The price of protecting New Jersey from rising sea levels and the devastation
of future storms is breathtaking, making it seem at times that the problem is
Some options that have been floated include $7.4 billion to buy all 13,300 structures in the Passaic River basin at risk of being flooded by a catastrophic storm, or $2.7 billion for a tunnel to protect Wayne and other towns by guiding storm runoff out to Newark Bay.
While the huge engineering projects garner much of the attention, some experts argue that less glamorous, lower-priced and smaller-scale initiatives replicated over a wide area can often produce dramatic results. Many of these strategies -- from rebuilding beaches and dunes that have been scoured away by waves, to improved building codes that help structures withstand storms -- have already proved effective in New Jersey.
The specifics of certain proposals can be debated, but most agree something needs to be done.
Just in the past year or so, the state has been hammered by unusually intense storms that have caused damage in very different ways. Sandy pounded the Jersey Shore and the state's electrical grid while swamping Moonachie and Little Ferry as well as the region's largest sewage treatment plant. In August of 2011, Hurricane Irene caused historic flooding along the Passaic River. The October snowstorm of 2011 downed trees and put much of North Jersey in the dark.
"The results of Sandy were devastating and it wasn't even a Category 1 hurricane when it hit," said Lisa Auermuller, a watershed coordinator at Rutgers University's Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences. "Storms are likely to be more severe over time. And with sea level rise, even regular tides are going to be higher. Some shore communities are already seeing that."
President Obama on Friday asked Congress for more than $60 billion to help states affected by Sandy recover and rebuild -- a figure that includes funding for some of the infrastructure projects local leaders say are needed to prevent future storm-related devastation.
When Governor Christie recently announced that New Jersey's cleanup and recovery from Sandy will cost $37 billion, he included more than $7 billion for projects to protect against future storms. If Congress approves those funds, it could help defray the costs of a wide array of strategies in areas across the state, including flood-prone parts of North Jersey.
Rebuilding the Jersey Shore to handle storm surges, meanwhile, could require billions of dollars to replenish beaches swept away during superstorm Sandy, erect steel bulkheads at $3 million or more a pop, rebuild damaged seawalls, elevate thousands of homes on pilings, and buy out some neighborhoods.
Making the New Jersey transit system more resilient to storms could cost $800 million, and putting electric lines underground could average $724,000 per mile.
But experts caution that big engineering projects can have unintended consequences. "You can solve a problem for one group and create a problem for another," said Tom O'Rourke, a Cornell University engineering professor. "We need to engage people, recognize there will be winners and losers, but optimize our solutions so there are as few losers as possible."
Smaller-scale projects -- like improved building codes along the Jersey Shore -- can often produce dramatic results, experts say.
"There's no magic formula for dealing with the situation," said Karl Nordstrom, a marine and coastal sciences professor at Rutgers University.
John A. Miller, a member of Governor Christie's Passaic River Basin Flood Advisory Commission who works at Princeton Hydro, a water and wetlands engineering consulting firm, agreed. "There's no silver bullet," he said.
A roller coaster swept into the ocean and homes knocked off their foundations by storm surge have become iconic images of Sandy's wrath at the Shore. Mantoloking lost nearly 150 feet of beach.
But some shoreline communities escaped much of that devastation. In Harvey Cedars, Surf City and Long Beach Township's Brant Beach -- places where projects had been completed to rebuild eroded beaches and dunes by pumping sand from the ocean floor onto the shore -- damage was comparatively minimal, said Daniel Barone of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College.
"Beach nourishment is still the first line of defense," said Steve Hafner, who also works with the Coastal Research Center. "And it provides recreational attraction that generates tourism dollars."
The state devotes $25 million a year to beach replenishment projects, protecting a tourism industry that generates nearly $20 billion a year. "That return on investment seems to make sense," Barone said.
Beach replenishment can be achieved in many ways. In the past few years, a $500,000 project in Beach Haven involved installation of 390-foot-long geotubes -- large textile tubes filled with sand laid parallel to the shore and then covered with more sand to create new dunes. Beach fill projects involving more than 2 million cubic yards of sand in Strathmere, North Wildwood and Stone Harbor cost $20 million, and a dune project in Egg Harbor Township involving rock-filled gabion baskets cost $265,000.
The state Department of Environmental Protection advocates beach replenishment over "hardening" the shoreline with more solid structures, such as bulkheads or groins -- the jetty-like structures made from rocks that jut out perpendicular to the shore. While groins can help capture sand to protect one section of beach, they can starve another section of beach, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.
There are downsides to beach replenishment. "It's a Band-Aid. Beach replenishment doesn't last forever," Auermuller said. "You have to keep doing it over and over and there's a big price tag."
The projects can harm the ecosystem where the ocean floor is mined for sand. And some homeowners have opposed dune-building proposals because they obstruct their ocean views.
But in the aftermath of Sandy, it was clear that areas that had allowed the beach work fared better, said Joseph Mancini, the mayor of Long Beach Township. He has argued that homeowners who blocked beach replenishment should bear the cost of cleanup and restoration in their sections of town.
Building code changes can also reduce storm damage. Homes built after 1992 fared better during Sandy than older structures, said Henry Kelly, a builder and past president of the Shore Builders Association of Central New Jersey.
The difference: Those newer homes were built to meet codes updated after Hurricane Andrew to ensure that structures could withstand more intense wind speeds. They were also built using updated FEMA maps that had raised the base flood elevations for structures along shorelines.
Building codes are likely to change again. The state Department of Community Affairs has created a working group that includes engineers, zoning officials, builders and architects who will analyze Sandy's impact and suggest code changes. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency is issuing interim updated flood-zone maps for coastal New Jersey counties this month that will show the 100-year storm flood levels at the Jersey Shore. The new maps will reflect data from more recent storms and show that the likely flood height for a 100-year storm -- the type of powerful storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year -- would be 1 to 4 feet higher than the old maps had predicted. The new maps will help homeowners and communities figure out how high off the ground to build new shoreline structures.
As Jersey Shore rebuilding gets under way, more homes will be elevated on pilings. The cost varies, Kelly said, depending on the home's size and location.
FEMA requires elevation for new structures in coastal zones and those being rebuilt after major damage. The street level of homes can be enclosed, but they must have breakaway walls so the force of the storm surge doesn't radiate through the rest of the house. And the street level can't include essential living quarters.
The state DEP goes even further, requiring elevations to be a foot above the FEMA standard.
"We encourage communities to think of FEMA requirements as just a minimum and not reflective of possible future conditions, like the effect of sea level rise and higher storm surges," Auermuller said.
Yet even elevated homes face threats from storm surge. Those built in the highest-risk coastal zones must have pilings that extend 10 feet into the ground below sea level, Kelly said. But some areas along the Jersey Shore lost 4 to 6 feet of sand depth during Sandy.
"So you can end up with a two-story home being buffeted by storm surge with pilings sunk only six feet down -- I don't know anything that can hold a house up in a situation like that," Kelly said.
In North Jersey towns that have suffered repeated storm flooding, many consider buyouts to be a better option than trying to build a house that will survive a surge of water.
Since 2005, New Jersey has received more than $100 million from the federal government to buy out or elevate homes statewide, including more than $40 million for the Passaic River basin after Hurricane Irene. Wayne received $20 million to buy 72 homes, the largest such award in state history. Little Falls targeted 78 homes.
"Buying out homes from voluntary sellers helps families in New Jersey's most flood-prone communities move out of harm's way and prevents future damage," said U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, vice chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds the buyout program.
Buyouts to cover the 9,500 structures in the Passaic River basin that are in the flood footprint of a 25-year storm would cost about $4.7 billion. It would cost $7.4 billion to buy the roughly 13,300 structures in the flood footprint of a 100-year storm, the Army Corps of Engineers has estimated.
Given the program's success in the Passaic region, some argue that selective buyouts could be an effective tool to make the Jersey Shore more resilient as well. There is precedent for buyouts at the Shore: After a nor'easter slammed the coast in 1962, Sea Isle City condemned two blocks' worth of storm-damaged property and provided lots for their owners on the bay side of town, said Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the DEP.
But he acknowledged buyouts can become a hot-button item. "The debate gets polarized" between those who think people should abandon shoreline property completely and those who want to stand firm and harden the shoreline everywhere. "There's a middle ground," he said. "Hold the line -- and pull back in certain spots."
The Passaic River basin has come under seven federal disaster declarations since 2005. In the past two decades, floods have caused more than $3.5 billion in losses. Hurricane Irene last year caused the region's worst flooding in a century, producing enough rainfall to qualify as a 500-year storm event in the Passaic's upper watershed.
In the early 1990s, the corps proposed a $2.1 billion, 20-mile tunnel and levee system to divert runoff after heavy storms from the Passaic watershed out to Newark Bay. The idea stalled over concerns about costs and the scale of the project. Today, a tunnel diversion project would cost an estimated $2.7 billion, according to the corps.
A system of levees and floodwalls along with dam and bridge modifications could achieve much of the same protection from significant storms for less than $1 billion, the corps has estimated.
But levees and can also fail -- as happened with the storm surge swept up the Hackensack, overwhelming Meadowlands levees and swamping Little Ferry and Moonachie the night Sandy hit.
"We're going to have flooding," said Miller, the water resource engineer on the Passaic River Basin Flood Advisory Commission. "There's no single answer."
The devastating storms that have struck New Jersey also have local and state officials talking about building infrastructure that will be able to withstand what some are calling weather's "new normal."
James Weinstein, NJ Transit's executive director, said more than $800 million is needed to make the system more resilient to storms. More than 300 railcars and locomotives -- a quarter of the state's rolling commuter stock -- were damaged by Sandy.
The massive power outages caused by both Irene and Sandy -- about 80 percent of the state's population lost power after Sandy alone -- also renewed talk of burying electrical lines to make storm-caused blackouts a thing of the past. But that could cost an average of $724,000 per mile, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a power industry group. Experts say the expense and work required for such a major construction project make the endeavor highly unlikely, especially in such densely populated areas as North Jersey. And buried lines are susceptible to corrosion by saltwater intrusion in shore areas, some experts say. Among those against the idea are the power companies, as well as Christie.
"A million dollars a mile, in this state?" he said after Sandy, citing the higher end of industry cost projections. "I think the cost-benefit analysis there is pretty obvious."
But other projects could cost far less. For example, backup generators in hospitals and other essential buildings need to be brought out of flood-prone basements.
When a 5-foot wave of Newark Bay water crashed across the facilities at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission's huge plant in Newark during superstorm Sandy, much of the equipment, located in tunnels below ground, was ruined. The backup generators were knocked out. As a result, millions of gallons of untreated sewage poured into the Passaic River.
Michael DeFrancisci, the commission's executive director, said later that the doors to the facility's tunnels were not watertight -- and that a top priority will be to install watertight doors.
Tim Crowley, FEMA's regional director for mitigation, said that as it recovers from Sandy, New Jersey can use the opportunity to do more than rebuild what was damaged or destroyed. "It's a chance to seize the day to build more disaster-resilient communities," he said.
Mauriello, the former DEP commissioner, said that while Sandy was a "scary wake-up call," New Jersey doesn't need to look far for some of the best ways to make the state more resilient to future storms. "We don't have to wonder where it's been done -- it's already been done right here. We have successes," he said, citing the beach replenishment program as an example.
"Right now we have a brief window to push things forward," he said. "Because down the road, as we get a few months past the storm, the energy fades."
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