Report: Sea Level Rise Could Displace Hundreds of Thousands in NJ

March 17, 2016 | Energy & Environment
A study found a six-foot sea level rise could force more than 800,000 New Jersey residents to relocate.

By Brenda Flanagan

“It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t go away,” said Bill Riley.

Riley and his family live in Brick in an RV trailer. His renovated house — flooded by Sandy — will eventually tower 10 feet off the ground. High enough, he hopes, to avoid the next big coastal storm.

Would he leave instead of having to go through another Sandy?

“If I had the money that I could get for the house at fair market value, yeah I would. I’d move somewhere else. I can’t live in a Winnebago. It’s been seven months,” he said. “Yeah, I pretty much have had it.”

He says Jersey’s most recent coastal flooding during the January storm — marked by significant erosion — only underscored the shore’s vulnerability. A recent study of U.S. coastal communities shows that rising sea levels could push people like Bill to move out.

“How that’s going to look, how populations are going to respond is pretty uncertain,” said the study’s co-author Jason Evans.

Evans estimates a three-foot sea level rise could possibly displace more than 300,000 New Jersey residents, mostly in Ocean, Atlantic, Monmouth and Cape May counties. A six-foot increase could force more than 800,000 New Jersey residents to relocate.

“We expect this to happen slowly, over time, or if we have a catastrophic storm like Superstorm Sandy in the future, that could be an event where, OK, we’re not going to rebuild here any more,” Evans said.

Cities like Hoboken in Hudson County could get hit hard. It’s already debating how to build a better defense. And one analyst thinks Atlantic City could become “unviable”.

“I think anyone who wants invest in building in a place like Atlantic City needs to take a cold, hard look at the sea level risk. It’s already grown a great deal over the last several decades and it’s going to continue to accelerate,” said Vice President at Climate Central Ben Strauss.

He says AC can’t keep rolling dice on its long-term future, and one lawmaker agrees.

“I think it’d be a mistake to just go out there and throw money at this problem. I think we really need to get some research done so we know what are the best ways to attack it,” said Sen. Jim Whelan.

The Christie administration still plans to harden the shore with sand dunes, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the governor refuses to sound an alarm.

“It’s not a crisis. The climate has been changing forever and it will always change,” he said.

Geologists agree — well-built dunes do buy time. But sand erodes and many shore towns claim losing homes not rebuilt after Sandy is badly eroding their tax base. Bill lives next to one.

“Tax money that’s not collected. As you look through the neighborhoods that did get flooded, they call them ‘zombie houses’. There’s plenty of them — thousands,” Riley said.

Dunes and seawalls will keep the ocean at bay for a while, but at some point, experts say, living here will become unsustainable. The question is when?