Many people, drawn with the promise of “vacation-style living,” buy homes along the Delaware River. But that lifestyle comes with the threat of occasional, but dangerous flooding.
On a recent sunny, very hot day, the mighty Delaware looked deceptively mellow as it moved slowly along.
Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, says when the remnants of a hurricane or tropical storm move in, the nature of the river can change dramatically.
“There aren’t a lot of things on it, to kind of keep it under control when the weather is getting rambunctious. It’s a large, undammed river for all intents and purposes on the East Coast,” he said. “That means it behaves in a natural fashion.”
The Delaware’s record flood happened in March of 1904. There have been three major breaches over the last decade.
Lori Hackman lives with her husband, Mark, and their three children on the Pennsylvania side in Yardley. She recalls the flood of 2004; her nieces were sleeping over, and, at 4 in the morning, they could hear people banging on the door of her neighbor’s home:
“My husband’s like … ‘All right, I hate to tell you this, we gotta get out, we gotta get out now.’ So we woke up all the kids, we went out the back door,” Hackman said.
“Its pitch black, pretty much, and my husband’s in his waders, and he’s pushing us to my neighbor’s tree, like across the street to their back yard, cause that’s where the water ended.”
After another flood in 2005 the Hackmans decided they’d had enough. Like a number of their neighbors, they decided to elevate their home a full story. They did get a $30,000 federal grant for the project.
“I was under the mistaken impression that that’s what it cost to elevate your house. And put it all back together,” she said with a chuckle. “But that’s not what it cost. It cost close to $200,000.”
They took out a second mortgage–and builders and elevators, as they’re called. They began the long and loud process of removing the house from its foundation, and jacking it up 10 feet.
“The first 2 feet were very loud and very stressful, because you can hear the foundation … the cement cracking. And you can hear the stress of the wood popping and the screeching before the wood breaks. And we’re all like cringing,” Hackman recalled. “And, all of a sudden, a big pop and it’s off the foundation.”
Across the river, a small community known as the Island section of Trenton was dealing with the same flooding. The Island was once surrounded by the river–and the Trenton Water Power Canal before the canal was filled in to build Route 29.
Jim Zombeck is a longtime resident of the Island neighborhood, a small, tree-lined community of older homes that’s crammed with colorful flower beds. Zombeck bought his property at a time when memories of a raging Delaware River had faded.
“I look at the river, knowing the last time it flooded was 1955, and I said, ‘That could never happen.’ It’s just way too vast an area to be filled with water,” he said. “Apparently, I was mistaken!”
As for the flood of 2004?
“My basement was full to the rafters with 7 feet of water,” Zombeck said.
An invasion of fish
Following one high-water event, the fire department had drained most of the water out of Zombeck’s basement, and he was mopping up.
“I rented a generator, and had that running with one little light down there, so I could see what I was doing,” he said. “And as I was squeegeeing the water over towards the sump hole, I was seeing things out of my peripheral vision … it was lots of little fish!”
After scooping up the fish and returning them to the river, Zombeck chose to move what he could to higher ground.
“I took my electric panel out of the basement, and elevated that to the first floor, and my washer and dryer. So most of my utilities are up here,” he said. “The furnace had to stay downstairs … and my water-filtration system, so they’re the two major concerns I have when we have a weather event, just to disconnect them, and bring them up.”
Houses in the Island with river views sell for $150,000 to $200,000, so Zombeck said it doesn’t make economic sense to pay to elevate the whole house.
And even in Yardley, only some of the homes are elevated. It’s not easy for a homeowner to get grant money. Wes Foraker, the borough’s emergency management coordinator, said Yardley is eligible for federal help while the homeowner is responsible for 10 percent of the cost. However and it can be months, even years, before a homeowner sees any money.
“You have to be able to demonstrate severe repetitive loss. You have to be able to come up with the 10 percent. You can’t change the footprint of your house, bells and whistles,” he said. Foraker said the costs can range from a low of $100,000 and then “go extremely high from there.”
Still they remain
Both Jim Zombeck and the Hackman family have taken significant losses and have spent a great deal of time over the past decade dealing with an angry river.
Why, then, do they stay?
“We love it here, we’re a detached little section, our own private community of great people who take pride in their homes,” Zombeck said. “We have a massive amount of gardeners here, so we have great gardens, and every now and then, the river comes and fertilizes them for us.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s like an adventure!” Hackman said with a laugh.