Could Hoboken Become a National Model for Storm Resiliency?

The city’s strategy: to resist stormwater, delay its release, store it, and discharge it when it can do the least damage

All of New Jersey was slammed by superstorm Sandy, but Hoboken took it on the chin. Two-thirds of the city lies in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood zone and most of the city’s water infrastructure dates back a century or more. The storm surge from the sea, combined with torrential rains from the sky, flooded the combined sewer system that overflowed into the harbor. But Hoboken could be a national model of re-engineering in the face of climate change with a combination of hard and soft protections.

Jennifer Gonzales is the city’s director of environmental services. The city has attached 10,000-gallon cisterns to collect rainwater. Water runs through pipes and goes into rain gardens that absorb the water before it can enter the sewer lines. Even the central plaza’s concrete pavers and gravel absorb water.

“So as we keep more rainwater out of our combined sewer system, it reduces the likelihood of flooding, as well as the likelihood of combined sewer overflow events. So it protects water quality as well,” said Gonzales.

Hoboken has also turned parking lots into playgrounds with the same permeable pavers and planters that store stormwater. It’s set over a maze of pipes that flow into underground cisterns that keep water from seeping into sewers. Parks like this are being replicated all over town.

“The parks as defense strategy ties into the bigger… Rebuild by Design project, which is a four-part water management strategy,” said Caleb Stratton, Hoboken’s chief resiliency officer.

Partnering with state, federal government

The strategy: resist the water, delay its release, store it, and discharge it when it can do the least damage.

“In total between partnerships and acquisitions, the city intends to spend about $140 million on different park acquisition and development projects that provide that delay-and-store part of the comprehensive strategy. And then the state of New Jersey and the federal government are contributing $230 million to the resist feature to reduce coastal storm surge,” said Stratton.

Hoboken’s Harborside Park on the Hudson River walkway provides a vivid reminder of the damage coastal storm surge can do — the masts of sunken sailboats sticking out of the water.

Alongside those sunken boats, the city is building up, creating a barrier as high as 16 feet to withstand the next storm surge. It’s a wall integrated into the landscape of parks and playgrounds that protects neighborhoods, railyards, a hospital, and police and fire stations. Grass and plantings can absorb rainfall.

“You’re not going to look at it and say, ‘That’s a flood protection measure.’ So there’s the function, which is to keep floodwater out, but then there’s the actual form, so can people play there, can you rest there, can you barbecue there, can you come and can you walk to the top of the feature and look at New York City? It is going to function as a park,” Stratton said.

The walls built in Hoboken will be extended to the cities of Weehawken to the north and Jersey City to the south to fend off the worst effects of climate change.

This story is part of a national PBS series called “Sinking Cities,” produced in conjunction with Peril and Promise, a public media initiative from WNET in New York telling the human stories of climate change.