TRENTON – The state’s top environmental official says one of the striking things after the damage caused by former Hurricane Ida was the immediate interest in Blue Acres buyouts of often-flooded properties.

Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said the feeling is mutual if planning studies suggest it’s the best way to go – but that money will need to be found to meet expected demand.

Some revenue from corporate taxes is dedicated to environmental purposes, and a 2019 law directs more of that money toward Blue Acres buyouts.

“We’ll be making use of that, no question,” LaTourette said. “But will it be enough to wholesale buy out communities that are repeatedly flooded? No. We’ll need federal help for that.”

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LaTourette said it would cost over $1 billion to buy out all the repeatedly flooded homes damaged by Ida, a sum he called "tremendous." He expects any disaster recovery bill passed by Congress in response to this summer’s storms will include some money toward that purpose.

It’s not yet clear how much money the program could actually need, but LaTourette said he is already hearing interest in towns such as Manville. Much like Superstorm Sandy was a benchmark coastal storm that got some communities to finally agree to buyouts, Ida was a benchmark storm for river flooding.

“For a community to come to terms with the reality of their risk and effectively say to itself that we have to uproot ourselves and find a new community to call our home, this is a big cultural undertaking for a community,” LaTourette said.

The Blue Acres program is voluntary, and LaTourette didn’t appear keen on the idea of forcing people to take buyouts. He said it takes community buy-in and that there has been no conversation about making buyouts mandatory, but he would welcome a conversation with lawmakers about it, if that’s the direction they want to go.

“But I think we have to be realistic, right? Private property rights exist. This is America,” he said.

“I don’t believe that we’re going to be able to help the public really appreciate risk by having a big ‘or else’ hammer sitting on the side,” LaTourette said.

LaTourette said there should be a conversation about reimagining the program, in part to decide whether it would be better to buy out individual homes even if whole clusters of homeowners don’t want to take part.

The acquisition and knockdown of whole neighborhoods, converting land into flood basins, can have broader benefits for towns and regions beyond ending the risk to individual homes, but individual buyouts may also have value, he said.

“We may be putting barriers in our own way to conveying risk if we are only saying we’re going to buy out entire communities,” LaTourette said.

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