Manville Doesn’t Qualify for Federal Flood Mitigation

By Erin Delmore

Dashed hopes in Manville after 10-plus years in wait and $3 million of research. The borough doesn’t qualify for federal flood mitigation measures, according to a lengthy and expensive study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“I believe we have been left behind. It’s just evident. It seems there’s no one here to help us at this point,” said Manville Mayor Richard Onderko.

The report by the Army Corps found that “no economically justified plan has been identified to recommend for implementation,” meaning the proposed measures failed the federal government’s cost-benefit analysis, a one-to-one measure of dollars saved to dollars spent — no exceptions.

“The calculations they used to determined whether a community gets aid, in terms of a flood mitigation project, seems terribly flawed. It’s based on value of homes instead of lives affected. Basically what they’re saying is this: that if those were million-dollar homes affected instead of middle-class homes, the chances for aid were greater,” said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.

But they’re not million-dollar homes. These houses average about $200,000. Even buying and demolishing one costs more than that — around $300,000. In short: the Army Corps sees no way to get to that one-to-one ratio.

“Over the last 20 years, the home values have gone down. Not only because of the economy and the bubble burst, the actual — when you start saying you’re a flood area, the natural impact is the value goes down. So you use those homes the cost-benefit ratio, you’re not going to equal it,” said Raritan and Millstone Rivers Flood Control Commission Chairman Frank Jurewicz.

The water comes from the Millstone River and the Raritan River. This part of town — called Lost Valley — gets hit by both.

“So you can see when it rains, it’s really not the rain falling in Manville, it’s the rain that falls throughout Mercer, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren County that feed down to these rivers that meet down in Manville,” Jurewicz said.

“We were the forgotten town in a regional approach to flood mitigation. We should have been partnered with Bound Brook and the rest of the Green Brook Flood Control Commission back in the late ’70s, early ’80s when this whole thing took off, we wouldn’t be in this situation we’re in today,” Onderko said.

The Millstone River lies just behind this blue house, about 200 feet from where I’m standing now. Twenty years ago, this neighborhood was full of young families. It was a close-knit place. But now, most of the homes on this street have been demolished or abandoned. Many are bank-owned or for sale.

“When the water’s coming, you can’t do anything so you just grab as much as you can and run away from here. It’s not really fun,” said Manville resident Robert Swierszcz.

Swierzszcz moved here nine years ago, lured by better schools for his kids. He had his house on the market for six months — no takers. He said, no more and took the buyout.

“Six, seven years ago, the water was high. All over the place. And I was scared. With my kids I thought, I don’t want to be here. Raise them here, run away from the water. It’s really hard,” he said.

Other residents have fewer options: demolish or elevate. Raising a home like this one can cost $90,000 — no frills.

“When the hurricane hit, they had to be evacuated by helicopter, rescued by boat, to the point where it’s up to the first floor windows. It’s six to eight feet deep,” Jurewicz said.

Borough officials say they hope smaller flood mitigation projects will be able to help — like widening the river, removing debris or even dredging. Most importantly, they said they want to keep the dialogue with the Army Corps of Engineers open.