2011-09-15 / Front Page

Officials reflect on Irene, look to future solutions

With ‘perfect storm of events,’ flooding was unavoidable
BY CHRIS ZAWISTOWSKI
Staff Writer

Hurricane Irene was the perfect storm coming at the worst possible time, causing devastating flooding throughout Middlesex County, state and local officials said.

Though affected residents and business owners throughout the area have pointed fingers over who or what caused the flooding, township officials said they took all the precautions necessary to help prevent the severe flooding that displaced families and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Hurricane Irene dumped several inches of rain on soil already saturated from this year’s much higher than normal rainfall, said Lawrence Hajna, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s like a sponge that just can’t hold any more, and the water’s got to go somewhere,” Hajna said.

All this was compounded by the timing of Hurricane Irene, which hit the area during high tide, said Monroe Township Emergency Management Coordinator Ernest Feist.

“You had a tide coming in, a tidal surge from the storm, and that certainly prevented those two bodies of water — the Matchaponix and Manalapan [Brooks] — from draining into the Raritan Bay and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean,” Feist said. “It may have even caused backflow for a short period of time in those streams.”

Officials from all across the region said they started early to prepare for the flooding expected from Hurricane Irene, including everything from cleaning storm drains to pumping out retention ponds. Around the Wednesday before the storm, Spotswood Mayor Thomas Barlow said the borough began working with the county and other emergency management coordinators in its “dance of the dams” to lower the water levels of three dammed lakes along the Manalapan Brook: the county lake in Jamesburg in Thompson Park, DeVoe Lake in Spotswood and Duhernal Lake.

Hajna said the DEP inspected dams in the area, including Duhernal, and found that none had been broken by Hurricane Irene.

The “dance of the dams” occurs prior to every major storm, said Spotswood Police Chief Karl Martin, with the goal of draining as much water out of the system as possible before the storm, to later hold as much floodwater as possible.

But with the “perfect storm of events” that came with Hurricane Irene, Martin said that even with the “dance of the dams,” flooding was simply unavoidable. Water, Jamesburg Mayor Anthony LaMantia said, poured into the municipality from as far away as Route 33 in Millhurst, filling into the lake, and once the lake overflows, into the town itself.

“In a short period of time, [the lake] just filled up,” LaMantia said. “You are getting water from miles and miles and miles away, and it is all headed to the same area.”

Water then flowed into DeVoe Lake, which in turn met with other flooded tributaries around Spotswood and hit Duhernal Lake.

Duhernal took all the precautions necessary to deal with Hurricane Irene, said Rick Straitman, a public affairs manager with DuPont, including lowering water levels 2 feet two days before the storm and doubling its staffing to help resolve issues that might have developed during the storm.

Responding to charges from residents that Duhernal deserves blame for the severe flooding in South Old Bridge, Straitman said, “We do not believe that Duhernal worsened an already difficult situation.”

“The rainfall associated with Hurricane Irene was historic and overwhelmed water management systems all along the East Coast,” he added. “There was nothing more that could have been done to manage the massive amount of rain, tidal storm surge, the various streams that feed the lake and runoff converging on Duhernal Lake.”

Water from Duhernal Lake flows into the South River, a tributary of the Raritan River, which eventually ends up in Raritan Bay. But with Raritan Bay experiencing extreme storm surges, the normal water flow was disrupted, Martin said.

Water from the Manalapan Brook, as well as the Matchaponix Brook, which runs through Monroe, hit the surge, Martin said, and had nowhere to go but back up the line.

Township officials said they did take whatever precautions they could to prevent flooding.

Old Bridge Mayor Patrick Gillespie said storm drains were cleared, debris was removed, and retention ponds were pumped.

Helmetta Mayor Nancy Martin said the borough also cleaned storm drains and was able to drain down Helmetta Lake.

Feist said capital improvements based on past storms and flooding were made in recent years, including creating an automated pumping system along the Matchaponix Brook and making stormwater improvements on Old Forge Road.

But with the strong storm surge and saturated ground, local officials said these precautions were just not enough to stop a storm of this magnitude.

“You could have danced those dams all day long, closed gates, open gates coinciding with the tides, and it wasn’t going to make a bit of difference,” Martin said.

With the damage done and the third or fourth so-called “100-year-storm” occurring in the past five years, LaMantia said something must be done to prevent future flooding.

LaMantia and Helmetta Mayor Nancy Martin said the role that development played in the flooding demands a closer look.

“Helmetta has seen its third flooding event since 2005, and since we are downstream from some major development, we are guaranteed to see more flooding in the future if some measures are not taken,” Martin said.

LaMantia, too, said that development was a cause in the flooding near Gatzmer Avenue near where a Costco warehouse in Monroe is located. He said there needs to be rules or regulations requiring engineers to consider the flood impact that construction could have on neighboring towns or even towns miles downstream.

Even things like retention pond requirements should be examined with the frequency and severity of storms over the past few years, LaMantia said.

“The amount of rain that they say we only get once every 100 years, we are getting it almost every year now,” he said.

With so much money being expended to rebuild after each storm, Monroe Mayor Richard Pucci also suggested working to buy out property in particularly flood-prone areas.

“That’s got to be looked at also,” Pucci said. “It can’t just be looked at [through] an engineering standpoint or those kinds of things alone.”

But with several municipalities along the Manalapan and Matchaponix Brooks watershed, and rain waters in Monmouth County affecting what happens in Middlesex County, Pucci and Barlow said any solution to the flooding problem will have to be on a regional level.

The South Central Middlesex County Flood Control Commission, created in the wake of the storms of July 2005 that dropped up to 8 inches of rain in a two-hour period, is looking toward regional solutions. The seven municipalities hit hard by storm flooding banded together in the commission to study the causes of flooding and develop recommendations to prevent future flooding.

Congressman Rush Holt (D-12th District) secured a $500,000 grant in November 2010 for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study that will help develop a mitigation plan for the South Central Middlesex County Flood Control Commission, said Barlow, the head of the commission.

TheArmy Corps is in the process of putting together the report now, Barlow said, which will include a look at Hurricane Irene.

Projects like the long-awaited dredging of DeVoe Lake, which will help the shallow lake store more floodwater, could come with the study, Barlow said.

But Barlow said implementing the solutions would all come down to one factor: money, which governments from the local level up don’t currently have.

“The money that needs to be committed to fix these types of problems is in the millions, if not the tens of millions of dollars,” Barlow said.

Funding of this magnitude will likely only come from the federal government, Barlow said.

With any storm or major event, East Brunswick Mayor David Stahl said, a re-examination of methods on all levels is always necessary to see what was done right and wrong and what changes might be made in future planning.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Stahl said.

He said East Brunswick has already had meetings to examine their efforts for Hurricane Irene, and he hopes that the flood controls and dam system will be looked at as well in the aftermath of the devastating storm.

“If it worked, and it was just because of the rainfall … so be it, you can’t always plan for the 100-year, 500-year storm,” Stahl said. “But if it didn’t fully work, then we need to make sure that they do work in the future.”

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