In Lyndhurst, Flood Victims Fight For Help

By Katie Colaneri, WBGO News
Lyndhurst. July 29, 2013

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Temporary stone platforms built for the construction of the new Route 3 Bridge in Lyndhurst. Photo by Julie Daurio

For many victims of Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, the shock still hasn't worn off. But in Lyndhurst, a middle class suburb along the banks of the Passaic River in Bergen County, longtime residents said they weren't supposed to be storm victims.

"I'm there 43 years and in 43 years this has never happened," said Kathy Johnson.

Johnson is one of at least a dozen residents here who are blaming a construction project to replace the aging Route 3 Bridge for increasing the flooding in their neighborhood.

It's one of many local battles that have arisen from rebuilding efforts across the state. Scientists and environmentalists say both sides of this fight may be denying their own inconvenient truths.

To build the new bridge, the state's contractor has filled in parts of the river to put in two stone work platforms - one on the east side and one on the west side - to fit their cranes and other heavy equipment. They have left a channel open in the middle and each platform has two pipes running through it meant to keep the river water flowing normally. But Lyndhurst resident Rich Podolski argued there's nothing normal about it.

"I used to row crew on this river and when high tide come in, you see how high the river got," Podolski said. "You block up three big lanes of the river, when high tide comes in, it only has one little lane, so the other two lanes have nowhere to go. It’s like going down the Parkway on a holiday weekend. If they close down the two left lanes and the right lane, you got a 40 mile backup going down the Parkway.”

The New Jersey Department of Transportation said it's "confident" the construction platforms did not increase the flooding during these two major storms.

This neighborhood in Bergen County is in the Lower Passaic River Basin, roughly 10 miles up from the Newark Bay. The land is flatter and the water moves slower here than it does upriver where flooding horror stories in Paterson and Wayne have dominated headlines for more than a century.

But flooding issues haven't skipped over the Lower Passaic. Many Lyndhurst residents were flooded during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and the March 2007 nor'easter.

But Hurricanes Irene and Sandy caused even more damage here. There are signs of rebuilding all around this neighborhood just a few blocks from the river. Several small cottages have already been raised on concrete blocks as high as nine feet. One home still sits abandoned, sagging on its blown out foundation.

Professor Josh Galster, a geologist with the Passaic River Institute at Montclair State University, said the Lower Passaic is one of the most developed parts of the river basin which already increases the community's risk for flooding. Galster said the construction platforms have narrowed the space for the river to travel under the bridge. During Hurricane Sandy, Galster believes this may have caused the water to back up on the downstream side of the bridge as the storm surge came in.

Normally, the Passaic River flows from north to south, but when Hurricane Sandy came through, the storm surge and high tide made the river act differently, Galster said, "because water would have been moving upstream in the opposite direction and so it’s possible, I don’t know how likely, but it’s possible that the constriction made it worse.”

But Irene was a different story. Galster said surge played less of a role in that storm and instead, water charging down the river, swollen by heavy rainfall, could have backed up on the other side of the bridge, possibly even protecting Lyndhurst from flooding.

Glaster said there is something questionable about the size of the platforms. "It looks bad... It certainly is to some degree, but what degree that is is really hard to know without doing a more detailed study."

Environmental laws in New Jersey discourage the filling of rivers and other waterways with some exceptions. According to documents, the state Department of Environmental Protection ruled the new Route 3 Bridge could not be built without disturbing the river and there was no other "feasible alternative" to the temporary platforms that will be removed once the project is finished.

Jeff Tittle, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said it is not uncommon for state agencies to bend to pressure from another state agency that wants something done.

"What we always see happen is DEP will say we shouldn’t do it," he said. "They’ll raise some issues and then they eventually fold and we see it time and time again all around the state and that’s also why we see flooding all around the state.”

But the DEP isn't the only agency with its regulatory eye on these kinds of projects. All bridges that go over navigable waterways need to get the green light from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gary Kassof oversees the bridge program for the First Coast Guard District. He told WBGO that originally, the state's contractor proposed filling in an even larger part of the river. The NJ DEP and the Coast Guard expressed concern, so the contractor reduced the size of the platforms. The DEP was satisfied and so was the Coast Guard.

Kassof said that is how the permit process is supposed to work. "They go back, they sit down, they discuss it and they come up with something that is better than they originally proposed and in the expert opinion of expert agencies like DEP can move forward without having a significant hydraulic effect on the waterway and an environmental effect. So there are checks and balances built in. Can systems be improved? Sure.”

The project to replace the old Route 3 Bridge took more than a decade of planning, including environmental studies that showed the project area was in the 500-year floodplain.

In July 2010, the state Department of Transportation awarded the federally funded contract to a joint venture of two construction companies, J. Fletcher Creamer & Son and Joseph M. Sanzari, Inc., together referred to as "Creamer/Sanzari." (It is worth noting that State Senator Paul Sarlo is Chief Operating Officer of Joseph M. Sanzari, Inc. His Chief of Staff did not return repeated calls for comment.)

Four months after the ink dried on the contract, the DEP issued a permit allowing Creamer/Sanzari to fill more than 20,000 cubic yards of the river to build the temporary work platforms. A spokesman for the DEP told WBGO in an e-mail that Creamer/Sanzari "found ways to do the project so that it could be done more quickly and be less intrusive." The project is currently one year behind schedule.

Department of Transportation spokesman Joe Dee said it's not up to the state to decide how projects are constructed. "When we award a contract, we tell the contractor what we want them to do, what we want them to build, but we don’t tell them how to do it.”

Dee said other construction methods were ruled out because of the way the river fluctuates with the tides and that the platforms were safer for workers, while also allowing water to flow over them during flood conditions.

"People had homes swept away by Sandy and so... that’s an unfortunate situation for many people all over the state," said Dee. "In this case, we’re confident that our work there did not create or exacerbate the flooding.”

Residents in Lyndhurst are growing more frustrated trying to get answers. They have called the Coast Guard, written letters to local officials and the governor's office trying to get the temporary platforms removed.

"We called Sanzari, we called the state, we called the DOT, we called everybody you can imagine to ask them if we can’t get some help, could they put sandbags around the river, just to try to keep the water off the street and all we got back was ‘Well, we can’t do that, it’s not in our contract,’" said Kathy Johson. "It’s the almighty dollar talking. They gotta do what they gotta do – the hell with us.”

The DOT said the platforms could be removed by the end of 2013.

But as the rebuilding and home-raising goes on in Lyndhurst and another hurricane season moves in, residents here may have to face an inconvenient truth.

Captain Bill Sheehan is an environmental conservationist and the Hackensack Riverkeeper. He leads boat tours up the Passaic River under the Route 3 Bridge, right past the construction platforms. Sheehan argues residents here are concerned about their property values and are looking for a scapegoat.

"When you buy a house on a floodplain and you’re not ready to deal with the river coming to visit on a regular basis, that’s when you go out looking for somebody to blame even though the person to blame is the person who decided to live there," he said. "And that sounds harsh, doesn't it?"

After years of living without severe floods from storms like Irene and Sandy, many residents in Lyndhurst feel stuck, unable to sell their properties or locked in battles with insurance companies over rebuilding costs.

Rich Podolski said the state should be helping more people like him rebuild instead of focusing on "restoring the shore."

"If they’re saying it’s not from the bridge, that means my house is gonna keep on flooding so why don’t you come here and raise our houses then? If it’s not from that bridge, then what’s going on?"

Professor George Guo is an environmental engineer and hydrologist at Rutgers University. He said it's unlikely the construction platforms added more than a few inches to the flooding in Lyndhurst.

But Guo believes that major projects like this one need to start taking global warming into account, even when it comes to temporary work being done in flood-prone areas. "With climate change and the expected increase of storms and sea level rising, we probably have to take a closer look at construction practice.”

That could drive construction costs up, a truth the state and the federal government could have to face.

This story originally aired on the WBGO Journal on Friday, July 29, 2013.  Investigative reporting on WBGO is made possible by a grant from the Schumann Fund.

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