-year storm but not designed for a 100-year storm, which could describe Irene, he said.

“The town performed very well under difficult circumstances,” Eakley said.

Some residents wondered how nine inches of rain could turn into six feet of water in their basements.

Residents in both the South Mountain area and Rector Street said water rose so quickly, they were convinced something happened like a breach in the wall, a broken dam somewhere or an explosion in the sewer pipes.

Residents on Greenwood and nearby streets along the rain had made only puddles in their back yards around 7:30 a.m. Sunday and a couple of hours later water had filled their basements.

“The flood line is the same as the flood line during Hurricane Floyd,” said Sara Sherman, who after Hurricane Floyd went in with a neighbor and purchased a pump together for their backyards. "It's Floyd revisited."

Residents on Rector, which is near the other branch of the Rahway near Taylor Park, said the same thing happened to them but much earlier in the morning. Their driveways slope toward their homes and before they knew it, the cars in the driveways were submerged.

Another issue for residents was that many had water overflowing from their toilets and sinks and sewer lines. Manholes to the sewer system popped up off the street.

Sewage water was waist high on Ridgewood at Gilbert Place and in other places in the area.

“We’ve brought in people to clean our houses with chemicals with anti-microbial so no one gets sick,“ Fingerman said. "If the large pools of water across our backyards also contained sewage, when is it safe for our children to once again play in grass?  Will the town provide some testing of our soils to address this issue?"

The sewer system is old and easily overwhelmed, said Town Engineer Thomas Watkinson. Even if the township replaced its pipes, there would still be those leading from the homes to the system, he said.

Fingerman said residents are most concerned about what can be done for both the River flooding and the sewage back up. But they also want the township to addresss drainage, flood zones, trimming trees near power lines and better advocacy by the township committee.

"We want to know if this response is typical of what we should expect from our leadership," Fingerman said. "What are the town's standard operating procedures fr visiting community members in crisis? How do Millburn officials mobilize support at the state and federal levely in an emergency?"

Mayor Haimoff said she was on the phone to the governor and other elected officials right away. But that when it came to the power company, no one could get through.

The next meeting of the Township Committee is Sept. 20. Meanwhile when the subcommittee comes up with a date when people from various departments can be on hand to answer questions, they will announce a public meeting as soon as possible, Haimoff said.

Editor's note: The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a real-time flood stage chart the Rahway River at the spot where it meets Millburn Avenue. It states that flood stage is 6.5 feet and shows that at the height of Irene, the river was almost 10 feet. Click here to go to the USGS website and view the chart.

Larry D. September 07, 2011 at 01:00 PM
RIvers flood, that's what they do. If you build a wall to prevent flooding in Town A, the extra volume goes to Town B, and so on. Mayor Sandy Haimoff said ..."The problem with a river is what happens up stream affects what happens downstream" When it comes to rivers, you have three choices... 1-Don't live too close to one 2-Build a really high wall and let the folks in the next town downstream deal with the problem 3-Buy pumps, wet vacs and generators to clean up after the flood Rivers flood, maybe every 10 years, maybe every 50 years, who knows, but they flood
Barbara Russo September 07, 2011 at 01:59 PM
I can't believe the sentence from the story: "Some residents wondered how nine inches of rain could turn into six feet of water in their basements." DUHH!!! Larry is 100% correct in his comments. A force called gravity causes water to flow downhill and fill spaces in it's path - even basements. Concrete is porous and in older homes, water will eventually seep through to a basement. Buying a home on a flood plain or close to the ocean is asking for big trouble sooner or later - but flooding WILL happen.
laura September 07, 2011 at 02:15 PM
First of all, South Mountain is not zoned as a flood plain. Maybe it should be--which raises other issues. Second, on Greenwood we were flooded long before the river overflowed the wall. This appears to be a problem with seepage and drainage. We were lulled into thinking that fixing the wall after Flloyd would solve the problems. It did not. OTHER DIFFERENT problems remain unadressed.
Steven September 07, 2011 at 02:22 PM
Barbara clearly had no water in her house. It is hard to believe how insensitive her comments are to the many people who had devastating losses from this flood. My house is in the 500 year flood zone, and I had water in my house. Again. I was not nearly as hard hit as those around the corner on greenwood, locust and ridgewood. But since we have now had two 100 year floods in a 12 year space of time, both of which caused some flooding in the 500 year flood zones, it is hard to understand why we spent millions of dollars on flood walls and a damn that are not intended to be helpful in storms like this one.
Barbara Russo September 07, 2011 at 02:37 PM
I didn't have water in my house because I have French drains and a pump with a back up power supply in my basement. Sorry, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how 9 inches of rain can turn into 6 ft. of water in a basement. NJ is the most densely populated state in the nation. Natural geology and landscape was destroyed and flood plains filled in to build homes. All the water is running off and wasted. Not enough reservoirs to hold it, but reservoirs don't pay taxes. I AM sensitive to people and hardships, but I DO have the science and environmental knowledge to see what's happening and why. Building walls is about as effective as sticking a finger into a hole in a cracked dam.
david adelman September 07, 2011 at 03:03 PM
"Rivers Flood" is a grossly uninformed explanation for the fountains of raw sewage that were erupting from every manhole cover at Ridgewood Road and Locust Avenue. The sewage overflow was going on for more than 12 hours before the river crested Sunday morning, sending oceans of human excrement up our yards and into our basements. BTW, it doesn't take a 100 year flood to inundate our ancient sewer system and cause it to fail--this happens every 2-3 years, a fact which the town and DPW are well aware. All it takes is a good 6 inch Nor'Easter and the sewage starts flowing up our yards and into our houses. Fixing the river wall is a good start and highly welcome, but improving the sewers is a moral imperative. Today, children are walking to South Mountain school through streets and sidewalks that still are covered with raw sewage, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
PO'd At Millburn September 07, 2011 at 03:57 PM
How come no one is asking about the raw sewage issues in basements and streets in the Ridgewood, Cypress, Milton, and Oakdale sections? Who is responsible for the sewer pipe leading into a home blowing and filling the basement with 4-5 feet of raw sewage? Not homeowners insurance, not Millburn Township. Guess it's all left to the residents. Why is just the South Mountain and Rector St. areas discussed? Everyone who had sewage spewing into yards, streets, and homes should be included.
david adelman September 07, 2011 at 04:01 PM
I have a sump pump, a battery back up sump pump, a french drain in my basement, another one in my yard, and two layers of backflow protection on my sewer lateral. None of these expensive protections that I've installed could handle the massive inflow of RAW SEWAGE erupting from the manhole covers on Ridgewood Road. River wall or no river wall, our crumbling sewer infrastructure must be improved. And like it or not, they will have to be paid for. This is exactly what taxes and governments are for.
Laura Griffin September 07, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Those discussing the flooding and sewage last night were from those neighborhoods but the meetings will be open to all residents to discuss all areas of concern with regard to this hurricane and the aftermath.
Damian September 07, 2011 at 06:25 PM
I was out of town, but judging by the buckling of the pavement at Church/Main I'm assuming the community garden was inudated with polluted water. The community garden in South Orange had similar flooding, and their town Health Officer declared the produce unfit to eat. Was the state of our community garden mentioned at the meeting?
Marty Wilson September 07, 2011 at 06:54 PM
a 100 year flood plain or 500 year flood plain could have floods could happen more frequently than once every 100 or 500 years. Even if the distribution of floods were normal, the probabilities have an error margin. In this case, it is possible that 100/500 year flood plains are calculated using normal distributions when in fact they have fat tails and if you thought you are living in a 500 year flood plain, you ain't. Chalk it up to the innumeracy of our society, even though we have a great school system !!! I don't think her comments were insensitive, they were a dose of realism. people have come to expect the government to protect them at every turn, but mama nature doesn't play by those rules. It does suck if you had water in your house though, you are not alone in having that outcome.
Really People September 07, 2011 at 08:54 PM
From everything I hear, our township has an absolutely antiquated infrastructure that needs to be addressed. Rather than vanity projects like a parking deck that could potentially benefit a handful of commuters, this town really needs to map out a strategic plan. It seems that the town's agenda is continually comprised of ad hoc cherry-picked projects without mapping out a universal list of needs. Where is the strategic plan that prioritizes township resources to prevent the damage & loss of personal & commercial property in relation to building a parking deck and fighting over speed bumps?
Millers'79 September 07, 2011 at 11:48 PM
I would not eat the produce in the town garden if polluted water was in fact an issue. I hope the radishes are ok however. FEMA should jump on that one.
nm September 08, 2011 at 12:11 AM
The flooding is a serious issue, but clearly not the only issue that needs to be addressed. Whatever preparation and communication plans that were in place, were ineffective. For the local government to think they can rely on reverse 911, and the "media" when so many in the community were without electricity to watch tv, charge their cell phones /laptops or to keep their FiOS telephones going is like Marie Antoinette telling her subjects to eat cake. Clearly there is no coordinated plan regarding where people can go in emergencies to obtain electricity, store medications that require refridgeration, take a warm shower before going to work, stay warm/cool during the day&night, or get a much needed hot meal. We were very fortunate that this happened during a time when the temperatures were moderate, and that we still had a great deal of daylight. It would also seem to me that the town has no working relationship with JCP&L. I would have hoped that the town was reviewing and signing off on emergency recovery plans with our public utilities at least twice a year. If the utilities were uncooperative in those types of efforts, the residents should have been notified and we should have sought to have for our legislators/Board of Public Utillities to pass appropriate regulations. The same is true for the flooding issues. How frequently are engineers coming in and inspecting the walls? Technology has greatly expanded since Floyd. Where are the latest engineering studies?
SHMill September 08, 2011 at 11:38 AM
@Barbara Russo-you clearly do not live in the area hardest hit and I don't think it is too much to ask of the town to be held accountable for promises made regarding a wall that did not do its job. Supposedly, the water line was no higher than Floyd which makes it clear that the problem was not fixed by the solution that was paid for by the community. Not unreasonable for residents to challenge the promises made by TC who in turn should challenge the engineers and consultants that WE paid for as to why their calculations failed our residents. The fact remains, these residents do not live in a designated flood plain and should not have to live as if they do. And I'm sorry, but raw sewage issues are unacceptable and need to be fixed as a TC priority one. We all must live with the inevitable-as my contractor puts it, it's not if your basement will get water, it's when, but this shouldn't have to be an issue of this magnitude for these residents this frequently. Barabara, consider yourself VERY fortunate. Depending on development in your area you might begin to have problems in spite of your efforts, as many homes in my area have experienced this firsthand as a result of other "miscalculations" from our town engineers.
Susan1 September 08, 2011 at 12:18 PM
+ 1
Damian September 08, 2011 at 12:55 PM
In this thread people downriver of Millburn mention a pump designed to help the water flow downstream didn't turn on-is this true? I haven't seen a mention of that here. http://forum.maplewoodonline.com/vc/discussion/73322/vauxhall-franklin-street-destroyed/p1
KLF September 08, 2011 at 01:41 PM
I would look at it a different way. To say, "these residents do not live in a designated flood plain" is looking at it backwards. The area SHOULD be designated as a flood zone. That's the problem -- they removed the flood zone designation after the wall and the pump (which did not engage that night, by the way) were built. No matter what remedies are put in place, it is STILL a flood plain! The back of the neighborhood, Oval Rd. and Haran Circle, were built on wetlands. And I believe the building of Rt. 78 in the 1970s contributed to the problem as well. Perhaps the recent building of the Target shopping center where there used to be a giant driving range also contributed. Removing the flood zone designation was an excuse for the Township Committee and other local officials to simply wash their hands of the problem.
Barbara Russo September 08, 2011 at 02:33 PM
I DO live in a flood area, and yes, I WAS lucky this time. Unfortunately, there WILL be a next time... The town is obviously more concerned about parking garages that cater to a few commuters, pedestrian walkways, etc. The REAL issues are swept under the rug like the antiquated sewer system. KLF is right on. Just because it isn't "designated" a flood plain by politicians and builders doesn't mean that it ISN'T a flood plain! Water moves downhill above ground - as well as underground. Ever drive on Rt. 23 S. from Sussex County, or even to town from W.Orange? It's ALL downhill! Walls won't help. This morning it wasn't raining as I walked my little one to school. When we passed a sewer, it sounded like Niagara Falls down there. Add all the water to the sewage and something's gotta give. Manholes will pop and out it comes. Horrible? yes. Should it happen if the sewer system was designed to handle it? No. I am not insensitive. I am trying to separate my emotions from logic and facts in dealing with OUR crisis.
Larry D. September 08, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Slightly off topic, but categorizing the parking garage as "catering to a few commuters" is a bit of an exaggeration. The town benefited significantly from the creation of the Midtown Direct. While impossible to quantify, the value of all of our homes has most probably grown as a result of the town being a convenient place for commuters. Commuting effects everyone in our town and is very important. I don't know the economics, but parking for commuting brings in a lot of revenue to the town. Adding more spaces adds more revenue, no? Alleviating the the parking situation and enhancing the downtown area might not appeal to folks carrying their basement carpeting to the curb, but it's not a frivolous expenditure. In fact, in terms of the greater good for the town, it probably benefits far more people than redoing a sewage line in one or two blocks or in a neighborhood. This isn't an attempt to trivialize the South Mountain situation, but rather to point out that it's easy to say "hey, what about us!" when someone sees a town project that don't directly benefit them.
Barbara Russo September 08, 2011 at 03:55 PM
Not to change the subject, but look what corrupt NJ politicians did to the Meadowlands. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jersey_Meadowlands ) Read, learn, and apply it to Millburn and most towns in this country. A State out west developed land and built a town on grounds where rattlesnakes gathered to mate. People demanded the snakes be killed because it wasn't safe for their children to play outside, etc. Soon the town became infested with vermin because the rattlesnakes weren't around to eat them anymore. We haven't learned to leave Mother Nature alone - she will win every time.
Marty Wilson September 08, 2011 at 04:37 PM
Barbara Russo for town council!!
Stewart Glickman September 08, 2011 at 04:56 PM
The Township needs to get in contact with South Mountain school so that one of them can change their schedule. As it stands now, the South Mountain Elementary school's "Back to School Night" is on Tuesday September 20. Same night as the Township meeting. If South Mountain residents with kids in the K-5 range want to discuss ways to mitigate future flood risk, they are basically being forced to choose between attending that Township meeting OR going to meet their kids' teachers. One meeting ought to be rescheduled.
Laura Griffin September 08, 2011 at 05:02 PM
Good point! The township meets Sept. 20, but there's no guarantee that this will be on the agenda. Although, it's sure to come up, at least during public comment time. The township says they will set a separate date for a special meeting about Irene.
Laura Griffin September 08, 2011 at 05:15 PM
http://patch.com/A-lPwy We're looking further into that.
SHMill September 08, 2011 at 07:06 PM
KLF, I would agree with you, that the TC should be challenged on removing the flood zone designation as well. Irregardless of which way you look at it, the fix did not work as it was intended.
Nancy Dries September 09, 2011 at 12:28 AM
How about sandbags? It seems like the midwest always has them available for residents. Is that something that would be helpful here?
nm September 09, 2011 at 12:54 AM
I think that no matter what part of town we live in, everyone would like a vibrant downtown to gather, eat , play and shop in. How does the town council intend to attract businesses when the town floods? Every shop I have been in since the flood plain out smells. It can't be healthy for business, or the workers, or the customers!

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