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Ten Years to Rebuild Smarter, More Resilient Jersey Shore, Experts Say

Tom Johnson | December 10, 2012

Comprehensive dune system would reshape shoreline, remake communities

Photo taken from search-and-rescue helicopter captures damage at Casino Pier, Seaside Heights, NJ.
Photo taken from search-and-rescue helicopter captures damage at Casino Pier, Seaside Heights, NJ.

It will take a decade to rebuild the Jersey Shore, and when it is done its economy may be different and there may be a much smaller population, according to a disaster expert who oversaw the recovery of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

With the sea level rising, however, it is imperative that the state takes a smarter approach to rebuilding the coast, according to some experts. That may include renovating areas where houses and businesses have long been located, because extreme weather like Hurricane Sandy will likely reoccur.

As devastating as the superstorm was, experts at a forum at Monmouth University on Friday said Sandy presents the state with an opportunity to fortify the coast with a comprehensive dune system to protect the shore. Doing so will require a collaborative effort among private, pubic, and academic sectors, they said.

“This is a decade-long process,’’ predicted Edward Blakely, who served as two years as the “recovery czar’’ in New Orleans, following Katrina. “This is not going to be over next year, or the year after.’’

While the temptation might be to repair damaged infrastructure quickly, Blakely warned that the state should build smarter and better. “We can’t look to past weather conditions; we can’t look to past building codes anymore,’’ he said.

Build an infrastructure for the next century, urged Blakely, a viewpoint repeatedly echoed at the conference, which was hosted by New Jersey Future, a smart growth organization, along with Kislak Real Estate Institute and the Urban Coast Institute.

“With climate change, we can no longer expect the future to look like the past,’’ said Anthony Broccoli, professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University. “We do know that climate change alters the probability of extreme events.’’

In Atlantic City, there has been a 16-inch rise in sea level recorded over the past century, according to Broccoli.

No one is arguing Sandy was not an extreme event. Twenty- to 30-feet of beach was lost in many communities, according to Megan Linkin, an atmospheric perils specialist for Swiss Reinsurance America Corp., based in Armonk, N.Y. More than 70,000 buildings were damaged by the storm, including more than 500 that were destroyed. The physical economic damage is $29.4 billion, she told the conference.

With the experience of Katrina and other disasters, Blakely offered up some sobering assessments of what New Jersey can expect in the wake of Sandy.

In most disasters, as much as 40 percent of the population makes up its mind not to return, he said. That includes many people who led successful small businesses that were deemed permanent, but run by people in their 60s or 70s, who decide not to start all over again.

The top priorities for the state should be to restore the environment and to rebuild the infrastructure -- the roads, services and schools, Blakely said. Until that is done, the state and local governments cannot focus on rebuilding neighborhoods, he said.

Here’s a term people looking to rebuild may want to become familiar with: advisory-based flood elevations (ABEFs), according to federal officials. It refers to lifting buildings above areas likely to be flooded during a coastal event.

“We have to seize the day to build a disaster-resilient community,’’ said Tim Crowley, Region II director of mitigation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Using federal standards to elevate structures in flood areas may make rebuilding more expensive, but will lower costs in the long term for homeowners and businesses, Crowley said. “Let’s address the risk if a Sandy-like storm comes in a year or two,’’ he said.

Others urged more pro-active measures.

Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said a plan involving acquisition of property and relocation of property owners is the most cost-effective mitigation option out there, if probably the most controversial, in selected areas.

“We really need to broaden our thinking on how we redevelop the coast,’’ he said.

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