Ida forces NJ to question flood risk


When it comes to flood risk, New Jersey has the unfortunate distinction of leading the country in several categories. Now, as the state recovers from the fury over the end of Hurricane Ida, the news is getting worse.

Prior to the historic and catastrophic Ida Flood earlier this month, the state’s climate resilience strategy focused primarily on the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities. But Ida’s precipitation arrived with a volume and pace like never before, killing at least 29 people and counting millions in property damage in its wake, including in many places that had never experienced severe flooding. previously.

In the days that followed, Shawn M. LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, called the storm’s impact on New Jersey a “new reality.” David Rosenblatt, the state chief for climate and flood resilience, admitted that we are and that we are “unprepared”.

It’s no secret that when it comes to flooding New Jersey has a serious problem, arguably the worst in the country. Not only are surface air and water temperatures increasing, rising ocean levels and extreme weather events becoming considerably more frequent and severe, New Jersey’s land mass is also sinking. The state’s Climate Change Resilience Strategy, released earlier this year, launched several strategic policy suggestions.

Ida may now force a rewrite.

After the September 1 storm, Gov. Phil Murphy admitted that New Jersey’s resilience plan simply did not keep pace with rapidly escalating climate change. “We have to update our playbook for sure,” he told ABC News. “We have to ride it.”

Stricter construction rules?

“We’re creating this playbook right now,” LaTourette told NJ Spotlight News in an interview this week. For example, he said, by the end of the year he will come up with new, more stringent regulations governing the construction of houses in flood-prone areas.

One strategy, known as “managed retirement,” involves purchasing properties in flood-prone areas and preserving the area as open space. LaTourette announced on Tuesday that he wanted the state to seek additional funding for its Blue Acres program, which offers buyouts to flood victims in flood-prone areas so they can settle on higher ground and property becomes an open space. The program is voluntary.

“I don’t believe we have started the Managed Retirement Mission. I don’t know if we’re at a cultural point of knowing what that means, ”said LaTourette, although he wants more funding for the Blue Acres program.

DEP has spent over $ 200 million on the program since 1995, buying 773 homes and demolishing 704 of them. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill that will add approximately $ 3 million per year to the buyback program. The program is widely praised, although it is underfunded and slow. And it is far from keeping up with new construction in the floodplains.

“It’s at least a 10-1 ratio,” said Jeff Tittel, former Sierra Club state chapter manager, describing the new building in the floodplains in relation to the buyouts.

More new houses built in flood zones

New Jersey developers have built thousands of new homes in flood prone areas over the past decade, far more than any other state, mostly in Ocean and Monmouth counties. Many of them were replacing houses that were razed in Super Storm Sandy in 2012. The DEP wouldn’t recognize if it tracks new construction in flood-prone areas.

In 2019, Climate Central, a Princeton-based nonprofit, released a sobering report that forecasts the effects of climate change and severe weather.

“Take the state of New Jersey,” the report reads. From 2010 to 2016, “the housing growth rate was nearly three times higher in the coastal flood-prone area than in safer areas. About 4,500 new homes, worth about $ 4.6 billion, were added to the flood-risk area after this year – likely due to reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. None have built more than Ocean City, New Jersey, a popular resort town in Cape May County, which has built some 500 new homes in the at-risk area.

Climate Central estimates that by 2050, 196,264 New Jersey homes will be exposed to the type of flooding that typically occurs once a year, assuming moderate reductions in global carbon emissions. During the same period, the group estimates that around 134,000 homes will be vulnerable to larger flooding which is expected to occur once every 10 years.

And if greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked, more than 800,000 existing homes worth $ 451 billion will be at risk of a 10-year flood by 2050, according to the analysis. Those numbers will grow to 3.4 million existing homes worth $ 1.75 trillion by 2100.

Obsolete flood maps

“Nothing changes,” says Tittel, who has studied the issue for nearly four decades. “We keep building where God says no, and then we wonder why our homes are being destroyed. Tittel further argues that New Jersey policymakers are using flood maps that are 30 to 40 years old. “We are building houses in flood zones that are not even labeled flood zones. “

One problem is that the cash-strapped state’s 565 municipalities are mostly on their own to find solutions while using outdated flood maps. It’s a virtual war, fought on multiple fronts: containing new construction in flood-prone areas, repairing aging stormwater systems, and restoring natural sources of mitigation, to name a few.

Murphy recently signed a law that directs New Jersey municipalities to identify the potential effects of climate change and include in their master plans efforts to combat or prevent damage, such as zoning to ban construction in future flood zones.

But “builders, land speculators and real estate agents carry a lot of weight in New Jersey,” Tittel adds.

Credit: (AP Photo / Evan Vucci, on file)
September 7, 2021: President Joe Biden visits a neighborhood affected by Tropical Storm Ida in Manville, Somerset County. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) looks to the right.

For decades there has been a lukewarm and ineffective debate about construction in flood-prone areas and the role of government in private development. On Tuesday, JB Smith, an Army Corps of Engineers planner, intervened.

“We also need to look at relocation and acquisition,” he said. “It has to do with mandatory buyouts versus voluntary buyouts and using a prominent domain to do that, which might not be a popular topic, but it’s something we need to sweat. with the State and our partners in the future. “

Smith’s remarks reflect a recent shift in the Corps’ flooding strategy.

Eminent domain

In 2015, the Corps announced that voluntary programs were “not acceptable” and that buyout programs “must include the ability to use a prominent domain, where warranted.”

In 2018, Congress donated money to the Corps to plan flood control projects across the country. But the money comes with a new caveat: Local officials must agree to use a prominent estate to force people out of flood-prone homes, or forgo the federal money they need to fight the flood. climate change.

This choice, which is part of a Corps effort to protect people from disasters, is facing officials from the Florida Keys all the way to the Jersey Shore, including Miami, Charleston, South Carolina and Selma, Alabama. Local governments seeking federal funds to help people leave flood-prone areas must first commit to evicting people who refuse to move.

New Jersey has so far refused to force people out of their homes, and LaTourette doubled up on Wednesday, saying it would be illegal.

“Unless there is a new legal authorization of identified areas that cannot be used for residential development, say, there is no mechanism to do it,” he said.

Credit: (Andrew S. Lewis)
Although she said she loved her house in Manville and didn’t want to leave, Maite Martinez, an 18-year-old resident, said her daughter told her that after Ida he might be time to move.

Tittel believes the eminent domain is a tool New Jersey should use, albeit sparingly. He doesn’t approve of evicting people from their homes, but says there should be a mandatory buyout for homes that experience chronic flooding and reconstruction. The eminent domain, he said, should be used to prevent reconstruction in those areas.

Federal Emergency Management Agency records show the state has 14,655 “recurring loss” properties – those that have suffered at least two flood losses over $ 1,000 in a 10-year period since. 1978. New Jersey also has approximately 1,400 “recurrent severe loss” properties that have at least four flood insurance claims totaling more than $ 20,000 or that have had at least two claims totaling the fair market value of the property. ‘apartment building.

“No political will”

Hillsborough Township Mayor Shawn Lipani expressed the frustration many mayors felt when he told CNN: “This has been going on for years. … It seems that it is always the same houses and the same areas that are affected. We save the same people over and over and fix the same homes over and over again. “

Lipani said first responders in Hillsborough saved more than 100 people just on the first night of Tropical Storm Ida. There were two deaths that they couldn’t save from the floods. “What we have now just isn’t working,” he said. “We have a problem that cannot be solved by installing dams and dikes. The best solution, he said, is to find more federal funds to permanently lift homeowners out of this recurring nightmare.

What the New Jersey state government needs to do, says Tittel, is realize the gravity of the situation and take responsibility for addressing it by designing and implementing a strategically sound plan addressed to the regions, using current data. The problem, he insists, is that “there is no political will to do it”.

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