Most of the attention of the Sandy recovery efforts in New Jersey has been focused on hard-hit areas of the shore, but as state lawmakers heard last night, some northern parts of the state are also still suffering, and face unique challenges in preparing for future severe storms.
Speaking in the Jersey City Council Chambers before a joint legislative committee hearing of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, Jersey City Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Greg Kierce listed some of the impacts on the state’s second-largest city: 6,100 residential housing units damaged and mostly not covered by basic insurance, 15 high-rise office buildings flooded on the waterfront, and over $22 million in damage to city properties.
Sandy has highlighted the need for better evacuation procedures, better communication — especially with non-English speakers — and more communication between agencies to coordinate relief efforts, he said, but in the end, there are some things that simply can’t be changed. “I still haven’t found out how you can elevate a brownstone,” he said, referring to the building elevation requirements on FEMA’s new flood maps.
The hearing was a shift in focus for committee members, who held their previous joint gathering last month in Atlantic City. But compared with last month’s four-hour event — featuring testimony from a variety of environmental and housing experts — Monday’s hearing was decidedly more low-key and sparsely attended. Still, committee members gleaned useful information regarding Sandy’s impact on urban areas, as well as problems with the transparency of state-run aid programs.
Jeff Tittel with the Sierra Club of New Jersey was one of several speakers who appreciated the change of venue. “Everybody thinks of Seaside and the coast,” he said, “but many of the urban areas of New Jersey are just as vulnerable, and in some ways even more vulnerable to storm surges and sea-level rise.” He noted that parts of Jersey City and Hoboken were built on landfill, so the ground has slowly been sinking over the years, putting them below sea level and worsening the flood risk.
While elevating buildings in cities is impractical, he said that there are several smart mitigation steps that can be taken, including ensuring adequate green space for storm water runoff and not allowing people to live in vulnerable basement apartments. “When it comes to the strategy of dealing with the flooding, sea walls aren’t going to work,” he said, referring to the plan touted by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “Because one town’s sea wall is the next town’s bigger flood.”
Tittel also raised concerns about runoff of raw sewage and toxic chemicals during the storm in highly industrial areas in the northern part of the state. That was a concern echoed by Drew Curtis of the Ironbound Community Corp., which has been working with low-income residents in the ethnically diverse Ironbound section of Newark. He noted that parts of the neighborhood were inundated with flood waters from the Passaic River, an EPA Superfund site contaminated with high levels of dioxin, PCBs, mercury, DDT, pesticides, and heavy metals. It’s not known what potential, long-term health effects that flooding may have on residents of the area.
The other main focus of last night’s hearing in Jersey City was confusion about eligibility for those applying for Sandy aid through the Department of Community Affairs. Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said many applicants for two of the Community Development Block Grant programs — the Homeowner Resettlement Program and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program — have been rejected for unknown reasons even though they appeared to meet all the requirements.
Reverend Eric Dobson of the Fair Share Housing Center spoke about a lawsuit his group recently filed, after the state failed to comply in a timely manner with requests to turn over documentation about how decisions are made regarding who gets aid money and who does not. “The issue of transparency is totally absent in New Jersey,” he said.
Several committee members agreed that more sunlight should be shone upon the internal process. “This isn’t Soviet space secrets, where we have to have such a cloud of cover,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora. “This is frustrating, and this is why people hate government.”