NJ damage stretches far

Flood damage has become sadly normal for New Jersey towns along the Delaware River.

BY SUSAN KIM | TRENTON, N.J. | April 23, 2005

"I always felt, sooner or later, it would happen."

—Charlie Horner

Flood damage has become sadly normal for New Jersey towns along the Delaware River.

“Around here, when you start to feel sorry for yourself - look next door,” said Celeste Lane, a Stockton, N.J., resident. Three weeks after floodwaters inundated her small town, Lane is still the only person on her street able to return to her home.

One of Lane’s neighbors is still waiting word on whether their house will be condemned or if it is salvageable. The swollen river carved away the whole underpinning of the home. “In the still of the morning, you can hear their house creaking and popping,” Lane said.

Some 4,500 families - stretched for miles along the Delaware River -- are in a similar predicament in the state.

The disaster has left national headlines, but it’s still there, in the piles of sofas, children’s toys, torn-out drywall, and other fragments of people’s lives piled by the roadsides.

People’s reactions have varied from shock to resignation, said clergy and others who have visited flood survivors the past few weeks.

“One woman was saying she just wanted her house back, that she was lost and tired and anxious,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance team who visited some affected communities this week. “But another man said that this is what happens when you live by the river - and you deal with it.”

Stockton resident Charlie Horner was one of those who thought it would happen. “I always felt, sooner or later, it would happen,” he said. Horner and his wife, with the help of family members, are gutting their house and rebuilding it from the floor up.

A resident of Stockton for 33 years, he said he’s watched the town of 700 people draw closer together. “This flood has brought people together. You know, you drift apart until something like this happens.”

Other people - especially those hit by both September flooding and now April’s - have reached their emotional saturation point. It’s hard to realize things may never be the way they were, said Kraus.

“Your world is not what it was,” said Kraus. “Take time to think about that and not try to put everything back like it was. That place has a lot to teach us. This is not going to be like it was.”

In a disaster that stretches through town after town for miles, there are pockets of damage - a few homes here, a few homes there - that could easily be lost in the shuffle, said June Stitzinger-Clark, disaster response coordinator for the Greater New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church. “Most churches along the Delaware River have at least two or three families affected by the floods.

“For one particular town, it’s hard enough. But you have to multiply this by so many towns.”

That’s a tough geographical reach for many responders, and even a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declaration isn’t exactly easing the thought of a long recovery ahead. “I still think some people are going to have to wait awhile before they can do repairs,” said Bessie Sallie, who has lived in Trenton, N.J., for 70 years.

Sallie, who is disaster response chair at the Cadwalader-Asbury United Methodist Church in Trenton, said she believes flooding - and other disasters, too - are getting worse. “It just seems like we’re having more disasters. In this flood, hundreds of families along the riverbanks have been affected,” she said. “People are holding up pretty well. But a lot of mud was swept into their homes, some up to the first floor level.”

FEMA declared the following nine counties in New Jersey federal disaster areas: Bergen, Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Morris, Passaic, Sussex and Warren. State and FEMA officials were still going door-to-door Friday, assessing damages and answering questions.

In a seasonal paradox, as towns continue to clean up, some county firefighters have been called out to a rash of brush and mulch fires. In Hunterdon County alone, there have been more than 10 brush and mulch fires in the last week, according to Allan Layton, county fire marshal. It’s so dry the Forest Service has banned fires even for people holding permits.

New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey has also created a flood mitigation task force to study and implement measures to reduce flooding. “The flood victims from this month’s storm showed tremendous resilience. We owe it to them to find ways to reduce future flooding and to establish safeguards for the areas most affected by heavy rains.”

Until then, residents like Lane are trying to clean up and try to go on. With piles of dried mud in her back yard, Lane is planting flowers in her front yard. “Some of my friends said they can’t believe I’m putting flowers in. I tell them my flowers will grow because I told them to," she said.

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