In Sandy-Ravaged Hoboken, Murphy Unveils Climate Resiliency Effort

More than 750 families across the state are still waiting for reconstruction work to be completed

Seven years ago, Hoboken was 80% under water. Today, it’s host to an innovative plan to mitigate future storm surges.

Gov. Phil Murphy chose this Hudson River town to commemorate the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.

He signed an executive order there Tuesday morning designed to combat the effects of climate change in his coastal state, creating a chief resilience officer position to coordinate the effort.

“New Jersey is ground zero for the negative impacts of climate change,” the first-term Democrat said. “And New Jersey cannot be content with anything less than being a national, if not a global leader, in resilience and pushing back against the reality of climate change.”

Study impacts, recommend strategies

Murphy designated Dave Rosenblatt, an assistant commissioner in the Department of Environmental Protection, the new resilience program.

His charge is to write a climate report within 180 days and update it every two years, detailing what can be expected in terms of average temperatures, storm severity and sea level rise by 2050. And by Sept. 1 of next year, Rosenblatt is to deliver a strategy for coping with those findings, to “promote the long-term mitigation, adaptation, and resilience of New Jersey’s economy, communities, infrastructure, and natural resources.”

Among the items included in the outline for that battle plan are promoting water and energy security, reducing the risk of wildfires in state forests and supporting “sustainable and resilient” economic development.

Rosenblatt will also be asked to develop a long-term strategy for resilience and adaptation specific to the coastal areas of the state.

“The resilience officer position is new, but he will not be alone in writing the report,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe. “The report, the climate resilience strategy, has to be a product of all of the state agencies.”

Under the executive order, Rosenblatt will work with a new interagency council created specifically to coordinate the efforts of 16 separate state agencies.

Hoboken was on the front lines as New Jersey reeled under the storm surge and winds of Superstorm Sandy. City streets were flooded with water that reeked of petroleum, the Hoboken PATH hub was washed out and many residents needed to be evacuated by the National Guard.

Now, it is on the cutting edge of resiliency. Hoboken has won a competitive grant, working with a Dutch firm to build sea walls and retractable barriers, create parks that absorb rainwater, and take other measures to mitigate storm surges and coastal flooding.

Two-thirds of the city sits in an area designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a flood zone.

“We are developing a comprehensive plan called ‘Rebuild by Design,’ which will break the cycle of destruction and rebuilding and destruction and rebuilding through a comprehensive flood protection program,” said Mayor Ravi Bhalla. “It’s a federally funded program — $230 million in federal funds.”

Families still out of their homes

In some areas of the state, the effects of Sandy are still being felt.

Murphy said when he took office, 1,532 families were still not back in their homes. A year ago today, he said the number was down to 1,031. Today, it is still 757.

“We can control a significant amount of the factors that would contribute to that number, but we can’t control all of it,” the governor said. “But we are committed — as fast and as best we can — to get that number to zero or as close to zero as possible.”

The governor, as he sometimes does, cast some of the blame on his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, who was governor during the storm and led efforts to win New Jersey financial help from Washington.

“As you may remember, one of Gov. Christie’s first actions when he took office in 2010 was to abolish the Office of Climate Change.” Murphy said. “With this executive order, New Jersey will once again be guided by facts and science, not politics and not opinion.”

Murphy also exhorted the public to take climate change seriously.

“We’re the densest state in the nation, and Hudson County is the densest county in the densest state in the nation,” he said. “We’re all on top of each other, we’re all in this together. We’ve got to get it right. It’s pass-fail.”

The governor pointed out that the name Sandy has been permanently retired as a name for any future storms. But, as he put it, any one of its siblings could hit us any day.