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NJ Sandy Recovery Fails to Consider Long-term Climate Predictions

Some of those municipalities have been quite forward-looking, and they’ve taken proactive steps to incorporate sea-level rise predictions to ensure their residents will be safer from storms. But overall, it’s been a patchwork approach, without the sort of coordination and leadership from Trenton that many planners and environmentalists would like. They’re worried that amid the rush to rebuild, not enough attention is being paid to long-term resiliency.

Among those concerned is Chris Sturm, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Future, a Trenton-based planning advocacy group. “The state’s done a great job of focusing on rebuilding after Sandy,” she said. “What we haven’t seen enough of is a comprehensive look at a strategy for making New Jersey ‘smarter than the storm’ going forward.” As the state continues its recovery process, she thinks climate change needs to be more central to the discussion.

Sturm thinks it was understandable that long-term planning wasn’t on most people’s radars in the immediate aftermath of the storm. “They didn’t have the capacity. They were responding to a true emergency,” she said. “But I think we’re past that point now. And we see other states stepping forward, engaging in planning and figuring out how to prioritize limited funding to make sure we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck.” Compared to its neighbors in the region, she fears New Jersey has fallen behind the pack.

New York, for example, produced a planning toolkit in the aftermath of Sandy, assessing the state’s risks based on climate projections over the next hundred years. “Governor [Cuomo] very early on convened a commission that looked at these issues and conducted some analysis to make predictions about where the flooding would be and where the sea levels would cause the most trouble,” explained Seth Diamond, director of New York’s Office of Storm Recovery. “And so that has informed a whole host of decisions about what projects we should be looking at to fund, what steps we should be taking with homeowners to make sure that they are protecting their homes.”

In Connecticut, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty said concerns about climate change have drawn near-unanimous, bipartisan support. “The experience from Sandy led to a big, coastal legislative bill that went through our general assembly last spring,” he said. “And that provided a whole series of changes in terms of planning processes, setback requirements and sea-level rise expectations that are now embedded in our planning process.”

Zoë Johnson runs the Climate Change Policy Program with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She said lawmakers there have long been concerned about the future. Shortly after Sandy, Governor O’Malley issued an executive order requiring that the state factor the impact of sea-level rise and coastal flooding into any new infrastructure investments.

And Delaware has a Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Committee that’s completed a detailed assessment of the state’s risks. “We adopted a guidance policy looking at sea level rise scenarios between half a meter and a meter and a half by 2100,” explained Collin O’Mara, Delaware’s Secretary of Environment and Energy. “So if an asset’s going to be around for a hundred years, we should be planning for the worst-case scenario by trying to make sure that that’s built into all of our infrastructure decisions.”

O’Mara spoke by cell phone on his way home from chairing a meeting of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Eight other states from throughout the northeast took part in that meeting, but New Jersey was not among them. Gov. Chris Christie withdrew in 2011, calling the cap-and-trade program “gimmicky” and “a failure.”

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