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Opinion: It's time to connect the dots between rising sea levels and rebuilding

Will the state’s Sandy rebuilding efforts acknowledge sea-level rise and help NJ's towns, counties, and agencies to plan accordingly?

Chris Sturm

Setting aside debates about climate change, it’s no secret that sea levels are rising in New Jersey. Research scientists at Rutgers University expect sea levels to rise 17 inches by 2050 and 44 inches by 2100. This means that, as time goes on, more and more low-lying coastal areas will be completely underwater. Effects will be magnified during storm events, increasing the severity of flooding in coastal and bay areas. By 2100 Atlantic City, for example, is predicted to experience floods every year or two as severe as those that today happen only once a century.

What’s been kept under wraps, though, is whether the state’s Sandy rebuilding efforts will acknowledge sea-level rise and help New Jersey’s towns, counties, and infrastructure agencies to plan accordingly.

Perhaps the most obvious place to address the risks posed by sea-level rise is the state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP). This plan, required as a condition of receiving federal disaster aid, must assess our vulnerability to an array of natural and human-made hazards and recommend ways to minimize future harm. So far, no public information has been released on the planning effort, which must be completed by April 2014, so there’s no indication whether sea-level rise will be included.

The same question applies to a parallel effort at the county level. The Christie administration is directing nearly $3 million of federal rebuilding aid to allow 14 counties to update their own hazard mitigation plans. This investment in mitigation planning could mark a turning point in how New Jersey prepares for disasters. But, like the state HMP, we don’t yet know whether the grants will require countywide plans to incorporate projections for rising sea levels and identify areas likely to be either underwater or inundated by storm surge. It’s hard to imagine how plans can keep homes, businesses, and infrastructure out of harm’s way without such a vulnerability assessment.

Finally, a similar situation is playing out for a local grant program. The Christie administration has made $5 million available to towns and counties through its post-Sandy planning assistance grant program. But so far, the words “sea-level rise” have not been included in this effort, nor has the state provided localities any guidance on how best to assess risks. The administration is also granting funds to six universities to evaluate targeted flood-mitigation strategies in areas affected by superstorm Sandy that may be vulnerable to future flooding, but it has not explained how this effort will be integrated with other required and voluntary planning efforts.

In contrast, neighboring state governments offer tools and guidance to their communities to help them protect constituents from sea level rise and other climate impacts. New York State’s Reconstruction Rising offers $25 million in grants and a toolkit for assessing sea-level rise out to the year 2100. Connecticut has released a Climate Preparedness Plan and is creating a climate resiliency research center to help coastal communities. To the south, Delaware has assessed its vulnerability to climate change and offers its communities free climate preparedness training, while Maryland’s initiatives include new sea level rise projections to help decisionmakers plan.

Ironically, several New Jersey institutions make available excellent planning tools, including Rutgers University’s NJ Flood Mapper and Getting to Resilience tools, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Coastal Community Vulnerability Assessment and Mapping Protocol, and the forthcoming sea-level rise web tool and analysis from Princeton-based Climate Central. However, the state’s rebuilding efforts have not yet acknowledged these tools.

Local governments ravaged by Hurricane Sandy are scrambling to get residents and business owners back on their feet, and also to make sure they won’t be damaged when the next storm hits. Communities need all the help they can get to be “smarter than the next storm,” and all the ones after that. Now is the time for state government to connect the dots between rising sea levels and rebuilding, so that its investments in planning are not wasted.

Chris Sturm directs New Jersey Future’s policy development and advocacy across a host of issues, including state and regional planning, sustainable infrastructure, and incentives for compact, equitable development.

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