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The Jersey Shore's beach bailout

Many believe the coastal areas hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy should be vacated, saying future flooding is inevitable

Dimitra Mpovolis has called the small town of South River, New Jersey, home almost her whole life. Now, as their home is being demolished, she and her daughter Vicky have come to say goodbye.

This is the second time in the past two years Mpovolis and her family have left their home. The first time, they were fleeing Superstorm Sandy.

“Seven o’clock, I woke my husband up. I looked across the street, [and] the water was already here,” she said.

Now, tired of the regular flooding which plagues their low-lying riverside neighborhood, the Mpovolis Family has decided to get out for good. They’re taking advantage of a state program called Blue Acres. Ramped up in the aftermath of Sandy, Blue Acres is meant to buy homes in flood-prone area and return the land to Mother Nature.

The state is planning to demolish hundreds of homes, many of which are far inland and located in working-class neighborhoods. But while the worst damage happened at the Jersey Shore, it might surprise you that not a single home along the coast has been removed.

“The problem is though that the state has not necessarily found the most vulnerable places, the places where we’re likely to see people at risk in the future,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, which is dedicated to protecting America’s coastline.

Instead of removing coastal homes, the state has considered several plans that would keep people in shore communities.  Those plans include a network of sea walls, dunes, and even artificial offshore barriers whose price tag could eventually exceed $10 billion. Meanwhile, only a fraction of that – $300 million – is being spent on buyout under Blue Acres.

“It is absolutely a subsidy for waterfront development,” Dillingham said. He added, “It continues to put people at risk, not only homeowners themselves, but the emergency responders in the storms when these properties are flooded.”

Fawn McGee, director of the Blue Acres program, admits the program could do a better job reaching out directly to eligible homeowners. So far, many of its meetings have been with town officials, not residents. 

She points out that participation in Blue Acres is voluntary. She said so far, very few homeowners along the Shore have shown much interest. But with funding to buy only 1,300 of the 350,000 buildings damaged by Sandy, even she wishes the program were bigger.

"At some point, the science shows that maybe homes shouldn't be in certain places," she said. "And we're doing it one home at a time."

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