Just a few weeks before the third anniversary of Sandy, the Garden State is making preparations for another massive storm. Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency yesterday, in advance of the expected arrival of Hurricane Joaquin late Monday. The storm brings the potential for high winds and flooding, both along the coast and in inland rivers in the southern part of the state.
Earlier forecast models predicted Joaquin would make landfall somewhere between North Carolina and Delaware, which could have spelled trouble for New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore, as well as areas of Atlantic and Cape May Counties that were largely spared during Sandy. By Thursday night, however, there was growing consensus that the storm was more likely to take an eastern track, moving out to sea before hitting the coast and reducing — but not eliminating — the threat of coastal flooding.
Regardless, as the first tropical storm since Sandy to come within striking distance of New Jersey, Joaquin raises the question: What lessons have we learned over the past three years, and are the state and its people any smarter or better-equipped to handle a hurricane now than we were then?
The evidence suggests that progress has been made, but much work remains.
According to official statistics, Sandy severely damaged or destroyed some 365,000 homes in New Jersey and caused an estimated $37 billion in losses and mitigation needs. In the intervening years, a variety of changes have been enacted to make the state and its residents less vulnerable.
People whose houses were destroyed (along with anyone building a new home in a flood zone) have been required to elevate several feet, either with a higher foundation or — in beachfront areas susceptible to storm surge — on wooden pilings, to protect themselves from raging floodwaters. That will provide an added degree of protection in the short term, until sea levels eventually rise.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent the past few years building dunes and replenishing beaches that had eroded during Sandy, so many coastal communities now have an extra line of defense.
And the state has offered buyouts to hundreds of homeowners living in some of the most flood-prone areas, though critics have noted that none of those have been along the coast.
There have also been several state grant programs to provide backup generators for first responders, critical facilities like shelters and senior centers, and gas stations, to hopefully minimize some of the long lines that took place after Sandy.
After suffering $125 million in damage from parking 300 locomotives and train cars in the flood-prone Hoboken and Kearny Rail Yards during Sandy, New Jersey Transit seems to have learned its lesson. Following much criticism, it created a more comprehensive emergency management plan last year and says it plans to relocate its equipment to higher ground when major storms like this are on their way.
In addition, the Port Authority has installed new flood-protection barriers to protect PATH train tunnels and stations and is now running pumps to keep water off airport runways.
Despite all these positive steps, there’s far more to be done.
The federal government has provided $400 million of seed money for several large-scale engineering projects to restore wetlands and build sea walls to protect Hoboken and other parts of northern New Jersey, but those could take many years to complete.
There’s still the complicated and expensive problem of antiquated combined sewer overflow systems, where wastewater-treatment plants release billions of gallons of raw sewage when they’re overwhelmed during major storms.
And most importantly, critics say the state still hasn’t done enough to move people away from sensitive areas of the coast.
“The Christie Administration has done little to curb overdevelopment, climate change, and sprawl that make residents vulnerable to flooding and storm surges,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel, on the eve of the storm. “Instead of moving people away from flood zones, the Administration has proposed to weaken rules to protect us from flooding,” he added, referencing pending revisions to state regulations that he argues could be a detriment to the environment and put more people in harm’s way.
Beyond the tangible preparations (or lack thereof) that officials and individuals are taking to better protect themselves from future storms, there’s also the question of messaging. How can authorities better communicate threats and get people to take them seriously?
Before Hurricane Irene in 2011, Christie famously stood before the cameras and told thrill-seeking surfers to “get the hell off the beach.” When the storm turned out to be much less severe than was expected — at least along the Jersey Shore — some people perceived the governor’s warnings as a hyped-up cry of “wolf.” As a result, when Sandy came along the following year, some residents chose to ignore the warnings, especially when they saw Sandy weakening from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm. They didn’t think it wouldn’t be as dangerous as it turned out to be.
Notwithstanding last winter’s false alarm blizzard forecast, many residents — particularly those who live in vulnerable areas — have now learned from experience that they need to pay close attention to severe weather threats. Despite the inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts, Sandy’s lesson is that it’s always better to take the necessary precautions and be prepared.