This is the first of a two-part article investigating the issues and controversies surrounding the different initiatives to help the Jersey Shore recover from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. A companion podcast also is available, courtesy of NJ Spotlight partner WNYC/NJPR
Read the second article in the series.
It was Tuesday evening, the day after Sandy made landfall, when a visibly exhausted Gov. Chris Christie stepped to the podium at state police headquarters in West Trenton, let out a sigh, and began the latest in a series of press briefings. The winds had finally died down, so he’d spent the afternoon touring the coast by helicopter, getting his first glimpse of the destruction.
He described seeing the boardwalk in Belmar that he had walked on just months before now completely gone. In Seaside Heights — which he called the Jersey Shore of his youth — the amusement pier where he took his kids the previous summer had partially collapsed into the ocean. And in front of the Governor’s Mansion at Island Beach State Park, he marveled at the incredible erosion of the coastline, with the beach almost totally washed away. Christie shook his head in utter disbelief and shrugged his shoulders.
“I just never thought I would see what I saw today . . . Ever”
Later that evening, he’d tell Fox News that the scene was “unthinkable,” and in the days to come, he’d use the word “unfathomable” to describe the extent of the damage. It was a common sentiment shared by thousands of residents up and down the coast, but according to multiple academic studies and government warnings, it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise.
In the nearly nine months since Sandy made landfall, “Restore the Shore” has become the rallying cry for millions of New Jersey residents, eager to return life back to normal. But amid the rush to rebuild, the storm has raised a host of questions about planning and development patterns in the nation’s most densely populated state.
Many environmentalists and land-use experts warn that the coast was overbuilt to begin with, so they voice concerns about repeating the mistakes of the past by putting everything back where it was. Despite all the focus on rebuilding higher and stronger, they believe that having millions of people living at the water’s edge might be unsustainable in the long run. But coastal residents and business owners who’ve forged strong emotional and economic bonds to the region aren’t likely to pick up and move anytime soon.
The Dangers of Overdevelopment
As far back as 1981, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection — in its New Jersey Shore Protection Master Plan — had warned of the dangers of coastal over-development and a repeat of the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which killed fourteen people and wreaked havoc up and down the coast. “Since present population and development levels of the state’s barrier islands exceed pre-1962 levels, future severe storms will undoubtedly result in far heavier tolls in lives, injuries and property damage,” it said.
A 2005 Princeton Universitystudy examining the future impacts of sea level rise on New Jersey found “a significant lack of public understanding of the predictability of coastal hazards and hazard mitigation.
Episodic flooding events due to storm surges are often perceived as ‘natural disasters,’ not failures in land-use planning and building code requirements,” it stated, concluding that the best solution would ultimately be a “gradual withdrawal of development from some areas of the New Jersey coast.”
And in 2006, the DEP’s quadrennial Coastal Hazard Assessment Report to the federal government contained language calling for future development to be directed away from hazardous areas of the coastline. Among the impediments to achieving this goal, it noted, were the “lobbying efforts of special interest groups” and the “public perception that large-scale beach nourishment projects eliminate vulnerability to coastal hazards.”
Although the current Coastal Assessment Report — issued in 2011 — still warns about the threats of storms to the coast and the potential, future effects of climate change, the section calling for a “strategic adjustment” away from the water’s edge disappeared after Christie took office, naming Bob Martin as head of the DEP.
“It’s a little unusual for a state that is so vulnerable, that we wouldn’t be highlighting that,” says Mark Mauriello, who served as DEP Commissioner from 2008 to 2010. Although he was appointed by then-Gov. John Corzine, Mauriello had worked at the department for three decades under every governor since Brendan Byrne, and says he considered himself a career scientist, uninterested in politics. Since he’s left, he’s watched what he feels is a disturbing trend of the leadership at the DEP being filled by people from business, real estate, and banking.
“I don’t know any of them, so this isn’t a personal criticism by any means,” he says, “But when I look at folks who manage these important programs in an environmental agency, I really would look for folks who have some experience and background in that field which they’re supposed to manage.”
Mauriello is concerned that since the decision-makers at the top are managing programs and policies without having science backgrounds to inform their principles, they may not fully understand the dangers of coastal overdevelopment. Several other, former DEP employees who were interviewed for this story but did not wish to be identified said they agreed with that assessment, though some felt it’s unfair to point the finger any one person or administration. They said rampant overdevelopment has been occurring for decades, with the backing of governors and lawmakers of both parties.
DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese thinks it’s ridiculous to raise questions about the backgrounds of the department’s leadership. He compares it to a corporation, and says the Christie administration’s goal has simply been to bring in a group of experienced managers to transform it from a well-meaning but overly bureaucratic and ineffective agency to one that can make decisions in a timely fashion. Aside from these top leadership positions, he says the rank and file of the department still includes scientists and experts in their fields who are “as talented and brilliant as ever.”
While Ragonese says he’s unfamiliar with the removal of language from the Coastal Hazard Assessment Report, he says it’s ludicrous to suggest that the DEP is not concerned about development along the coast in the aftermath of Sandy. “The folks who want to sit there in a university, in their office and muse about what could be done… Well, that’s all well and good, and there’s a place for that,” he says, “but we had an obligation to move this state along. And the Governor chose very clearly to rebuild, but to do it better.”
What’s the Hurry?
Mauriello fears that process has taken place too quickly, though. He thinks Sandy gave New Jersey a unique opportunity to refocus its development priorities and re-examine whether allowing construction in the most flood-prone areas is a good idea. But he feels that opportunity has been largely overlooked amid what he calls the pedal-to-the-metal approach to rebuilding. He’s concerned, for example, about boardwalks that have been reconstructed without dunes in front of them to protect them from future storms. And he cites the rebuilding of the Driftwood Beach Club in Sea Bright — which was knocked off its pilings and pushed onto the sea wall — as a “poster child” for poor planning decisions.
“I was down there two weeks ago,” he says, “cruising up that stretch of Rt. 36, and it’s all back, right out on the beach, and I thought, ‘What do we expect to happen?’ The next time we have a storm, are we expecting a different outcome? We probably shouldn’t because we really haven’t changed anything.”
He thinks that in the long run, it’s going to get more expensive and become less likely that the state will be able to sustain its footprint on its barrier islands.
“When you’re talking about these dynamic areas that get battered and are exposed to severe wave action and chronic erosion, you can build it better, and it’s still going to get damaged,” he says. “You can do engineering, you can do beach nourishment, and unfortunately, that isn’t the long-term answer. It’s a bit of a Band-Aid on a big wound, and it will get you through, but at some point, we have to think differently.”
Public opinion seems to be on his side. A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released in early December found two-thirds of respondents in favor of letting state regulators decide which areas can and cannot be rebuilt according to storm risk assessments, as well as allowing towns to impose short-term moratoriums on rebuilding to give them time to develop new plans and codes.
In a Rutgers Eagleton poll a few months later, sixty-two percent of New Jerseyans said assessing the potential for future damage should take precedence over rushing to rebuild before the summer tourist season. And another Eagleton poll taken at the end of April found large majorities of residents saying they’re at least somewhat supportive of moving buildings back from the waterfront and converting formerly developed land in flood-prone areas into public beaches, parks or wetlands.
But with the Jersey Shore holding an iconic place in the hearts and minds of generations of visitors and residents, as well as billions of dollars of real estate, tens of thousands of seasonal jobs, and a $19 billion dollar tourism industry hanging in the balance, many others felt that rebuilding the shore that existed in their memories and rebuilding it right away was never really a question.
“There is no choice but to rebuild, especially at the Jersey Shore, not only because it’s a part of the cultural heartbeat of our state, but also because it’s a huge part of the economic engine of our state,” Christie said in a radio interview last November. The governor’s words are echoed by shore town mayors and residents like Janice Cune, of Toms River, whose family has owned a house at the beach for over forty years. “You have to love the ocean,” she says. “If you love the ocean, then you want to stay. Some people don’t understand that.”
Editor’s note: This story was revised and edited after it was originally published.