CAPE MAY — At the height of Hurricane Sandy most residential streets in this resort were not flooded but residents along several that were under water are now seeking answers.
Those answers may lie in a late-minute decision by Cape May County to close a broken tidal gate at the intersection of Perry and West Perry streets.
The goal of stopping the tides as the storm approached the New Jersey coast on Oct. 29 may have backfired for some neighborhoods, as rainwater, and possibly even some tidal waters from a different area, backed up.
“It came in like a river. It came up three feet in one hour,” said John Leo, a Capehart Lane resident.
Terri Werner, a nearby neighbor on Claghorn Place, watched as 5 feet of water filled the basement of her 1928 Sears Roebuck home and lapped at their front door. The house had never suffered such flooding.
“We had minnows in our basement and a cormorant was fishing in the front yard. It was coming down Congress Street toward the beach like a river. We had no idea this wasn’t citywide until we could get out of the house the next day,” Werner said.
The flood brought water to Capehart Lane, Claghorn Place, Congress Street, Windsor Street, Grant Street, Perry Street and West Perry Street. Several homes are damaged so bad they can’t be occupied and may have to be demolished.
Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said the flapper on the tide gate was broken, possibly due to rusted hinges, and a scour hole had formed under it that let water through. Foster said on the Friday that before the storm, which hit on Monday, a decision was made to close it to prevent saltwater from coming in. This also meant rainwater could not drain out.
“We made it so it wouldn’t open up and it couldn’t drain. We didn’t want to do it by choice, but we had no option. We would have had tidal flooding. Instead we close it and get flooding from rainwater,” Foster said.
In the ensuing months residents on the streets have sought answers. While most of the evidence, they say, points to the tide gate, they also question the impact of a city sewer project during 2010 and 2011 that dug up streets in their neighborhoods and at one point accidentally broke a pipe that drains the wetlands west of town. Some residents also argue that it was brackish water, not pure rainwater, in their yards.
The tide gate is supposed to block incoming tides from Cape Island Creek. The waters enter from the Schellenger’s Landing area. The gate is also supposed to allow rainwater on the other side to drain out. That rainwater may come from a basin that runs as far away as Cape May Point and may even include tidal waters coming in from the ocean side. Cape Island Creek was once an open waterway that ran to the ocean, but now much of it in end of town where flooding occurred is buried in pipes and nobody seems to know exactly where they are.
Much of the water may be from a tract of land owned by The Nature Conservancy west of town that the state and federal governments invested millions of dollars in several years ago to provide a freshwater habitat for migrating birds.
The residents want answers about The Nature Conservancy’s role in the flooding, as this tract of land has its own series of flood gates to control water levels. Attempts to reach The Nature Conservancy on Friday were not successful.
A group of 31 residents made their case to City Council by letter, including pictures of the flooding.
“The self-regulating tide gate’s flapper is broken so that the water cannot flow into Cape Island Creek and then out to the (Cape May) Harbor and ocean as intended. Instead the basin acts like a bathtub with its drain plugged and the water running, as it reaches the top is spills over and runs to the lowest points,” states the letter residents delivered this week to City Council.
Mayor Ed Mahaney said the city is not one of the parties that control the tide gate. He said it is controlled by Cape May County and several neighboring communities.
“I want a new agreement where the city has a role in decision-making,” said Mahaney, noting that City Solicitor Tony Monzo is working on the case.
City Manager Bruce MacLeod said the county is putting together bid specifications for new control structure on Cape Island Creek. The residents are concerned it won’t come soon enough.
Foster said the county is looking into a different type of tidal control structure similar to what was recently installed at Cox Hall Creek in Lower Township. That area did not suffer flooding during Sandy.
The group of 31 residents is still waiting for answers and they said many more are interested in the outcome. They said some would not sign the letter amid concerns that if it is declared a manmade flood they will not be able to collect on flood-insurance claims.
“They are concerned about getting FEMA money,” Werner said.
They also want answers on the city’s sewer project and on what kind of water came in, described by Foster as rainwater but by residents as brackish.
“If it was rainwater, why wasn’t it a citywide problem?” asked Werner. “We’ve had that much rain before. Water was spurting out of manhole covers. I’ve never seen that before.”
One telling argument that the tide gate is the main culprit could be what happened after Sandy passed and it was pried open.
“It was like somebody pulled the plug on a bathtub. As fast as it filled up, it went out,” Werner said.
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