by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
“Stronger than the storm” implies that we can somehow beat Mother Nature through our superior strength and resolve. But as those who have survived natural catastrophes like hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis have come to realize, being “stronger” is impossible.
At a recent meeting of New Jersey’s Senate and Assembly environment committees in Atlantic City, many folks spoke out on the challenges of withstanding coastal storms like Superstorm Sandy.
“I hate to say it. We’re not stronger than the storm. We never were and we never will be,” said Mark Mauriello, former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The hearing in Atlantic City brought together scores of people with diverse concerns about the shore, from those frustrated with slow flood insurance payments, to those hoping that the new federal flood maps would not force them to undertake costly house-raising projects.
Almost drowned out, so to speak, were the voices of those like Mauriello, who believe New Jersey must be smarter in planning for the next coastal storm.
Some folks stated “it is not a matter of if another storm hits, it’s a matter of when.” Sandy brought the highest storm surge in our state’s recorded history, and it will happen again.
Although the idea of another storm is not what we want to hear, it is critical for New Jersey to take action now and adopt plans that anticipate sea level rise and more frequent and violent storms.
“Sea level rise is accelerating up to three times faster than in the past. The sea will be at least 3 feet, and perhaps 4½ feet higher, in 2100,” said Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s manager of science and stewardship. “We must predict where the ocean will be 50 to 75 years from now, and build structures, dunes, and beaches that anticipate these conditions.”
Rutgers University has a new online “Flood Mapper” that graphically depicts the impacts of sea level rise. The site, http://slrviewer.rutgers.edu/SLR.html#, shows what a three-foot rise would do to places like Atlantic City. Areas in Atlantic City that now flood two days per year will likely flood 164 days per year by 2100.
Our best defense against rising sea levels and storm surges is a slow and steady strategic retreat away from the shoreline. This would take people out of harm’s way and allow natural systems like dunes and salt marshes to replenish themselves. These natural systems act like giant sponges, absorbing water and wave energy.
A strategic retreat from the coastline would mean less public infrastructure, fewer structures, and more natural buffers. Rather than rebuild in vulnerable and low lying areas, “smarter than the storm” would mean planning for a gradual retreat from the sea.
Thirty years ago, former Governor Thomas Kean identified the need for sound coastal planning and called for the establishment of a Coastal Commission. His idea was good for New Jersey thirty years ago and remains a good idea today. Assemblyman Jeffrey Barnes recently introduced a proposal to create a Coastal Commission. It is time to move forward on that front.
To hear Mark Mauriello’s comments on Sandy’s impact, go to the video posted on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJaywJ2ORMI. The same page, EnviroPolitics, also has videos on the Sandy recovery from other environmental leaders.
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