By Tom Gilbert
Nearly everyone who lived in New Jersey 10 years ago has vivid, and possibly traumatic, memories of Superstorm Sandy slamming this state we’re in.
Thirty-eight lives were lost. More than 300,000 homes were either completely destroyed or so badly damaged as to be uninhabitable. About 2.7 million people were left without power, some for up to two weeks.
Storm debris and downed trees were everywhere. Public transportation systems were crippled. Every waste water treatment facility in the state was affected, resulting in an estimated three billion to five billion gallons of untreated sewage being discharged into waterways.
“It was the most devastating storm that ever hit this state,” said Daniel Kelly, executive director of the Governor’s Disaster Recovery Office. “It changed every New Jerseyan and it changed me.”
Many New Jerseyans were undoubtedly reminded of Superstorm Sandy two weeks ago after seeing Hurricane Ian crush the southwest coast of Florida, with severe loss of lives and property. The remnants of Ian later wreaked havoc along parts of the Jersey shore, causing flooding and beach erosion.
Dozens of New Jersey officials and residents attended a special hearing in Trenton last week to observe the upcoming 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29.
Many testified before two state Assembly committees on current storm preparedness, existing storm water mitigation strategies, and how New Jersey can become more resilient to future storms – especially in light of climate change.
What has changed in New Jersey in the decade since Superstorm Sandy?
There is some good news. Nearly 7,000 houses have been elevated above base flood levels and the state’s Blue Acres program has purchased and demolished more than 800 of the most flood-prone homes, turning those properties into parklands that absorb storm water.
Higher and wider dunes have been created on many beaches up and down the New Jersey coast and other storm protection systems have been put in place.
In some areas, the energy grid has been “hardened” against extreme weather and steps are being taken to make public transportation less vulnerable.
But can New Jersey handle another Sandy or Ian? Or a storm like 2021’s Hurricane Ida, whose violent deluge led to flash flooding as non-coastal rivers and streams overflowed into streets, yards, homes and businesses?
Ida took 30 lives and devastated several inland areas of the state, including communities along the Delaware River and its tributaries.
According to Kelly, recovering from Superstorm Sandy while adapting to climate change requires years of work – as well as public acceptance that ongoing efforts are needed to prepare for future extreme weather.
“More and more homeowners and constituents are realizing the next storm is coming,” he emphasized. “We can’t avoid it. It’s not a far-off risk.”
One thing the state can and should do, without further delay, is implement an initiative designed to increase the state’s resilience to inland flooding.
In January 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an Executive Order asking the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to write new rules to upgrade flood hazard guidelines and improve storm water controls to keep people and property out of harm’s way.
The DEP proposed the new rules in May and it was widely expected the agency would adopt them quickly based upon Gov. Murphy’s earlier exhortations about the urgency of getting stronger protections in place.
But the DEP stalled on implementing the new rules after getting pushback from developers and business leaders.
The developers’ and business leaders’ argument that the measures would be too costly ignores the tremendous damage and costs that have already been inflicted and will continue to be inflicted through flooding associated with extreme weather events if we fail to act.
The new rules – part of the New Jersey Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJ PACT) initiative – would raise flood plain elevations by 2 feet, making it harder to build in areas near rivers and streams.
It would also require new housing to be designed using updated rainfall estimates, rather than decades-old data. In addition to protecting lives and property, these measures would allow the land to absorb rainfall from storms instead of sending runoff into roads or increasing downstream flooding.
Superstorm Sandy has been described as a “once in a century” storm. But that is misleading, considering two major impacts of climate change: sea level rise and more powerful hurricanes bringing greater rainfall.
Higher sea levels combined with more intense storms will bring more loss of life and property when New Jersey next finds itself in a storm’s path.
The truth is, another Sandy or Ida or Ian could come at any time. Let’s not wait until the next big one hits New Jersey to put stronger inland flooding rules in place.
Please urge the DEP to implement the inland flood protection rules. The DEP has scheduled two virtual public engagement sessions: the first on Oct. 19 from 10-11:30 a.m., and the second on Oct. 20 from 6:30-8 p.m.
To register for the sessions and find more information on the rules, go to https://dep.nj.gov/inland-flood-protection-rule/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
Tom Gilbert is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.