In Flooded Manville, N.J., Residents Say They Feel Forgotten
It’s hard to find a single street in the working-class town of Manville that was not severely affected by flooding connected to Hurricane Ida.
In the flooded New Jersey town that Biden visited, residents feel forgotten.
Emergency crews in Manville, N.J., on Friday worked to put out a fire in a banquet hall that was devastated by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
By Juliet Macur
Sept. 7, 2021, 7:41 p.m. ET
MANVILLE, N.J. — In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, it is hard to find a single neighborhood — or even a street — in the small central New Jersey town of Manville that was not severely affected by flooding.
The working-class town of about 10,000 residents has seen many hardships.
Manville was named after the company Johns Manville, which manufactured asbestos there. Town residents found white flakes of asbestos floating in their pools, thinking nothing of it until the material was later found to cause cancer.
Another part of town was later designated a federal Superfund site, needing major environmental cleanup because a wood treatment facility had used creosote, a toxic substance dumped into two sludge lagoons. Manville families ice-skated on the frozen lagoons in winter, not knowing that the toxins had contaminated the ground and drinking water.
And flooding in Manville, which President Biden visited on Tuesday, has been an issue for decades. When Regina Petrone’s house flooded this time — she has lived in Manville for 30 years — she lost everything in her basement. The federal government has let Manville suffer, she said as the stench of sewage wafted through the pile of debris from her house.
In recent years, an Army Corps of Engineers study found that Manville did not meet the cost-benefit standard for any flood protection project; a series of dikes that were built in a nearby town, Bound Brook, saved it from Ida’s devastation.
“We’re the forgotten town,” Ms. Petrone said. “We’re too small to care about, evidently. So I hope Biden does something. This has gone on way too long.”
Ms. Petrone said she was not moving out of the Manville area called the Lost Valley because she raised two sons there and could not “get top dollar for the house anytime soon.” It is the most flood-prone area in town.
“Who’d want to buy here now?” she said. A house down the street exploded a day after the flooding. Several houses nearby have been condemned.
Yet residents like Ms. Petrone choose to stay. The location is good — about an hour from New York City and also an hour from the Jersey Shore — and the community of immigrants and many generations of families there have long been tight-knit.
Immigrants from Eastern Europe have flocked to Manville, and its Polish population is one of the state’s largest: One downtown church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, holds two Polish Masses on Sunday, and there are two delis that sell Eastern European food like pierogies and stuffed cabbage. Immigrants from Central and South America have made Manville more diverse.
Mauro Rojas and Karla Licano, who are from Costa Rica, moved to Manville two years ago. They looked at 30 houses but bought the one on Boesel Avenue, in the Lost Valley. The house was near a vast park and close to a river, and had a backyard with a big porch and an aboveground pool. It was perfect for a family with a young daughter and dog.
The couple had heard that the house had a 1 percent chance of flooding, and even knew that several surrounding lots were empty because the government had bought and demolished flood-prone homes. They took a chance. But the night the floodwaters rose, they saw their dream house — and all of the items in it — disappear.
When water began to leak into their first floor from the basement and front door, Mr. Rojas, who runs a painting business, grabbed a ladder and led his family, including their Beagle mix, to the roof.
Their daughter, Elena, snuggled into her blanket. The dog shook. In tears and with disbelief, the family watched their 1,200-gallon pool rise from the ground, lifted by the water below it.
In the morning, after climbing into a rescuer’s boat, Elena began to weep when she saw the 27 rainbow-colored bags she and her mother had filled with lighted eyeglasses, hair bows, chocolates and other treats the night before. They were floating down the street. It was her sixth birthday.
“She said, ‘Mom, my birthday bags! No!’ and my heart broke,” Ms. Licano, a secretary, said on Tuesday as she stood crying on a muddied floor.
“It’s so hard because I can’t do anything to fix things for Elena,” she said.
Ms. Licano hopes Mr. Biden can provide help, and quickly.
Elena is missing crucial days of kindergarten. Ms. Licano and her husband cannot work during the cleanup. She works in a tax business on South Main Street that lost everything.
Daniel Lopez, 42, lives a block from that street with his girlfriend, Liz Davis. Mr. Lopez, a locksmith, said he had lived through four floods since his parents moved into the house in 1991. But it had never been this catastrophic, he said.
“The people here can’t take much more of this,” he said.