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Climate changes issues force areas to consider if people shouldn't live there anymore

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Climate change means more flooding. And communities from California to New York are facing the same difficult question, is the flood risk in some areas too high for habitation? Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk visited a town that's had some success in tackling the problem.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Stephanie and Nicholas Cepparulo loved their house in Lambertville, N.J.

STEPHANIE CEPPARULO: My family had been on the property for over a hundred years, so we were pretty comfortable in that sense, thinking that we were safe.

HERSHER: But the climate is changing. And in September 2021, there was a heavy, heavy rainstorm. More than an inch of rain was falling every 30 minutes. Things went wrong fast. By the time they got their kids in the car and drove up the hill, they could see their shed floating away. They made it to a relative's house and then waited.

S CEPPARULO: My cousins went down. And they called and they said, you need to go to bed. Don't come down here. You don't want to...

NICHOLAS CEPPARULO: So...

S CEPPARULO: So we went to bed (laughter).

N CEPPARULO: Yeah, had a few drinks and went to bed.

HERSHER: In the morning, the scale of their loss became clear. The house had been swept off its foundation.

S CEPPARULO: Our 1-year-old daughter's room took the brunt of it. That room was taken down to the studs. Her light fixture was there and that was it.

HERSHER: The children's bed frames were crushed against the neighbor's house.

S CEPPARULO: Our son's bedspread was hanging from a tree.

HERSHER: It was clear to them that this place that had been home for her family for generations was no longer safe. They'd need to figure out what to do next. Now, luckily, the Cepparulo family lives in New Jersey. And New Jersey is arguably the national leader in protecting people from flooding, new research shows. Nick Angarone is New Jersey's director of resilience. He says heavy rain, like what happened to the Cepparulos, is a huge problem for his marshy state.

NICK ANGARONE: It's coming down faster than our infrastructure can handle it. And it's coming down faster than even our natural systems can handle it. You know, several inches of rain in a very, very short period of time.

HERSHER: And so, in the last decade or so, new Jersey has done a bunch of things to get people out of the path of all that water. It's now harder to build new homes in flood zones, and homes that are already there have to be safer, for example, by elevating them on stilts. If you buy a house in New Jersey, you now get information about whether it's flooded in the past. And the state has purchased more than 1,000 houses in the last decade to knock them down and provide more open space for flood water. New Jersey may offer a blueprint for other densely populated states that are grappling with climate-driven flooding. Angarone says one big lesson is that changing where and how to build our homes is hard.

ANGARONE: You're talking about some of the basic principles of the country is kind of, you know, where and what you can do with your property.

HERSHER: One town where that conversation has been playing out is Woodbridge, N.J.

TOM FLYNN: So yeah...

HERSHER: Tom Flynn is the town's floodplain manager. He took me on a walk through a neighborhood near downtown.

FLYNN: As you can see directly in front of you, that house had to be elevated.

HERSHER: The house in front of us is on stilts. The first floor is maybe 15, 20 feet off the ground. At the end of the neighborhood, the road ends in a walking path.

FLYNN: There was a home here. There were actually, I think, two or three homes here.

HERSHER: We keep walking deeper into the marsh.

FLYNN: This trail intersection was Watson Avenue. All of this to your left was homes.

HERSHER: I mean, it looks like a full marsh. There are - you can hear the bugs. There are trees, flowers.

FLYNN: Yeah, goldenrod, boneset. It's just - it's gorgeous.

HERSHER: Where there used to be dozens of homes, now there's just swamp. John McCormac is the longtime mayor of Woodbridge.

JOHN MCCORMAC: Not something we wanted to do, but we had to do it.

HERSHER: This is McCormac's hometown. He has deep roots. And he still remembers an excruciating town meeting that he presided over in the high school auditorium right after Superstorm Sandy flooded hundreds of homes.

MCCORMAC: I mean, standing up there on the auditorium stage, looking out at 400 people whose lives were just upended is not easy. It was difficult. People were angry. You know, someone is talking to you about moving out of their home that they've been in for 60 years, and it's their biggest investment in their life.

HERSHER: McCormac says from Day 1, the city government supported home buyouts as one option to help people get out of harm's way. And he thinks that helped people make the difficult decision to sell their homes and move.

MCCORMAC: I think they were comfortable knowing that we were OK with it, you know, if that makes sense. We weren't fighting it. A lot of towns were objecting to the fact that they were going to lose the properties from their tax base, I guess. But when they saw the town was essentially encouraging them to leave town, I think that psychologically meant something to them - say, wait a minute, there must be something to this if the mayor is telling me it's OK to go.

HERSHER: In the end, about 180 homes were demolished in Woodbridge. Flynn, the floodplain manager, says the extra open space helped to protect the remaining houses during recent storms. And despite losing some tax base, town leaders say Woodbridge is thriving. It's still one of the largest towns in the state, and new housing is going up in denser areas near train stations and highways. They are slowly, imperfectly remaking their town to better withstand climate change, which is also what Stephanie and Nick Cepparulo were doing for their family. The day after the rainstorm destroyed their family home, a city employee suggested they should consider a buyout.

S CEPPARULO: And we were both like, yes (laughter). Yes, we'll sign up for that.

N CEPPARULO: Yeah, I think they were expecting some pushback.

S CEPPARULO: I think they were like, oh, we're there already?

N CEPPARULO: Yeah.

S CEPPARULO: But you see your children's beds break up and never find their mattresses and you're like, no, we're never going to do that again.

HERSHER: And they couldn't live with the idea that someone else would end up living there in danger. Because New Jersey's buyout program is permanent - it exists all the time, not just after a major disaster, unlike other states - they were able to apply immediately. The mayor of their town supported their decision, even though it meant losing property taxes on the torn down home. And a case manager who works for the state helped them navigate the process, which took about two years. That's quick compared to other places. Today, they live about 15 minutes away at the top of a hill.

S CEPPARULO: Told the realtor - I said, I want a house on a hill with no basement and no water near it.

N CEPPARULO: (Laughter).

S CEPPARULO: And she found it. We feel safe here, and that's the important part.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVANEBORG KARDYB'S "SOMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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