Opinion: Hoboken’s Flood Walls Could Drown the Rest of Hudson County

R. William Potter | February 19, 2013 | Opinion, Sandy
Mayor Zimmer's sea-wall scheme: expensive, impractical, and obsolete before it gets started

Recently, The New York Times previewed Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer’s State of the City speech, which featured her plan for protecting the city against the sort of catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Since much of this polyglot city of 50,000 lies below sea level, as does New Orleans, this is likely to be a Herculean task at best. And while the mayor sensibly calls for a “comprehensive, integrated approach” to flood control, her first line of defense could drive more water toward other communities.

Zimmer envisions “permanent flood walls along the south and north” of Hoboken that will “rise up as gates if flooding were to occur.”

Let’s leave aside where these flood walls would be built in this crowded city, where every square inch of land has something on top of it.

And let’s not worry about the cost or who would pick up the tab.

Even with those two concerns out of the picture, the entire scheme suffers from three fundamental problems that should get it shelved before any consultants get rich assessing it.

Problem No. 1: Even if these gates could protect Hoboken, they will divert the storm surge to nearby unprotected communities. Hello, Jersey City. Sorry about all that water, Weehawken.

These sort of flood gates may work well in the Netherlands — under conditions unlike any found in Hoboken and its environs. And as The New York Times also reports, the new philosophy for the Dutch is one of “controlled flooding” not flood control.

Sea gates — as the Dutch see it — would push rising sea waters away from populated areas — notably the port city of Rotterdam — and onto waiting “reservoirs for occasional flood control,” vast expanses of empty, flat land once populated by farmers that could be flooded as needed.

The approach is called “Room for the River.” Government buys open lands, clears away farmers, and sets the acreage aside as parkland until its needed. When the North Sea surges against the closed sea gates, they direct the flood away from cities and onto huge “sponges” of open space.

Mayor Zimmer misses the key point. There is no place anywhere within densely populated Hudson County that can soak up diverted flood waters. No farms. No open land ready to serve as reservoirs in waiting.

Problem No. 2: Even if there were a way over the first hurdle, rising sea levels caused by global warming may make sea walls obsolete before they can be built.

Put simply, we don’t know with any certainty how high the ocean will rise in the next 10, 20, or 100 years. Rise they will, but by 2 inches, 2 feet, or 22 feet?

Some computer models tell us to evacuate coastal areas now, while we still can. When — or if — the ice mantles of Greenland and Antarctica melt, the Atlantic could rise 20 feet or more.

Since it’s impossible in the near term to know how big and how high to build these sea walls, how can we invest what could be billions of dollars to put them in place? It’s like someone in New Orleans trying to determine how high the levees should be raised to withstand the next Hurricane Katrina.

Problem No. 3: This is an error of omission: Mayor Zimmer entirely overlooked the vital role that the private sector can play in protecting Hoboken by redeveloping old properties.

It may seem counterintuitive, packing more building into crowded little Hoboken, but one of the proven flood control strategies is to replace existing buildings – some more than 100 years old — with new structures built to the highest flood-hazard standards. These include underground storm-water basins (huge holding tanks), “green” roofs, and other innovations.

Trouble is, the Zimmer administration’s land-use policies are hostile to private-sector redevelopment. That makes them one of the reasons that the flooded streets were sluices for water mixed with raw sewage.

These policies must change.

Unfortunately, Zimmer and staff actively oppose virtually all efforts to replace old factories with modern mid- to high-rises — in the name of preserving the faded charms of a bygone city. Meanwhile, artists and artisans rent space in some of these creaky reminders of Hoboken’s industrial heritage.

(Full disclosure: My law firm represented a developer of an old industrial site before the Hoboken zoning board. Mayor Zimmer sent a lawyer at municipal expense to oppose the project even though it included green roofs, open space, compliance with flood-hazard rules, and an oversized underground detention basin.)

New construction must meet post-Sandy FEMA and DEP standards and include stormwater detention facilities, where today there is only runoff flooding city streets and sewers.

Simply put: More new development equals more flood control.

An enlightened policy on development makes more sense than betting on costly efforts at public expense to raise today’s buildings above the new flood-stage levels calculated by FEMA. And it’s all at developer expense, so the government won’t have to pay for these new — and much needed — stormwater detention facilities.

Bottom line: I give Her Honor’s speech a C for her focus on preventing future flooding. And a D for the details of her expensive, unrealistic scheme. It’s time for the mayor to rethink her priorities and keep her constituents safe from the next flood.