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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