The List: Ten Unexpected Disasters That Could Affect New Jersey

Scott Gurian | March 31, 2014 | The List
Earthquakes, civil unrest, pandemics, cyber attacks -- New Jerseyans prone to anxiety may want to skip this list

list button
Earlier this month, officials with the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management released their 2014 Hazard Mitigation Plan. FEMA requires states to update their Hazard Mitigation Plans every three years in order to continue to be eligible to receive certain types of disaster recovery and mitigation funding. The purpose is to provide a detailed assessment of the risks New Jersey faces and the steps being taken to minimize those risks.
The plan details nearly two dozen natural and manmade hazards, including many you’d expect like floods, hurricanes, and nor’easters. But it also includes a number of possible scenarios that seem somewhat unlikely, or at least not the top things that would come to mind if you’re thinking about dangers that could befall the Garden State.
Here’s a quick look at some of the more unexpected disasters state officials say could affect New Jersey in the years to come:

1. Earthquakes

As state officials note, earthquakes generally occur along the edges of the earth’s tectonic plates. Since New Jersey is located in the middle of the North American Plate, quakes of any significant magnitude aren’t very common in this region, but they are a possibility. When they do occur, they’re most likely in the northern part of the state, along the Ramapo Fault zone, which extends from Pennsylvania northeast through Hunterdon, Somerset, Morris, Passaic, and Bergen counties before ending in Westchester County, NY. The strongest earthquake in state history occurred in 1783. It measured 5.3 on the Richter Scale and had an epicenter just west of New York City.

2. Dam and Levee Failure

It’s probably not one of the first disasters you’d think of, but when it occurs, the results can be catastrophic. The state Department of Environmental Protection even has a Dam Safety Section tasked with ensuring the safety and integrity of the nearly 2,000 dams throughout the state, but there’s no single agency that provides oversight for levees. Dams higher than 33 feet require federal inspection every five years.

3. Geological Hazards

Landslides are common in the northern, more mountainous part of New Jersey — particularly along the Palisades cliffs of the Hudson River and in Hunterdon County along the Delaware River. They’re estimated to cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Sinkholes are also a possibility in the northern part of the state, mostly due to abandoned iron, copper, and graphite mines that were improperly filled in and may be poorly mapped. Naturally-occurring sinkholes can also happen, especially in parts of Warren and Sussex counties. Far from being an isolated geologic condition, their presence, state officials note, is a matter of regional concern.

4. Animal Disease

You’ve likely heard of avian flu, but do you know about the dangers of equine herpes? Or that cows, horses, and other mammals can all get rabies? These sorts of concerns can keep people up at night in the state’s billion dollar agriculture industry. And it’s not just the state’s 10,000 farms that could be affected. There’s also the horse-racing industry, not to mention the two-thirds of households that own pets. Outbreaks of animal disease can have economic impacts, and they may also present threats to human health. As with many other disasters, the likelihood of an epidemic is difficult to predict, and state officials say may occur with little warning.

5. Civil Unrest

Defined as “one or more forms of disturbance caused by a group of people,” typically a symptom of, and a form of protest against, major socio-political problems. Civil unrest could include looting and vandalism and could lead to fear, economic damage, and a loss of confidence in government authorities if it’s improperly handled. The Newark Riots are the most notable example in state history, but riots also occurred throughout the 1960s and early 1970s in other places including Jersey City, Plainfield, Camden, and Asbury Park. In addition, state officials list the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike as an example of civil unrest.

6. Crop Failure

Agriculture is the third-largest industry in the state, and New Jersey is among the nation’s top 10 producers of blueberries, cranberries, peaches, tomatoes, peppers, snap beans, spinach, and squash, so the risks are large. As it is, state farmers lose close to $300 million per year due to crop losses, pests, and the cost of controlling pests. The dangers run the gamut from droughts and floods to wind, fires, insects, and disease outbreaks. “Based on the nature of the growing process, the susceptibility of crops to hazards is unavoidable,” the plan says. “The likelihood of future loss is great based on losses that have been recorded in the past.”

7. Economic Collapse

The financial crisis of the past few years has shown how a downturn in the economy can affect New Jersey, though a complete collapse of the economy would be likely impact the entire country rather than the Garden State alone. State officials note that such an event would probably be accompanied by chaos, civil unrest, and societal breakdown and even pandemic if things got really bad. That said, they consider the probability relatively low.

8. Fishing Failure

Like agriculture, fishery and aquaculture resources (i.e., the farming of fish, shellfish, and plants) contribute over a billion dollars annually to the state’s economy, so this is a real concern. Among the potential causes of a fishing failure are diseases, climate change, and overfishing. And don’t forget major storms. According to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Sandy is estimated to have caused between $77 million and $120 million in losses to fishing and recreational fishing-related industries.

9. Pandemic

If you’re pondering the probability of earthquakes, famines and other potential hazards, pestilence certainly belongs in your list. New Jersey’s dense population and its vast transportation network — including an international airport — make it particularly susceptible to the rapid spread of disease. State officials define a pandemic as a “novel virus to which humans have no natural immunity.” A pandemic occurs when “new cases of a certain disease, in a given population, substantially exceed what is expected.” Of particular concern are food-borne illnesses, mumps, norovirus, West Nile virus and pandemic influenza.

10. Cyber Attack

A new inclusion in this year’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, cyberterrorism can involve the use of computers or electromagnetic energy to cause physical or financial harm or a severe disruption in infrastructure such as the electrical grid. State officials say New Jersey is a ripe target for attack because it’s a major node in the fiber optic network of the Northeast and is home to many Fortune 500 companies. It also houses many of the computer servers that engage in high-speed trading on Wall Street, so a cyber attack in New Jersey could strike a blow to the nation’s economy. Though no major, direct cyber attacks have taken place in the state, it’s an area of growing concern.