Irene’s brutal impact remembered

Two years after devastating storm, residents continue to repair, mayors still looking for solutions

File Photos Two years after Tropical Storm Irene devastated parts of Union County, some residents are trying to forget it ever happened, but others are still on the hunt for a long-term solution. But everyone can agree on one thing: No one wants it to happen again. The roof of an automobile can be seen peeking out from under several feet of water on South Avenue and High Street in Cranford.
File Photos
Two years after Tropical Storm Irene devastated parts of Union County, some residents are trying to forget it ever happened, but others are still on the hunt for a long-term solution. But everyone can agree on one thing: No one wants it to happen again. The roof of an automobile can be seen peeking out from under several feet of water on South Avenue and High Street in Cranford.

CRANFORD — On a late August day as summer winds down, Cranford is almost picture perfect with its towering trees along the Rahway River that lazily meanders through town. People walk, bike and jog along the banks and berms of this river that is skirted by lovely homes with manicured lawns. Two years ago today, though, that meandering river swelled to unprecedented levels, plowing through homes and the town with a vengeance that had never been seen before. That force came in the form of Tropical Storm Irene.

Tropical Storm Irene will long be remembered by residents and elected officials as the worst storm to ever hit the township. It not only went beyond the 100-year storm level, but surpassed the 500-year level.

Inundated by more than 10 inches of rain and massive run off from upstream towns, the Rahway River swelled to epic proportions, spilling its banks in a raging torrent of flood waters that reached the second floors of homes that never had flooding before. But Irene did not just flood homes.

The raging waters of the river were so high and powerful; they smashed into the municipal building on Springfield Avenue, leaving four feet of muck and storm water on the lower level. It would take more than $1 million and a year of work before everything was returned to normal. And for many residents of the “Venice of New Jersey” the possibility that another powerful hurricane or nor’easter could swoop down and destroy everything they rebuilt is always in back of their minds.

The morning following the storm, former mayor Dan Aschenbach stood ashen faced outside the Union County Mobile Command Center on North Union Avenue, just yards from where the mighty Rahway River still raged through the municipal building parking lot, flooding North Avenue and the businesses adjacent to it with six to eight feet of water.

“I have never seen anything like this before. This is the worst flood Cranford has ever seen,” said the mayor, who was visibly shaken by the destruction he witnessed. Two years later he has still not shaken the memory.

“Irene was the worst storm in Cranford’s history, affecting so many Cranford families. I still remember the loss on people’s faces,” he said Tuesday. “The 70,000 tons of debris piled high. But I also remember the response of our municipal government. So many helped the community to recover which demonstrated the resiliency of Cranford.”
The shock of the aftermath was felt by all those gathered at the command center that morning. While police, fire and even the National Guard tried to figure out how to gain access to residents stranded on pocket “islands” of dry land surrounded by floodwaters, still others attempted to shake off the shock so an emergency management plan could be launched into action. Police Chief Eric Mason led the effort that would, for days, be manned 24-hours a day.

Meanwhile, as floodwaters slowly receded, displaced residents filtered slowly back to their homes to find little left to salvage. In the days that followed massive piles of furniture, appliances and personal possessions towering six to eight-feet high appeared at the curbs of the homes in the flood area. Others, their faces betraying the pain of losing much more, discovered their homes were condemned because the raging floodwaters had destroyed the foundation.

Among the worst areas hit was Riverside Drive, which runs parallel to the river. This particular section, which always has flood damage when the river spills its banks, was decimated this time around. Riverside Drive resident Joan Varanelli, who has weathered many a flood, some more than others, sat in her car, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I can’t do this anymore,” said the usually feisty, petite woman. “I just can’t live through it all being destroyed again.”

This activist for flood control who rallied her neighbors into action in the past had the wind knocked out of her after Irene, but it was not long before the shock wore off. From that point Varanelli dove into the renovation of her large ranch home, determined to not let this storm and this flood drive her from the home she loved; the same home she and her late husband Andy bought so many decades before.

Today Varanelli’s home is rebuilt and like new. Varanelli’s face lights up when she talks about her grandchildren, her neighborhood and Cranford. It is where she lives and where she wants to stay, come hell or high water. Moving is not something she thinks about or even considers.

Later, Aschenbach would report that nearly 1,300 residences – or more than 15 percent of the township’s homes – had significant flood damage. Of those, 200 houses had water up to the first floor, seven were condemned and more than 6,000 residents were without power and the municipal and police complex remained under water.

In Springfield, a few miles north of Cranford, it was reported that the Rahway River reached nearly ten feet the morning of the storm, which is 4.5 feet above flood stage, according to the National Weather Service. Although that was a few inches short of the record level set in 1999 when Tropical Storm Floyd hit the township, the damage was much more severe.

Behind the municipal building, trailers served as temporary headquarters for township department officials displaced by the storm. The health, police, DMC and others made do for many months while elected officials wrestled with how to repair the damage. Several schools also were impacted, with one closed for nearly six months.
Mayor Tom Hannen was one of the homeowners impacted by Irene. Although usually jovial and upbeat, his voice grows serious when discussing the year-long journey he and his family were on after Irene hit. While not easy to live in the home that took on so many feet of water, Hannen explained that everyone was battling the same problems.

A few months ago Hannen said it took more than a year to get the last of the flood insurance money he was owed. The complicated process of receiving checks that are issued not just to the homeowner but also their mortgage company, left most homeowners, such as the mayor, to find another way to pay for repairs and later be reimbursed. But the strain Irene put on flood victims financially is not the only tragedy. Many still are battling the emotional scars left by this storm that surpassed the 500-year level.

Two years down the road, the Rahway River looks anything but a threat and the north east section of the township appears none the worse for all the millions in damage that was sustained. But for some, memories of what a storm like Irene can do hangs like an ominous cloud over their heads. A nightmare they believe will not be shaken unless a change is made.

But some even cross their fingers and hope no one will remember the damage Irene wreaked on this community.
One resident living in the north east section of the township rebuilt their home and recently put it up for sale. Fearful anyone looking for a home in Cranford might see their name in an article about the storm damage, they preferred their name not be used. Few would argue with that kind of apprehension.

“I have spent two years rebuilding our home and worrying every time it rains there will be another flood. When Sandy hit last October, I had chest pains so bad we had to go to the emergency room. They said it was just nerves,” the resident explained, adding “this is no way to live.”

He, like others who lived through Irene, plan to move to higher ground. It’s not what they want, but living through one flood was more than enough for some. Aschenbach has only sympathy for those who suffered damage from Irene. In fact, his anguish over the devastatation led to the formation of The Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control in 2012.

“This week two years ago Irene hit the Rahway River Watershed with fury and caused over $100 million in damages to residences, municipal facilities and businesses,” said the former mayor, explaining that since then the mayors council has worked with the US Army Corps of Engineers and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to find solutions to these flooding issues that plague the area. And he has good news.

“A federal study that has languished for close to a decade was restarted and promising projects have now been reviewed,” Aschenbach said, pointing out that the Army Corps will complete the next stage of evaluation by September and tentatively select an alternative for flood mitigation.

“In the face of the destruction down the shore from Sandy and the urgency of the US Army Corps turning its attention there, the movement now on the Rahway River flooding mitigation evaluation to this point is positive and reflects well on their efforts here. The corps professionalism has been critical. But it still has to be stated that flood mitigation is not in place, which many residents worry about,” the former mayor said Monday.

Although Aschenbach believes that a regional flood mitigation plan has a strong likelihood of success, he admitted he has anxiety about when the next storm will hit. But on this warm summer day in late August, the sound of children’s laughter ringing in the air and canoes floating lazily down the river, it is hard to imagine such a storm hitting the township again.