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Bayside Flooding Highlights Inherent Vulnerability of Barrier Islands

Emphasis on ‘soft’ defenses such as rebuilding natural marshlands seen as most effective long-term approach

ocean city flood winter storm jonas

Flood waters that swept into some South Jersey coastal towns from the bay side of the barrier islands last weekend highlighted their vulnerability to nor’easters and rising sea levels. But those communities will be hard-pressed to prevent it from happening again, local residents and business owners said.

The state is looking at ways it can build storm resiliency into new regulations but locals said little can be done other than building higher – which is likely only a stop-gap measure due to the severity and frequency of recent storms.

Streets in towns such as Ocean City and Stone Harbor filled with several feet of water at high tides on Saturday and Sunday when winter storm Jonas exacerbated the effects of a full moon, forcing water from the bay side of the islands onto land.

While oceanside properties were mostly unscathed thanks to bigger dunes that have created a more sheltered beach front, the islands’ bayside was exposed to wind and waves that some residents said rivaled those of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The northerly winds drove ocean waters into the back bays and prevented them from fully draining at low tide, forcing the water onto the island.

Affected locations included the intersection of West Avenue and Eighth Street in Ocean City, which by mid-morning Saturday, several hours after high tide, became a wind-whipped expanse of gray-green water dotted with ice and snow driven in by the storm’s northerly winds.

In Stone Harbor early Sunday, long stretches of Third Avenue filled with water from the bay a block away, blocking traffic and trapping the few remaining residents in their homes, as it had during high tides the day before.

Worst flooding ever?

Residents of the barrier islands are accustomed to flooding, especially when high tides coincide with full moons, but even longtime islanders were struck by the severity of the latest inundation, even compared with Sandy.

“This was about the highest I can recall, it was the highest ever,” said Tom Natoli, store manager at Smuggler’s Cove, a bait and tackle shop that has been in business on th e bay at Stone Harbor for the last 43 years.

The water was about 6 inches deep in the store and some 5 feet deep in the street outside, Natoli said. The store lost some refrigerators and air conditioners together worth an estimated $15,000, only some of which is covered by insurance. Given the cleanup operation, it’s unlikely that the store will open this coming weekend, he said

Floods are a fact of life in the barrier islands, Natoli said, and there is little that residents can do about them, even if they are becoming more of a threat because of sea-level rise and the bigger storms that are predicted to result from climate change.

To have any hope of protecting the bay side of the island from a Jonas-like storm, bulkheads would have to be raised several feet along the entire length of the island, Natoli said, “and that’s just not practical.”

Even if they were built, higher bulkheads would be no guarantee of keeping bay waters off the island because the water will just come in via storm drains if it is blocked by bulkheads, argued J. Craig Otton, a building contractor who has lived at Stone Harbor for all of his 56 years.

Otton said one-way valves have been fitted to storm drains in neighboring Avalon with the aim of stopping bay water from backing up into the streets, but he said there was some evidence that the valves hindered the escape of storm water back into the bay.

“You are just not going to stop it,” said Otton, whose waterfront office took in about 2 inches of water in the storm. He estimated that he had sustained about $5,000 in damage to equipment.

Is building higher the answer?

The most obvious way of dealing with coastal flooding is to build higher, Otton said, and that is now required under federal regulations for new construction in locations like Stone Harbor.

But elevated structures are no guarantee against storms that are becoming stronger and more frequent, he said.

Whatever measures might be taken, they seem unlikely to come during the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, who angered residents with his reported dismissal of criticism that he had not taken enough time off from his presidential campaign in New Hampshire to visit flood-stricken areas of New Jersey.

“Governor Christie kind blew us off (with) ‘What do you want me to come down for? Bring a mop?’” Otton said.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Christie said he regretted making the ‘mop’ comment, and said it was a joke that not everyone may have liked.

Manmade and natural solutions

Despite the governor’s apparent lack of interest in the back-bay flooding problem, his Department of Environmental Protection is looking at structural improvements such as better bulkheads and storm water controls, as well as natural solutions such as the restoration of salt marshes, as ways of controlling flooding, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency.

Hajna said officials are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on pilot projects that use dredged sand and sediment to raise the level of salt marshes to a point where natural grasses can get re-established and form a protective barrier.

To regulate bayside development, the DEP has for many years implemented laws including the Coastal Area Facility Review Act that is designed in part to protect beaches and marshes, Hajna said.

Last weekend’s bayside flooding was the result of a familiar pattern that was exacerbated by a full moon and the strong winds of Jonas, Hajna said. “With no place to go, the bays fill up like a bathtub and overflow.”

Increasingly vulnerability

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, which works to protect coastal areas, said the weekend’s flooding was the latest indication of the vulnerability of the Shore to sea-level rise and climate change.

He said the event highlights the need to bolster resiliency by rebuilding natural barriers like salt marshes.

“By destroying those salt marshes, by building on top of them, we have created these vulnerabilities,” he said.

Dillingham acknowledged that salt marshes are themselves vulnerable to sea-level rise, and so must be maintained over time to raise their level to a point where they can absorb storm surges in places like Stone Harbor.

Such “soft” natural features are themselves more resilient than “hard” defenses such as bulkheads, some of which were destroyed in Sandy, Dillingham said.

“There’s growing evidence that soft shorelines can absorb the impact of a storm better and obviously don’t need to be rebuilt,” he said.

But there is “no silver bullet,” he said. “We are committed to long-term management of the shoreline because we’ve altered it so much and we’ve put ourselves into vulnerable places.”

He called on the state to conduct a vulnerability assessment of the specific locations that are affected by back-bay flooding.

Meanwhile, some residents of Stone Harbor and Ocean City said they understand that living on a barrier island comes with inherent risks, even if they are increasing with rising seas and bigger storms.

Jesse Gery, a Stone Harbor contractor who maintains about 800 properties there and in Avalon, said that damage to properties from the weekend’s storm was less severe in Avalon than it was in Stone Harbor, where the effects were similar to those of Sandy.

The island’s vulnerability can be mitigated to some extent by elevating houses, he said, but some of the risk is inherent, based on the simple nature of the environment.

“It’s just part of living on an island,” he said. “You dig down 12 inches and you’re going to hit water. You have to deal with it.”

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