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‘Every time it rains’: Floods from climate change plague a Camden neighborhood

“It’s not fair to us,” Nancy Ruiz says of constant flooding and the costs she's had to absorb. “Taxes go up. Food and everything is going up and we are not even middle class."

Nancy Ruiz points out damage June 16, 2022, from near constant flooding of her home in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood.
Nancy Ruiz points out damage June 16, 2022, from near constant flooding of her home in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood.Read moreFrank Kummer

Nancy Ruiz juggles two jobs to make ends meet, so the $2,000 it cost for a second sump pump at her home in the Cramer Hill neighborhood of Camden due to routine flooding was a serious economic hit.

“When I got the bill, I said, ‘Oh my God.’”

And that doesn’t include the annoyance associated with a shower that backs up when it rains, baseboards that are rotting, or persistent mold climbing the wallboard.

“I had to put a pump inside the house, and outside the house, but we still get so much water,” Ruiz said.

Flooding has long been a part of life for many in the neighborhood where Ruiz has lived since 1980. But within the last few years, she and other residents say, it has gotten worse as water pours into homes and streets during unnamed, almost routine, deluges — not just the big, named tropical storms.

Officials believe that climate change is a factor, and that addressing the problem is a matter of environmental justice. But that comes with a steep price tag for an economically struggling city such as Camden. So city and county officials have applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for a $119 million plan they believe will lead to a “significant decrease” in street and neighborhood flooding.

“You have to think of this holistically,” said Joseph Myers, chief operating officer for the Camden Community Partnership, a nonprofit that plans redevelopment projects in Camden. “We’re going to have more types of this weather. Significant rainstorms are going to continue to happen. So you have to think about how we rebuild in this climate change environment.”

90 million gallons

A 2020 study by Climate Central, a Princeton-based nonprofit that analyzes and reports on climate science, showed that housing in Camden and Atlantic City is among the most vulnerable in the United States to the impact of rising sea levels and flooding due to climate change because much of the old housing was built in low-lying areas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a technical report on sea-level rise for 2022 and cited Camden as particularly vulnerable to flooding, which it projects will only get worse.

At an estimated 71,773, Camden’s population has been in decline. About 42% of residents identify as Black or African American and 50% as Hispanic or Latino. The city has the lowest median household income in New Jersey at $28,623, and a poverty rate of 34%, compared with 9.4% statewide.

About 9,400 of those residents live in the Cramer Hill community north of downtown, bordered by the tidal Delaware River, a rail yard, the Cooper River, and Pennsauken. The neighborhood is 75% Latino. It is a close-knit community of 1.3 square miles, marked by a residential core of single-family homes.

Cramer Hill falls within a FEMA flood zone. Storm water flows downhill from Pennsauken into Camden through an interconnection of pipes. The water enters a station owned by the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA). When that system reaches capacity, it overflows.

Officials say 90 million gallons of storm water mixed with diluted untreated sewage water pour into city streets annually from the combined system. That system overflows about 69 times a year, though not all of that goes into streets.

At least 13 streets in Cramer Hill regularly flood.

“There are certain consequences the flooding creates,” said Mayor Vic Carstarphen, who grew up in Cramer Hill. “When roads get flooded, buses can’t get by. When basements flood, that might be an extra expense. When you can’t get to your car or streets flood, you might not get to work, or are tardy.”

County Commissioner Al Dyer, another Cramer Hill native, said flooding has ripple effects, such as shutting down transportation for residents getting to jobs or schools.

“Once it rains, all the transportation, public transportation, and school buses all just get rerouted,” Dyer said. “If it rains at 7 in the morning, or 3:30 in the afternoon, the schools and transportation come to a gridlock.”

Camden’s Walter Rand Transportation Center is a major hub for NJ Transit buses and the PATCO and River Line rail systems. Flooding creates ripple effects at the Rand throughout the city when buses can’t get there.

Neighbors complain about the amount of mosquitoes coming from standing water, a public health threat because of West Nile virus.

‘It’s not fair to us’

Flooding has long been a problem for Cramer Hill because of its geography. But residents say something has changed within the last decade as downpours become heavier.

When does Ruiz’s home flood?

“Every time it rains,” she said.

“It’s not fair to us,” Ruiz added. “Taxes go up. Food and everything is going up and we are not even middle class. I have to work two jobs to try to survive ... and now for everything to get damaged. As soon as I get caught up with a bill, boom, something else happens.”

Ruiz spoke to The Inquirer one recent morning in mid-June after finishing a shift as a clerk at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. She also works as a driver at Spring Hills Assisted Living in Cherry Hill. She lives with her son and a grandchild.

A puddle emerged at Ruiz’s back door on 18th Street after a short but heavy rain in mid-June. It’s the fourth door she’s bought in recent years. The three others rotted from water damage. So she got a steel one that’s now spotted with mold, but at least it’s not decaying.

Her neighbor Jose Mercado, who also had flood issues, said all four storm drains at their corner were recently replaced but still back up and flood the street when it rains.

Carlos Molina, a retired security officer for the Camden School Board, has lived 33 years in the low-lying Von Neida Park section of Cramer Hill, all of which is in a floodplain. Two days after a rain, he stood on the corner of 29th Street and Harrison Avenue. There, Harrison slopes down next to woods and Baldwin’s Run, a tributary of the Delaware River, which is two blocks to the north.

Von Neida Park experiences some of the city’s worst flooding.

“My wife works at JCPenney,” he said, recounting a recent rain. “She was coming home but couldn’t go down because it was so flooded. She couldn’t get through. I came down with my Jeep to see if it was too deep for her to get across. I said, ‘Follow me,’ and I opened up the water so she could follow me through.”

Molina said flooding has worsened over the last several years.

“Why do we have to go through this?” he asks. “This is every time it rains.”

The fix

Camden pokes like a peninsula into the Delaware River. It is bisected by the Cooper River and bordered by Newton Creek. It is drained by a combined system that carries both sewage and storm water in single pipes to a treatment plant. The system works fine when it’s dry but overflows during heavy rains, causing untreated sewage to run into streets and waterways — the same outdated system that plagues Philadelphia.

The NOAA report says sea-level rise is causing flooding to become “more severe, more frequent, deeper, and more widespread.” It cites Camden as an example of a city adjacent to an estuary, the Delaware River, where that impact is magnified. The report says that as seas rise, so does tidal flooding.

So flooding in Cramer Hill gets compounded by the combination of a rising river, bigger rains, and higher tides. More water gets trapped and has no place to flow.

“We’re seeing it get worse and expand,” said Dan Keashen, a county spokesperson. “I’m not a climate scientist, but I don’t think I have to be to recognize the fact that we get one inch of rain now and it shuts down the city.”

Scott Schreiber, executive director of the CCMUA, said 13 underground monitors are being installed to begin measuring the volume of water during flooding. He is working with Franco Montalto, a Drexel engineering professor, who will analyze the data and use the information to project future flooding. Montalto has also worked in Philadelphia’s Eastwick section, another urban area with major flooding issues.

Between 1958 and 2016, the amount of precipitation falling on the rainiest days of each year increased in the Northeastern United States, based on information Montalto compiled for the county. Considering only the top 1% of all rainy days, the amount of precipitation falling on those days increased by 55% over this period — the largest observed increase in the nation.

Over the 20th century, the average sea level in the Delaware Estuary rose by about one foot compared with six inches globally. Sea levels along New Jersey are rising at the fastest rate on the Atlantic Coast, in part because it is sinking slowly due to its geology. Projections show a rise of 12 to 36 inches, depending on greenhouse gases, by midcentury, with a big impact projected for Camden.

For a short-term fix, the biggest chunk of the $119 million flood control plan being proposed by officials would sever the combined sewer system’s connection with Pennsauken at High Street at a cost of $45 million. Workers would reroute storm water directly into the Delaware River, rather than to the sewer system, which should significantly reduce sewer overflows.

The plan also includes:

  1. $15 million to capture or divert rain from I-676 by installing green storm-water infrastructure and temporary storage tanks.

  2. $30 million to improve roads between the Joseph A. Balzano and Broadway Marine Terminals in Camden to I-676, where trucks back up and clog local streets during floods.

  3. $29 million to design and install underground storm-water storage along Harrison Avenue.

Schreiber said that, in addition, capacity would be increased at the Baldwin’s Run pump station.

None of the planned improvements will cover the hundreds of millions it will cost to replace the combined sewer system in its entirety. The city, Schreiber said, is facing “real challenges.” And, if those aren’t met, he added, “a whole part of the community will be underwater.”

Help can’t come fast enough, Ruiz said. She and neighbors say streets begin to flood minutes after a rain. Then, the water flows toward her home, where the lower level is at ground level.

“We have to spend all this money for the basement,” Ruiz said. “Now, I have to redo my Sheetrock.”