A series of environmental experts testified yesterday that the state is taking the wrong approach in rebuilding the shore, not considering the future effects of climate change and not focusing enough of its efforts on offering buyouts in flood-prone areas. The message was delivered before a rare, joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly Environment Committees at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
Taking a line from the new state tourism campaign, former DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello warned that the state is in fact not “stronger than the storm,” and never will be.
Actually, it’s more a matter of brains than brawn. Some of those testifying stressed that the state needs to rethink where it is rebuilding. Others warned that little consideration was being given to affordable housing and also complained about a lack of transparency in the recovery process. And several said that red tape was making it difficult for people to file for state and federal assistance.
How federal funds are being allocated was also an issue.
“We’re a little bit drunk with all this money,” Mauriello said. “It sort of makes you a little bit less concerned about what you do because there’s so much money, but we can’t lose sight of being smart on how we spend the money.”
There’s no way to avoid future events like Sandy, he said, so development needs to be directed away from vulnerable areas of the coast.
Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, largely echoed Mauriello’s concerns. In a statement, he wrote that the state did not appear to have learned from the mistakes of the past or changed the status quo.
“There is no plan for pulling back from environmentally sensitive areas. More planning for restoring natural systems and adding dunes along our coast should be undertaken,” he said.
Both Tittel and Mauriello agreed that more consideration needs to be given to the establishment of a Coastal Commission to guide the rebuilding process on a more regional level.
During the four-hour hearing, lawmakers also heard testimony from housing advocates worried about how the recovery is taking shape. Kevin Walsh with the group Fair Share Housing said there needs to be more consideration of the needs of low-income Sandy victims looking for affordable housing, particularly renters.
“We have a real danger that in a year, two years, as we look back on this that it’ll be a recovery that tilts more towards elitism and more towards exclusion than it does towards fairness,” he said. “And we need to correct that as soon as we can.”
Walsh also called on the state to be more transparent with its handling of the post-Sandy recovery process. He says it’s sometimes taken his group several weeks to get answers to basic questions about how the storm assistance programs work and who is qualified. In particular, he said that people who are denied aid need to be given clear reasons about why. They can appeal those denials, he said, but that’s extremely difficult without having all the proper information.
“What’s really scary is that if these problems aren’t corrected, we’re going to repeat the mistakes again when the next phase of funding comes down,” he added. “The lack of transparency and the general confusion that you’re seeing right now will not be corrected if there is not a concerted effort to do it.”
Other panelists warned that excessive red tape has made it hard for some Sandy victims to apply for disaster assistance and has slowed down the recovery process. Several coastal residents shared their horror stories of wading through post-Sandy bureaucracy, trying to get settlements from their insurance companies and save their homes from foreclosure.
“The recent TV ad campaign depicting life at the shore as back to normal is highly disturbing,” said Lee Ann Newland, who was displaced with her husband from their home in Neptune Township. “Watching our own Governor on TV with his family pretending that all is well all over the shore makes us sad.”
Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee Chair L. Grace Spencer thanked all the participants for their input.
“Clearly there are things happening throughout the state that we don’t know about,” she said. “We see the commercials and read the stories in the news, but we don’t know what’s happening at the ground level. Today revealed there is still much, much work to do.”