John Szabo wants people in Wayne’s floodplain to understand that he is not the enemy.
Szabo has been the town planner for 13 years. He is also the mayor of Oakland, a community that is upstream from the Pompton River dam on Hamburg Turnpike. Several flooded-out residents have said that the floodgates on the dam directly contribute to flooding in low-lying sections of town while sparing municipalities upstream–including Oakland and Mahwah–from floodwater.
“The rhetoric is unfortunate,” Szabo said in a recent interview. “A lot of it is uninformed and a lot of it is people responding to a bad situation.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the floodgates via a computer program. When the water behind the dam reaches a certain level the gates open automatically. Residents living below the dam have said that too much water comes out too fast, causing more severe flooding.
Szabo said the gates are not to blame.
“The truth of the matter is: the volume of water is the volume of water,” Szabo said. “These are low-lying areas with a history of flooding, that’s not going to change. There’s been no scientific, hydrological evidence, or study that shows the gates have contributed one ounce to the problem.”
Governor Chris Christie authorized opening the gates for nine hours Aug. 26 before Hurricane Irene dumped 10 inches of rain on North Jersey. Despite three feet of water draining out before Irene arrived, residents in the floodplain were still hit with a record amount of water.
Christie has appropriated $120,000 to conduct a study of the gates’ operation, independent of the Corps. The results of the study will be available Feb. 1.
“We will be completely transparent with the results of that study,” Christie said at a news conference in August. “We’re going to make a determination of what we need to do differently.”
Army Corps officials said the amount and severity of flooding downstream would be the same even if the gates were not there.
“With the gates open, you get the same level of flooding downstream,” said Col. John Boule II.
Szabo said that parts of Oakland still flood despite the gates being in operation.
“I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that there are still people who are getting flooded in Oakland,” Szabo said, including neighborhoods along Glenberry Road, Roosevelt Boulevard, and Lakshore Drive. “We have significant flooding issues in Oakland that have nothing to do with the gates at all that are not getting any attention from anybody because of everything that is happening downstream.”
Szabo said that development is one of the major factors contributing to flooding in the area.
“Development is a regional issue,” Szabo said. “Every tree you cut down, where do you think that water goes?”
Szabo called Wayne’s buying-out of homes in the floodplain “brilliant.”
Wayne received $24 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buyout homes in the Mountainview section of town. The Corps may also receive $5 million to buyout homes in the Passaic River Basin.
“Those are the kinds of actions we need to look at as government officials,” Szabo said. “People can’t live in a floodplain. They look at a home in a floodplain and they take a chance, but you don’t really know how bad it is until you go through it.”