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Monday, November 5, 2012

Rebuilding the Jersey Shore: Who Decides and Who Pays?

No human with a soul can fail to appreciate the human suffering and disrupted lives and livelihoods that became apparent last Tuesday morning in the coastal communities of New Jersey and New York following superstorm Sandy.

NJ Gov. Chris Christie inspecting flood damage in Sayerville.

(photo credit: njtoday.net )
Amid the official rhetoric and armchair quarterbacking about FEMA relief, discussions also arose about what to do next.  To rebuild or not to rebuild.  Although I’ve never been a fan of New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie, I respect his hands-on disaster response in some of his state’s hardest hit beach towns and his willingness to reach out for bipartisan relief coordination.  And, never one to shrink from controversy, Gov. Christie made it clear last week that he wants the beach towns to rebuild.  He was quoted last week by the Associated Press as saying, "I don't believe in a state like ours, where the Jersey Shore is such a part of life, that you just pick up and walk away."

Assuming that the immediate needs of the thousands whom Sandy left homeless are being met, that sort of resolve to reclaim what was lost, coming from someone in a leadership role, is probably comforting to property owners in those devastated beach towns.  But as a geologist, I cringe to hear people rushing to rebuild without considering that it's a new ballgame.

The scientific community is united in warning that storms like Sandy will be happening more frequently.  In addition, the sea level is rising at an alarming rate, so extensive coastal flooding will continue to be a significant factor in future storms.  New Jersey Future, a leading land planning advocacy group in the Garden State, says that 235,000 people in that state live within 5 feet of the high tide line.  And New Jersey’s gambling and convention mecca, Atlantic City, is the coastal town with the greatest population living within 5 feet of the high tide line.  As sea levels rise, the number of people who will be impacted by coastal flooding will also rise.

Destroyed houses in the barrier beach town of Ortley Beach.

(photo credit: Andrew Mills/Star Ledger)
New Jersey has about 125 miles of beaches along its Atlantic coast.  Of those 125 miles, about 5 miles are a spur at the north end of the coast that forms Sandy Hook Bay.  At the southern end of the New Jersey beaches is Cape May, the southernmost point in New Jersey.  From Cape May northward to Sandy Hook, about 96 miles of the New Jersey coast are barrier island beaches.  Some of the state’s most popular and most profitable beach towns (like Atlantic City) are located on barrier islands.

A barrier island is essentially a massive sand bar that separates the mainland from the raging waves of the ocean.  Barrier islands are built by ocean waves and currents.  They are also ripped apart by ocean waves and currents.  As their name implies, they act as barriers to dissipate the massive energy of the incoming waves during a storm, thus protecting the mainland beaches from direct hits.

The remains of an amusement pier in Seaside Heights.

(photo credit: ureport.foxnews.com)
Ocean waves and storm surges are nothing to take lightly.  I’d say that the only force of nature more powerful than oceans are volcanoes (earthquakes are up there, however).  And the remarkable thing about so-called natural disasters like hurricane-force waves and winds, and volcanoes, is that we could avoid them with relative ease.  But particularly along our coastlines, our society continually builds elaborate structures and places the highest premiums on land that is directly in harms way.

There are three responses for the state and federal government regarding rebuilding after Sandy.
  1. Build engineered structures like jetties and groins to try to trap eroding sand.  The drawback is that, as sand deposits along the up-current side of an engineered structure, beach erosion is exacerbated on the down-current side of the structure.
  2. Continue with beach nourishment/replenishment.  The downside is that, after spending millions of dollars to rebuild the beach, the next major storm will wash it away again.
  3. Enact forward-thinking land use policies that encourage rebuilding farther away from the ocean and its destructive forces.

Tourism along the Jersey Shore was a $24 billion industry (numbers from 2008).  And the people with the highest stakes in beachfront properties are also the ones who either write the laws or have cozy relationships with the politicians who write the laws.  So beach replenishment (dredging sand from the sea floor and then pumping that sand onto eroded beaches to lure more tourists to that beach) will continue, paid for by both state and federal tax dollars.  I wonder how people from the Midwest or the West Coast feel about some of their federal tax dollars being spent to continually rebuild beaches that will get washed away again by the next tropical storm or winter storm.

Coastal storms destroy homes and businesses, and then federally-subsidized flood insurance helps the victims rebuild in the same place – back in harms way.  And if Sandy's victims rebuild, they will likely have ample opportunities to rebuild again.  And again.

Right now, while state, federal, and charitable agencies are still shipping relief supplies to displaced residents of the Jersey Shore and Staten Island, is the time for rational heads to think forward -- to step back, look at the big picture, and move swiftly to ensure that rebuilding is done intelligently.  The status quo does not work any longer.  We need a sustainable plan for our nation's coastal communities that takes into account sea level changes and intensifying coastal storms.  We need to revise federal flood insurance programs that allow property owners to continue rebuilding in the same place storm after storm.  We need our politicians to cross party lines to develop sustainable policies.

Gov. Christie has said that the government should not decide whether homes will get rebuilt in the hard-hit areas; he thinks the homeowners should decide for themselves whether they want to rebuild or accept a buyout from the government.  But that sort of hands-off land planning will only generate a patchwork of homes and empty lots – not a viable community that is capable of weathering storms because its not directly in harms way.

Chris Christie, in his anti-charismatic way, would probably tell me to keep my nose out of the debate about rebuilding the Jersey Shore coastal communities.  But I say that everyone who pays federal income taxes has a stake in this debate.  Me, sitting in Pennsylvania 100 miles away from the nearest New Jersey beach, a rancher in Wyoming, a dairy farmer in Wisconsin, or a lobster fisherman in Maine.  Anyone who pays federal income taxes should be demanding an overhaul of FEMA's flood insurance program that currently allows beachfront property owners (as well as inland property owners in floodplains) to continue making the same bad decisions to rebuild in the same spot.

Future generations will look back at superstorm Sandy as a critical time for our current generation to plan for the future.  It’s already too late for us to have been considered by our great-grandchildren as wise and proactive.  But if we can learn from this storm and change our policies and programs to minimize the damages from the future superstorms that we know are going to occur, we will have served our offspring well.

However, if we revert to the status quo, if we continue replenishing beaches that will erode away again in 3 or 4 years, or if we simply institute building code upgrades in anticipation of stronger winds while allowing the same buildings to be rebuilt where they have already fallen or been flooded out, future generations will not speak kindly of us.

Aerial view of a section of Brick Township, NJ, near Mantoloking.  Notice how the storm-driven sand has migrated from the ocean to the right across this barrier island.  There used to be cottages, similar to the ones burning, where the sand has migrated.  (photo credit: Andrew Mills/Star Ledger)

1 comment:

  1. too many times the rich who invest in the region win this debate. But you're right, it needs to be capped. Our National Seashore here loses money every year since the west littoral drift hijacks our purchased sediment to NJ shores and it is gone again with Sandy (ironic name, no?).

    Any politician would lose his /her shorts if they let a developed coastal region 'go the way of nature', but if any particular region cannot sustain even the purchase or the sand and turn a profit, it shouldn't be able to buy more sand. period.