Profile: Taking the Very Long View on Floodplain Management

Scott Gurian | November 27, 2013 | More Issues, Profiles
John Miller balances the need to think decades ahead with immediate concerns about helping people, businesses, and communities survive tomorrow's storms

john miller profile
Name: John Miller

Who he is: Cofounder and legislative committee chair for the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management (NJAFM). He also works as an associate water resources engineer at Princeton Hydro in Ringoes, NJ.

Age: 42

Hometown: Originally from the Main Line of Philadelphia, Miller has lived in Lambertville for over a decade and now considers New Jersey his home. He’s active as a volunteer on the Lambertville Planning Board and Emergency Management Council and is Lambertville’s FEMA Community Rating System coordinator.

What he does: Motivated by the Burlington County floods of 2004, Miller and some colleagues decided to create a state chapter of the Association of State Floodplain Managers to be a resource for people and municipalities when it comes to flood-related issues.

FEMA requires every town participating in the National Flood Insurance Program to have a local floodplain administrator, so NJAFM’s membership includes representatives of municipalities from around the state, as well as engineering and consulting firms, companies that make flood-control equipment, and home elevation contractors. It’s sort of like a trade association, but rather than generating work for its members, Miller says the focus is on exchanging information and ideas between local officials, national experts, and policymakers with the aim of ending suffering and protecting people and property. “If we do better floodplain management, we’re going to have less damage in the future and less downtime for both businesses and families,” he says. “Our end goal is safety, recovery being much quicker, and more resilient communities.”

What “flood management” entails: “Flooding is never fixed by one thing. It’s a combination of many different techniques and tools in your toolbox,” says Miller. In some cases, small structural tools and retrofits like pumps, flood gates, barriers, dry flood-proofing, and backflow preventers on sewers can help.

Building dunes and elevating homes are also steps in the right direction, he says, but “you still have infrastructure in the floodplain, you still have utilities you worry about, so maybe your house is high and dry, but that doesn’t mean the community will survive.” Ultimately, he thinks we need to reexamine land use and development practices in vulnerable areas. In some places prone to repetitive flooding, he says government buyouts combined with restoring land to natural habitats may be the only long-term solution.

Why you should know about him: Miller is regarded as one of the top experts on floodplain management in the state of New Jersey. In addition to working with NJAFM, he’s held several governor-appointed positions and is active in flood-related issues from the local up to the federal level. He’s also won a number of awards for his work. Miller and his organization have been frequently quoted in the aftermath of Sandy, and he’s been a vocal advocate for measures to make the state and its residents less vulnerable to future storms.

Lessons he takes away from the experience of Sandy: “Sandy was certainly huge, and Sandy was a big event, but it was a continuation of multiple events we had in a very short period of time,” Miller says.

Calling New Jersey a “case study,” he notes that the state has had 11 presidential disaster declarations related to flooding over the past eight years and now ranks third in the nation in federal flood insurance payouts since 1978, coming close to surpassing Texas and assuming second place.

One of the things Miller says he’s learned in the year since the storm is that it takes a lot of work to make small changes, and he’s had to keep repeating himself to be heard when advocating for greater floodplain management and changes in land-use practices. “It’s been a real challenge,” he says. Miller thinks the takeaway message from Sandy is that New Jersey needs to start planning for the long term and do more to adapt to changing weather patterns.

Thoughts on the difficulty of making changes: When it comes to political willpower from elected leaders, Miller notes that “it’s very hard for someone [whose] job description is more of a manager of shorter-term issues to think decades or half-centuries ahead. After any major disaster, any elected leader is going to want to get things back as quickly as possible. It’s not a criticism. It’s reality,” he says, adding that it’s hard to balance that urge against the foresight to engage in longer term planning. That’s where groups like the NJAFM come into play, he says, to call attention to these issues and make sure politicians understand their concerns.

Reasons for hope: Reasons for hope: Miller says he’s happy Gov. Chris Christie has devoted attention to offering buyouts to 300 homeowners in the Passaic River Basin, though he hopes buyouts will also be offered to residents along the Shore. He thinks the desire to build dunes along the length of the coast is a good stop-gap measure until we can figure out a more permanent solution. And the effort to elevate buildings in flood-prone areas will help, though he wishes people would elevate higher.

Miller also praises the addition of more staff at the state Office of Emergency Management. “Sandy was a horrible event, but we’re learning things from it. We’re starting to make some small changes,” he says. “There are some real good things happening. There definitely are. But we really need to ground ourselves in not just an immediate recovery but looking long term.”

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