Residents in some parts of Paterson are no strangers to flooding. The Passaic River (the largest river system in New Jersey) which used to be used for transportation, food, water and industrial power, runs through and around the town. According to the FEMA flood map, Paterson’s First and Second Wards sit in the areas most affected by flooding and the floods have turned parts of those neighborhoods into areas resembling war zones.
As you travel through the First Ward with streets that run to the edge of the river, you see more and more houses with windows and doors boarded up with plywood or metal sheets. They are liberally covered in graffiti. Signs posted next to doors read that the properties are not suitable for living. Vacant lots sit between some of the houses, reminders of family homes that became so dangerous, they were torn down by the city. In the dead of night, vehicles arrive with loads of trash that get furtively pushed out into the vacant properties. Many blocks are all but empty as residents have decided to cut their losses and move on.
Streets are in disrepair with garbage scattered around them and the vacant lots. Sidewalks and driveways have been reduced to rubble by the movement of the river when it overflows its banks and the debris carried along with it. The worst flooding Patersonians experienced in recent decades came during Hurricane Irene when water levels in some streets rose to seven and eight feet. Before that, the worst flooding the city had seen was early in the 20 century.
For residents like First Ward homeowner Carlos Rodriguez, flooding has become a regular part of living there. “When the flood comes, you don’t have electricity, you don’t have water, you don’t got nothing,” he says. He has lived on E. Holsman Street for 35 years.
The almost-complete degradation of life is reflective of the state of sheer neglect in river bordering streets. During summer months, neighborhood children make the communities’ many abandoned homes their playground. They can be seen climbing onto roofs, prying bricks loose and tossing them at each other and finding other creative ways to vandalize property. Owners of a shop on the corner of Main Street and E. Holsman put up barbed wire on each level of the building’s multi-tiered flat roof, but that didn’t stop the young people – you can see where sections of the barbed wire have born torn clear away.
When Rodriguez complains to neighborhood parents about their children, he’s met with either aggression or indifference.
Drug deals often happen on his street, where there are no cameras. And, it is not uncommon for residents to hear gunshots from the nearby park. Rodriguez makes sure to keep his grass cut low so firearms and other criminal items won’t be discarded on his property but it’s a losing battle, because it happens anyway.
“You see in the middle of the night, you see them come lined up, cars. Young kids, sometimes I tell my wife, ‘look at that young girl, so beautiful, buying drugs. It’s so sad to see.’” And a lot of those buying drugs are not from Paterson, they come from neighboring towns. Abandoned neighborhoods like E. Holsman are perfect spots for drugs to be purchased out of sight of the authorities.
The Rodriguez family learned that not only floods, vandals and drug dealers threaten them. Carlos recalls one night when after he argued with his wife, she slept in the bedroom and he slept on the living room couch. In the middle of the night he was awakened by loud, violent noises and the next thing he knew, the police had broken his kitchen door down. They swarmed the house demanding to know where ‘he’ went. Turns out, there had been a shooting that night and the suspect ran in the direction of the river, the police in pursuit. They assumed he had entered the Rodriguez home because their back fence door was broken, not realizing that it had been broken for quite some time. Police later found the suspect hiding under a nearby bridge.
When Rodriguez enquired about getting his kitchen door fixed, a deputy told Rodriguez to contact internal affairs to file a request. Another officer told him,“Forget about it, you’re wasting your time. You’re better off fixing it yourself.” Rather than leaving his family home without a door for what could possibly take years, Rodriguez fixed it himself.
This was a small loss that decades of destructive flooding have visited upon the Rodriguez family. The bigger financial losses come in the form of damage to major assets and to their home’s property value.
Because of the flooding, the city will not allow any construction to take place on the street – not that anyone wants to spend the money to build or do major repairs there. Although Chase Bank recently purchased 3 conjoined lots on E. Holsman Street.
Rodriguez is often told by friends and family that he should move, but he is in a tough situation because no one will buy his house. Although the city of Paterson has been given two grants of $2.1 million and $5.6 million from a federal disaster recovery grant and FEMA to buyout properties in flood zones, the city has only bought 10 homes thus far. Over 20 more homes are being considered for buyout, but Rodriguez’ house is not one of them.
It’s a harsh life for residents. When flooding occurs, a lot of people have to be taken out in boats by the Fire Department and National Guardsmen. Sometimes area residents get notified by the town when flooding is about to occur, but even with advance warning there is little residents can do. For a family to evacuate a home on an emergency basis is not an easy undertaking and moreover, not every family has another place to go when their own home suddenly becomes unlivable.
And if residents are at work when an alert goes out that flooding is imminent, there may be insufficient time to take action. Carlos’ nephew lost two cars to flooding that way.
As for Rodriguez, he no longer leaves when flooding occurs, “I always stay here, I don’t go nowhere,” he said. “The first time we left, people went inside, they took everything. They took my TV from the wall, they broke the wall, they took the copper, they took the AC unit I had on the side, they took everything. When I came back, I was crying.”
To prevent more from being stolen, Rodriguez made some changes. He replaced his copper piping with PVC and put his air conditioner on the roof. He’s also bought a generator, making his home the only one on the block to have lights when flooding occurs.
Other huge threats to residents’ well-being are the pollution and raw sewage sludge contained in the river.
The lower Passaic River has been heavily developed since the time of the early settlers. For decades up until the 1970s, many different industries discharged their waste into the river and industrial waste is still present in the river today. As in Newark, the Paterson sewage system is connected with the stormwater system – a network known as Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs. Normally, precipitation is carried into storm drains, combines with sewage and both end up being treated at the municipality’s sewage treatment plant.
But during heavy rainstorms, the flow of water is too much for the treatment plant to handle. So, to avoid overwhelming the system, access to the treatment plant is completely shut off, which causes the combined waste-and-stormwater to back up into the river. This stormwater management design feature means that when the Passaic River floods into the streets, raw sewage waste is present in the water.
And more than sewage. According to the U.S. EPA, the river is “contaminated with a variety of hazardous substances, including dioxin, PCBs, mercury, DDT, pesticides and heavy metals.”
Rodriguez and his family bear witness to the fact that contaminants from their neighborhood’s homes, yards, streets and vehicles end up in the river too. Everything that is covered by several feet of floodwater mixes up with the water and chemicals, furniture, car parts, garbage, soil and leaves are carried off into the river as waters recede. Even so, the amount of debris that gets left behind in river-flooded streets is enormous, with more than enough left to cover streets and building interiors in filth and detritus after the water’s gone. It may take weeks for waters to fully recede and after that, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take the City to do a cleanup of the streets.
On the part of E. Holsman Street closest to the river stands a house built on columns, so the first floor is a whole floor above ground – which like other homes, is also abandoned. Rodriguez relates that the house is situated sufficiently above ground that river waters could not reach it. But the sewage pipes backed up during heavy rain events and when raw sewage began flowing out from the plumbing fixtures, that home lost its residents too. New dwellers are living there now – but how long will they stay?
A partnership of federal and New Jersey agencies called the Lower Passaic River Restoration Project is working to clean up the Lower Passaic River, but that area begins below the Dundee Dam in Garfield, downstream from Paterson. For Rodriguez and his remaining neighbors, no solutions are being planned and no relief is visible on the horizon.