The List: 10 Steps NJ Should Take to Prepare for Future Severe Storms

Scott Gurian | October 27, 2014 | The List
Global climate change is expected to have a significant impact on the Garden State, but municipalities can do much more than take a beating from extreme weather

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Just shy of the two-year anniversary of Sandy, the Union of Concerned Scientists has released a report predicting that coastal flooding will become a much more common occurrence in coming decades. By the middle of this century, the report says, Sandy Hook will flood nearly every other day, while more southern parts of the Jersey Shore like Atlantic City and Cape May could experience tidal flooding at least 240 days a year.

The report echoes numerous other studies that have also warned of the future effects of sea-level rise and threats of more severe storms hitting the state’s coastline.

Given these ominous predictions, here are 10 steps planners and environmentalists recommend the state take now to mitigate the risks:

1. Develop a Climate Action Plan

Environmentalists point out that New Jersey lags behind nearby states like New York, Maryland, and Connecticut in developing a comprehensive, statewide plan for dealing with the potential impacts of sea-level rise and climate change.

Robert Freudenberg, director of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, thinks the state should form some sort of blue-ribbon commission — much like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo created after Sandy — to conduct a thorough examination of whether New Jersey is doing enough to prepare and come up with a list of concrete recommendations. This sort of study has already been conducted by the NJ Climate Adaptation Alliance, but Freudenberg thinks it needs to happen in an official capacity.

“How well are we doing with the recovery?” he asked. “How different is rebuilding that’s occurring? I would love to see an inventory of the money spent and what practices are encouraged to make the state more resilient.”

2. Adopt Official Sea-Level Rise Projections

Various other states in the region have officially adopted sea-level rise projections for 50 or 100 years into the future, but New Jersey has not. That could cause potential confusion among homeowners and local officials, unsure which of the myriad scientific studies they should believe and how conservative they should be when making important decisions about how to rebuild along the coast.

“People are kind of on their own now, trying to figure out which ones to use,” said Chris Sturm, senior policy director at New Jersey Future. Such projections, she added, should be updated every few years and could be used to inform a host of planning and development decisions and regulations that could potentially make coastal residents much safer from storms like Sandy.

3. Conduct Vulnerability Assessments

Communities should conduct thorough and detailed assessments to fully understand the potential risks they face now and in the future. Such assessments would examine the vulnerability of important assets like police and fire stations, hospitals, grocery stores, and transportation routes.

Several environmental organizations have also created a self-assessment tool called “Getting to Resilience” to help municipalities conduct internal reviews of how prepared they are to handle the risks.

The goal of conducting such assessments is to inform communities where their vulnerabilities are, so they might take proactive steps now to mitigate those risks like elevating or relocating structures, strengthening shore defenses, and developing better evacuation plans.

4. Develop Master Plans Incorporating Climate Risks

Once communities conduct vulnerability assessments, says the New Jersey Resiliency Network’s Linda Weber, they should incorporate the findings along with the recommendations of their local hazard-mitigation plans and other planning documents into their master plan, which regulates all zoning and land-use policy for that municipality. By integrating everything into one place rather than regarding each of these as a standalone document, she say there’s a greater likelihood that all the steps will complement one another and will be implemented.

5. More Guidance From State Detailing Risks

Another suggestion from advocates is that the state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan be updated to include detailed maps identifying the specific areas most vulnerable to severe storms. Sturm thinks the state should also partner with the reinsurance industry to share information about future projections.

“The reinsurance industry can only be profitable if they accurately understand the risks that they’re insuring, so they have quite sophisticated models, and they certainly have incorporated climate risks including sea-level rise and storm surge,” she said. FEMA is already in talks with the insurance industry on the federal level, she notes, adding that “that same kind of partnership would help New Jersey.”

6. Harden Infrastructure, Especially Green Infrastructure

It’s commonly understood that coastal communities need to strengthen their defenses to keep out raging floodwaters, but there are many ways to do this. On the one hand, there are manmade fortifications like sea walls, dunes, and wider beaches. On the other hand, municipalities can elevate backup generators and other critical equipment to keep them out of harm’s way. But Jessica Evans with NY/NJ Baykeeper thinks we can’t simply rely on such approaches.

“When you just have the hard infrastructure, it gives people a false sense of security, and they’re going to keep doing things the way they’ve been doing them, not realizing that there is a chance for that hard infrastructure to fail,” she said, adding that there’s also a large cost of maintaining such infrastructure.

Instead, she said such measures need to be balanced with greener, self-sustaining approaches like wetland restoration and construction of natural, vegetation-covered dunes, as well as things like porous pavement, rain barrels, and rooftop gardens to reduce stormwater runoff. She suggests the state should create a steady funding source for green infrastructure on a larger scale, possibly funded by a tax on facilities with large, impervious surfaces.

7. Adopt Stricter Elevation Regulations

According to current regulations from the state and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, anyone living in a flood-prone area whose home was substantially (more than 50 percent) damaged in Sandy or who is making significant improvements to their home or starting new construction is required to elevate at least one foot above the minimum height requirements on the latest FEMA flood maps for their area. Since FEMA’s maps are based on current conditions and do not take sea-level rise projections into account, that extra foot of “freeboard” is intended to provide a bit of a buffer against future predictions. But many environmentalists think it doesn’t go far enough. Some other states like New York and Massachusetts actually require two feet of freeboard, while Maryland and Delaware have imposed the two-foot rule for all state-owned structures in coastal areas. Locally, some individual communities in New Jersey have adopted higher elevations, with Tuckerton and Monmouth Beach even requiring residents to rebuild three feet above the FEMA standards. But some advocates say Trenton should adopt stricter regulations on a statewide level.

8. Better Response Plans From Industrial Facilities

One suggestion of particular importance along the Raritan Bay is that industrial facilities develop more-detailed disaster response plans, including input from frontline workers rather than just management. NY/NJ Baykeeper recommends that such facilities create a variety of contingency plans, based on the type and severity of disaster, and that such plans be implemented as soon as possible when storms are approaching, including relocating essential workers and even shutting down the facility as the situation warrants.

9. More Backup Power

There’s also a need for critical facilities, especially wastewater treatment plants, to develop their own independent power supplies for use during emergencies. Power outages during Sandy were responsible for billions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage being dumped into state waterways. Such backup power could be supplied by a mix of natural gas and methane, which is naturally produced in the process of breaking down sewage.

Recognizing the need, the Christie administration has earmarked $210 million of federal Sandy aid for an [|Energy Resilience Bank] to provide power solutions for critical facilities, but more may be needed.

10. More Focus on Regional Approaches

Whatever steps are taken to prepare for future storms, Chuck Latini with the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association thinks we need to take more of a comprehensive, regional approach rather than continuing to engage in piecemeal planning as New Jersey has traditionally done.

“We should look at things not municipality by municipality,” he said, adding that the starting point, for all discussions has to be the state plan.

“Of course we’re going to allow municipalities to be the masters of their own destiny because we’re a home-rule state, but you can’t just let everybody go off on their own with no solid guidance. And that guidance needs to somehow get tied down to regulations.”