Summer Reading 2016: Probing the Social Impact of Superstorm Sandy

Truly learning from Hurricane Sandy means understanding not just the havoc it wrought but the confusion and contradictions it left in its wake — and how they affected recovery

2016 Summer Van Abs O'Neill
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry — with a New Jersey connection.

It’s been nearly four years since superstorm Sandy hit the shores of New Jersey – long enough for two Rutgers experts to take a step back and evaluate what, if anything, the state has learned from its devastation. Karen M. O’Neill and Daniel J. Van Abs, both policy and planning experts, have gathered contributors from various specialties to look at the impact of Sandy on a range of issues such as public opinion, wildlife, emergency preparedness, and the fishing industry and tourism, just to name a few. In this excerpt, four observers, take a look at how municipalities of various sizes handled interactions with the federal government as well as state agencies.

Local Experience in Three Communities: Manasquan, Oceanport, Union Beach

The popular conception of the Jersey Shore is a vacationland comprising small houses, condominium apartments, and hotels set on barrier islands; casinos and shopping venues in Atlantic City; amusement arcades in Seaside Heights and Wildwood Beach; and Victorian guesthouses in Cape May—all facing the open ocean. The reality is much more diverse and also includes former industrial communities on the semi-sheltered shores of Raritan Bay, wealthy residential enclaves on eroding mainland bluffs, suburban tracts on wetland-fringed back bays, lagoon developments, commuter dormitory towns along tidal rivers, and quiet rural precincts facing the Delaware Bay.

We chose to study three municipalities in Monmouth County that exhibited varied societal characteristics and a range of experiences with hurricanes. In some ways, Manasquan, Oceanport, and Union Beach are similar to Sandy-impacted towns elsewhere in New Jersey, but in other respects they are distinctive. Insofar as their economies are strongly oriented to amenities, recreational facilities, and real estate transactions, the Monmouth County case study communities have much in common with Ocean County places to the south. But they are on the mainland, not on barrier islands, and so these three towns are generally more elevated. They also contrast with the agricultural shores of Delaware Bay (Cumberland County) and old, established industrial and transportation hubs in Middlesex, Union, Essex, and Hudson counties to the north.

Seeking information about each town’s preparation, experience of the storm, and recovery plans, we conducted two focus groups in each of the three towns, with seven or eight participants in each group. We also interviewed four to five officials, contractors, and staff members from each municipal government who have responsibilities for managing storm-surge risks. These included engineers, planners, emergency-response managers, council members, and mayors. To capture decisions that were made quite early after the storm, we gathered data between February and April 2013, during a period when one town’s flooded borough hall was still being disinfected from mold and another town’s borough hall was still housing federal emergency staff.

Manasquan, on the open oceanfront; Union Beach, on the estuarine lands beside Raritan Bay; and Oceanport, on the upper tidal reaches of the Shrewsbury River, all have resident populations of around six thousand and are more or less racially and socially homogeneous, a pattern that is common across New Jersey’s smallest shore towns. In Manasquan and Oceanport, family incomes are well above the state average, though neither is a bastion of wealth. Union Beach is less wealthy, but it has about the same percentage of residents living below the state’s poverty line as do the other two towns (see table 11.1). All three communities contain large areas of land close to sea level and recorded significant damage as a result of storm-surge flooding during Sandy. Figures released in March 2013 indicated the number of houses that sustained damage as follows: Union Beach, 1,436 (of 2,269); Oceanport, 409 (of 2,390); Manasquan, 527 (of 3,500). Additional damage to rental properties included Union Beach (279), Oceanport (35), Manasquan (285) (5).


Arriving at high tide, Sandy’s storm surge damaged more than eight hundred first and second homes and rental accommodations on or near Manasquan’s beachfront, knocking some off their foundations and sluicing up to four feet of sand into the bottom floors of others (6). The surge continued into Raritan Bay, which acted like a funnel, causing water to mount up and pour through the unprotected flank of Union Beach to depths of fourteen feet, damaging more than 1,400 houses, rafting some onto wetlands, and smashing others into second and third rows of homes behind them. Following a more circuitous upstream route from the bay into the Shrewsbury River, the rising waters also swept into Oceanport, which many residents thought of as a river town that was not vulnerable to storm surges, but where more than four hundred houses recorded serious damage.

In a matter of hours, Union Beach lost property that generated almost 10 percent of the tax base that supports its public expenditures. In Manasquan the comparable tax bite was almost 5 percent, and in Oceanport it was under 3 percent (7). By mid-February 2013, Small Business Administration (SBA) loans of $10 million had been issued to applicants from Manasquan, $13 million in Oceanport, and nearly $20 million in Union Beach (8). A month later, insurance companies estimated payouts of $21 million to Oceanport, $39 million to Manasquan, and $44 million to Union Beach and adjacent areas of Keyport (9).

Hurricane Sandy changed all three towns, but not in ways that would lead to a common and transformative vision for reducing future vulnerabilities to climate risks. Each town was damaged differently from the others, owing to its location in relation to the storm track; its combination of landforms, relief, and drainage; the layout of its streets and buildings; and the responses of residents. Each town suffered similar damage to at least one of its neighboring towns, but even this common experience did not inspire much cooperation among town governments.

The knowledge of residents about future storm-surge risks was remarkably varied and strongly reflected specific local vulnerabilities. Though often aware of systematic areawide scientific projections of inundation risks compiled by experts in support of the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program, local residents in our focus groups also drew deeply on knowledge borne of personal acquaintance with sites, structures, and signals of risk. In addition, social differences among the three towns affected how they confronted the tasks of recovery and rebuilding. Manasquan and Oceanport, the two higher-income towns, were less financially stressed than Union Beach at the household and government levels and were able to devote more attention to considering their long-term future as waterfront communities.

The complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of rebuilding decisions for residents and local officials were dramatically increased by changes in federal policies that were being phased in at the time Sandy hit. A number of new policies had been created after Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. The most important of these, and the one that was most talked about by local leaders and residents, was an updated set of Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) marking flood and wave height zones for the purpose of setting insurance premium rates. New Jersey had long been scheduled as one of the last states to receive rate map updates, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had originally scheduled for late 2013 or early 2014, a year or so after Sandy struck.

Instead, FEMA published a set of interim maps a few months after Sandy, together with interim guidelines for rebuilding called Advisory Base Flood Elevations (ABFEs). Towns were told by FEMA that the advisory guidance was not final. Rebuilding would run the risk of substantially higher insurance premiums and other penalties if not consistent with tighter regulations that were likely to be adopted by state and local authorities after final maps and final rebuilding guidance were issued much later. New Jersey quickly incorporated the advisory maps into state regulations, and it has updated state requirements as FEMA has introduced new maps, but this did not fully address residents’ uncertainty and was little noted in focus groups (10).

The advisory guidance implied, but FEMA did not require, that owners elevate their damaged single-family houses, if they were in flood or surge zones, by heights often exceeding six feet (there is much less FEMA guidance for multifamily buildings).

Focus group members possessed varying degrees of knowledge about changes in the maps and about the new ABFEs, ranging from vague awareness that such existed, through confusion among the different formulations, to skepticism about their precision and permanence. Residents of Manasquan expressed most familiarity with the relevant language and concepts, while Union Beach participants expressed the least. None of the group members felt the maps and elevation data provided a complete and reliable basis for making decisions about rebuilding. One well-informed participant reported that he was juggling three types of elevation data, his old base flood elevation (BFE), his new ABFE, and an as-yet-undetermined “secret” BFE that might or might not eventually be adopted. The existing maps and elevation requirements were complex enough, but the idea that people would be rebuilding under interim maps that were subject to further revision added immense confusion. None of the maps, old, interim, or permanent, incorporate data about storm surge in New Jersey from Sandy or Hurricane Irene (2011), nor do they incorporate sea level rise projections, a flood-forcing factor that is expected to worsen significantly in succeeding decades (11). No focus group participant mentioned these deficiencies, a flaw in laypersons’ understanding of future storm-surge risks that might well have serious repercussions for the long-term sustainability of these communities.

Uncertainty about the meaning and role of new flood risk information was just one of a lengthy list of factors reported by residents in focus groups that complicated the process of recovery and redevelopment. These included at least thirty other factors, ranging from changes of coastal morphology to the reduced attractiveness of damaged communities for visitors. The numbers of those who planned to remain in their homes, to leave, or who were undecided varied across the three communities. Only in inland Oceanport, the least at-risk and least damaged municipality, were there committed leavers. Manasquan, the wealthiest town and the only one of the three towns with a beach section of vacation and rental houses, had the greatest number of committed stayers. Union Beach, the town with the lowest average income and the most damage, had the greatest number who were undecided. These results indicate that residents weigh a wide array of factors beyond criteria such as expected flood heights and exposure to waves that are used to determine risk zones on the federal flood insurance maps.

Local officials and participants in the focus groups also stated that their towns were waiving fees and speeding up building approvals and that some owners were proceeding to rebuild, even before receiving insurance payments. None of our respondents mentioned proposals to pause and reconsider building policies. Activities that FEMA and other agencies would characterize as being part of the later rebuilding stage of disaster response were therefore occurring during the early stages of cleanup and recovery.

This chapter was written by Mariana Leckner, Melanie McDermott, James K. Mitchell, and Karen M. O’Neill.

5. Interactive Map: Assessing Damage from Superstorm Sandy, NJ Spotlight. Other estimates vary from these loss totals, often adding to them.

6. Damage data compiled by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and reported in Interactive Map: Assessing Damage from Superstorm Sandy, NJ Spotlight.

7. Tax board data for Ocean and Monmouth Counties reported in the “Star-Ledger”, March 31, 2013.

8. Sandy Recovery Scorecard,

9. New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance data reported in “Interactive Map: Sandy-Related Insurance Claims,” NJ Spotlight.

10. The final FIRMs were delayed by FEMA’s work on Sandy and will likely be released a year or more late, after a period of public comment and community outreach. A subsequent set of interim maps revised the wave-height zones but not the flood delineations. The advisory guidelines were adopted as regulations by New Jersey and some municipalities, whereas other towns kept their own existing, and sometimes more stringent, requirements (e.g., Oceanport). See, for example, “N.J. Sandy Rebuilding Rules: Go Higher or Pay More,” “USA Today and “In New Jersey, New FEMA Flood Maps Bring Controversy,” “JLC: The Journal of Light Construction.”

11. Matthew J. P. Cooper, Michael D. Beevers, and Michael Oppenheimer, “The Potential Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the Coastal Region of New Jersey, USA,” Climatic Change 90 (2008): 475–492.