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Officials Defend Pace of Coastal Back Bays Study as Residents Fend off Floods

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers range of defenses, including new floodwalls and storm-surge gates, but construction unlikely before 2026

Flooding Ocean City
Credit: wikimedia.org
Flooding in Ocean City

Andrea Petinga never had flooding on her property in Atlantic City until Hurricane Sandy, but now it happens twice a month when there’s a full moon or a new moon, and she’s sick of it.

Petinga, who lives along the Intracoastal Waterway on the bay side of Atlantic City, took her concerns to a meeting held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Ventnor on Wednesday to update the public on its massive five-year study on how to defend New Jersey’s back bays from the bigger storms and rising seas that are forecast for coming decades.

Officials said they expect to publish draft recommendations in December but those won’t be finalized until 2021 and the construction of new floodwalls, storm-surge gates or any other defenses isn’t expected until 2026 at the earliest.

That’s too late for people like Petinga, 69, who told the meeting that she doesn’t have a decade or more to wait for the authorities to figure out a way of stopping rising seas from the back bays flooding people’s properties.

“Since Hurricane Sandy, every full moon, every new moon, I have water at my house, and if you don’t move your car you will lose your car,” Petinga said in an interview after the meeting. “My sidewalk is falling in, and there’s no help. There’s no money to do anything, is what I’m told.”

Forced to relocate?

With no solution in sight, Petinga said she has considered moving away from the house where she has lived for 46 years but doesn’t want to because she likes where she lives. Still, she accepts that she might eventually be forced to relocate if the waters continue to inundate her property.

“Yes, if the water keeps coming up and nobody does anything,” she said, showing a reporter pictures of her flooded yard on her phone. “The water comes through the bulkhead during high tide whereas it never did before. It’s rotting away and nobody takes care of it.”

By 2030, seas at the Jersey Shore are forecast to be 0.8 feet higher than at present, according to the central projection of a Rutgers University study. The increase is projected to rise to 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.5 feet by the end of the century. Each projection is higher than the global average because the land in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region is sinking while seas are rising.

In June, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that almost 25,000 New Jersey homes will be inundated by rising seas by 2035.

Bill Dixon, Director of the Division of Coastal Engineering at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said his team is working with the Army Corps to find solutions to the flooding but whatever they come up with won’t absolve residents of vulnerable areas like the back bays of the need to take care of themselves.

‘It’s just like after Sandy’

“It’s just like after Sandy,” he said. “If you have things that are vulnerable on your property to flood damage, you should raise them. This doesn’t mean property owners won’t have to be proactive to protect themselves.”

After some residents at the meeting asked why they will have to wait at least another eight years before the first back-bay projects get built, Dixon cited the scale and complexity of the project that covers almost 3,500 miles of coastline, 950 square miles of land, and 89 municipalities in five counties.

He said the study is much bigger than previous reports that have been limited to individual barrier islands. “It’s a huge area, it’s very complex and it takes time to get the right answers,” he said.

Asked by an audience member how businesses should protect themselves against flooding if their municipality isn’t actively addressing the issue, Dixon said solutions will require the cooperation of all levels of government.

“At this point, we have no plans on doing a project unless a municipality wants it,” he said.

The study, which began in 2016, is looking at so-called structural solutions like storm-surge barriers and levees; nonstructural measures such as elevating or acquiring homes — as in New Jersey’s Blue Acres program — and natural features like living shorelines.

One possibility would be building concrete flood walls high enough to protect the land from anticipated higher seas and bigger storms, according to an Army Corps presentation at the meeting.

Flood walls won’t be pretty

Flood walls could defend vulnerable locations like Ocean City but they won’t be pretty, one official warned. “Your views are going to be disrupted,” said J. Bailey Smith, project manager for the New Jersey Back Bays Coastal Storm Risk Management Study.

As Hurricane Florence threatened severe flooding in the Carolinas, Smith told the meeting attended by about 150 people that relocation of the most vulnerable residents is another option that’s under consideration. “It’s a difficult word but it’s on the table at this point,” he said.

Still, he said it’s too early to say how much weight will be given to relocation or any other measures in the draft report.

“It all comes down to the economics of it all, and balancing the benefits and the costs,” he said. “So the potential for relocation and any other measure is based on those benefits versus the costs. It’s tough to say at this point if relocation is more of a viable option for this area versus that area.”

Smith said officials will first evaluate structural measures such as storm-surge barriers and flood walls to see whether relocation would be a viable option in some places.

Whatever options are recommended and finally implemented, they will respond to the chronic and worsening problem of coastal flooding, Smith said. “This flooding problem is not going away,” he said. “The problem is bad, and our analysis indicates that this problem could definitely get much worse.”

“What we are ultimately trying to get to is coastal resilience. Anticipate, prepare and adapt to changing conditions and recover rapidly from storms. These are all tough choices, folks.”

Jon Hurdle is an environmental writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water for NJ Spotlight.

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