He Was Swept Down a Sewer Pipe: 'I Just Let the Water Take Me'

George and Joan Babish, outside their flood-damaged South Plainfield, N.J. home on September 9, 2021. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times).
SOUTH PLAINFIELD (N.J.) Kevin Rivera owes everything to a man he will never see.

Rivera (18 years old) was leaving his part time job at Chick-fil A in New Jersey when Hurricane Ida's remnants ravaged the area. He searched for a sidewalk as he was surrounded by water to the waist.

Instead, he was pulled into the ravine and through the narrow sewer pipe in South Plainfield New Jersey.

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Rivera said, "I couldn't understand where I was or where I was going." Rivera shielded his head, and tore the raincoat from his face. Everything I felt was concrete. I let the water flow through me when I realized that I was trapped in a tunnel.

Police report that Rivera was found clinging on to a branch by rescuers in search of another man saved him. Dhanush Reddy (31), was pulled through the same 36 inch pipe. He had parked his car and tried to walk home with his girlfriend. Reddy died shortly after the accident.

After the storm struck Sept. 1, stories of people who drowned near or in their cars and who were almost killed by it ricocheted through New Jersey. At least 30 people were killed in New Jersey by Hurricane Ida's remnants, which made landfall 1,300miles away. This was more than any other state. It was New Jersey's second-deadliest hurricane on record.

Communities along the state's 130-mile Atlantic coast are familiar with flooding as are many towns located along its extensive network.

However, the damage reached deep into South Plainfield where flooding is much less frequent, underscoring what President Joe Biden described as a code red warning regarding climate change, as he visited hard-hit areas of New York and New Jersey.

New Jersey is the most populous state and has ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. It has also been purchasing back properties that are susceptible to flooding in the event of a hurricane. It is more difficult to deal with flash flooding caused by the more frequent storms that a warmer climate unleashes in a state where there are the highest percentages of impervious and hard-to-drain surface areas in the country.

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Shawn M. LaTourette is the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection. The answer is a clear yes.

He said that Ida was a remnant from a tropical depression. Communities were destroyed by a terrible thunderstorm. This is the new reality.

South Plainfield was hit hard by flash flooding that left dozens of motorists stranded, flooded basements and closed restaurants and lapped against the municipal building's back. For more than a week, debris covered with holiday decorations, carpets, and wooden furniture clogged the streets in one neighborhood, which is located outside of the 100-year floodplain. There are 1 in 100 chances of flooding that year.

We haven't had a drop in the last 50 years," said George Babish (88), whose basement at Redding Avenue was filled with approximately 4 feet of water and destroyed a newly installed furnace. The water took almost two days to drain.

We did get it good.

According to Dave Robinson, New Jersey's state climatologist Dave Robinson, three inches of rain fell an hour as the storm moved across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and into New York. It collided with another low-pressure system along the route. Robinson stated that several tornadoes struck central and southern New Jersey, leveling houses. Robinson noted that a group comprising 300 citizen scientists recorded rainfall totals of up to 9.45 inches along a large corridor.

Many communities were quickly overwhelmed by the torrential rains and intense tornadoes. 11 New Jersey counties have been designated major disaster areas by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Robert Kopp, a Rutgers University climate scientist, helped to write the grim report on global warming that was released by the United Nations last month. He called Ida an immediate impact of climate change.

Kopp stated that it did not happen out of the blue. It was Henri, Fred, and Elsa's best friend.

He said that we can only expect a more wet future and more extreme weather events.

Christina Krusinowski lived in the same house on South Plainfield Avenue for 26+ years. Ten years ago, Hurricane Irene left a trace of water in Krusinowski's basement. The water was so high that it reached her ankles.

Krusinowski stated that he had never seen so much water in his street before. It was like water flowing from a river.

South Plainfield is a borough with 24,000 residents in Middlesex County. It covers approximately 8 1/2 miles. Some parts of the town lie along a tributary which widens as the Raritan River approaches. This waterway regularly causes flooding further west in towns such as Manville, Bridgewater, and Bound Brook. It is near the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pump station, levees and walls that have been built to reduce flooding.

However, South Plainfield lies outside of the flood zone. Commercial and residential development have increased steadily in the past five decades. According to master plans drawn up by local officials, only 10% of the land was vacant in 2000. This is a decrease from 40% in 1970.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, more than 39% of the borough's surface was impervious in 2007. This was three times the national average of 12%.

It can't drain if you pave it over, explained Alice Tempel, South Plainfields recycling coordinator, and environmental specialist.

She said that our infrastructure is not capable of handling the weather at this speed.

New Jersey will soon require builders to account for climate change. This includes rising sea levels and emissions. The state will soon have the ability to modify or reject building plans that are based on climate change.

New Jersey also encourages residents, planners and politicians to use its how to tool kit to improve flood resilience. Among the suggested strategies are to modify municipal codes to require structures to be built at or above the flood level and to better use the natural environment for stormwater management.

A 2015 Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program report, which examined 54 towns within the Raritan River Basin, made specific recommendations to South Plainfield on how it could address stormwater runoff. These included porous pavement and bioretention systems such as rain gardens. (Neither the mayor of the boroughs nor the president of the council returned emails or calls seeking comment.

New Jersey's first scientific report on climate change was released last year. It concluded that the average temperature in the state has increased by 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit over 1895. This is more than any other region of the Northeast. The report showed that New Jersey's average precipitation has increased by 7.9% over the past 10 years.

Even with this grim backdrop, the scale of the destruction this month was alarming.

Ida was a storm that was as big as Sandy for us, according to David Rosenblatt, chief climate and flood resilience officer of the state. We were not prepared for bigger storms that might come.

The state purchased flood-prone and coastal properties from homeowners in the Blue Acres program. This was in response to Hurricane Sandy 2012, which caused 40 deaths in New Jersey.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, 1,115 families from 20 towns had been offered the opportunity to sell. 830 owners have accepted buyouts and 705 homes were already demolished.

The family-run Sherbans Diner is located in South Plainfield at the end of the original two-block downtown corridor.

The roof of one dining room started to leak during the storm, soaking the ceiling tiles as well as the rug. Kateina Ganiaris, who owns Sherbans with husband, stated that the Bound Brook flooded the basement and caused the roof to leak.

Ganiaris stated that flood remediation and plumbers were booked in full. However, several inches of standing water remained in the basement for eight days following the storm. She said that the basement had been flooded before but not as severe.

Ganiaris stated that it was financially devastating because customers only ate from a few tables in a third area. The family was able then to reopen the room.

Peter Ganiaris, who bought Sherbans in 1972, stated that sales had been already hard hit by forced closures during the pandemic.

Kateina Ganiaris was cleaning up after Ida and also planning a funeral for her mother, 89 years old. She had recently tested positive for coronavirus.

The funeral took place on Saturday.

Ganiaris stated that it was hell.

2021 The New York Times Company


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