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NJ Sandy Recovery Fails to Consider Long-term Climate Predictions

As for how New Jersey is responding to the threats of climate change and rising sea levels in the aftermath of Sandy, a spokesman at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection referred all inquiries to the governor’s press office, which did not respond to several requests to speak with either DEP Commissioner Bob Martin or a representative of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding.

In the past, however, Christie has said the state is taking all sorts of measures to make itself more resilient to future storms. “The fact is that we’re not putting things back the way they were before,” he said in July, while announcing buyouts of Sandy-flooded homes in South River. “We’re making them stronger, either by moving people out of neighborhoods like this or by building dune systems up and down the entire 127 mile coastline to make sure that if another storm like this comes, we don’t have the kind of devastating results we had now.” Christie has also noted that the state is giving grants to help people elevate their homes, assist local communities in their planning efforts, and help harden critical infrastructure like the power grid.

New Jersey Future’s Sturm says she’s excited about the size of the buyout program -- some $300 million in all to acquire 1,000 flood-prone homes statewide, plus 300 in the Passaic River Basin. She acknowledges that the state’s adoption of the new FEMA flood maps and the requirement that people rebuilding along the coast raise their homes one foot above the FEMA elevations will provide a bit of added safety in the short term. And she thinks state grants to help municipalities hire planners are a step in the right direction.

She doesn’t think those sorts of measures go far enough, though. While much of the focus to date has been on making the state safer from the next storm, Sturm is more worried about what could happen in the decades to come.

“What we’re looking for is a more comprehensive analysis of our risks and state guidance on exactly the risks we face,” she said. “How much do we expect sea level to rise? What is that going to do to storm surge in ten years? Fifty years? A hundred years? Where are the properties that have been damaged two, three, four times before? That kind of information can help us prioritize how we act and where we spend our money.”

The fear is that while homeowners might spend tens of thousands of dollars to elevate their house to bring themselves into compliance with the new FEMA flood maps, those maps are based on current conditions, and do not take sea-level rise projections into account. Given that the average life expectancy of a house is one hundred years or more, homeowners who are simply raising their structures to the minimum required height might have to go through the trouble and expense of elevating them again in a few decades, if sea levels continue to rise.

One solution, say environmentalists, would be for New Jersey to enact stricter, more forward-looking construction regulations like New York and Massachusetts, which require that homeowners rebuilding in flood-prone areas elevate two feet above the heights listed on the FEMA maps instead of just one. On a local level, nearly a dozen towns statewide have so far adopted such rules, while Tuckerton and Monmouth Beach now mandate that residents and business owners elevate three feet above the FEMA requirements.

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