Raising a Town to Save It: Highlands, New Jersey's Only Hope?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tri Bar Services is working on raising this house in Highlands, NJ.  coastcheck Tri Bar Services is working on raising this house in Highlands, NJ. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

The town of Highlands is small, just over a square mile. Even though it’s called Highlands, much of the borough is lowlands, sitting at or below sea level. During Sandy, the eastern part of the bayside town filled up like a bathtub, taking on about ten feet of water. Residents there are dealing with how to rebuild to stay safe from another flood. 

Mayor Frank Nolan is very aware of just how critical a solution to this problem is.  He's is a big man with a warm, casual style. As we take a tour of Sandy's wrath we view the hundreds of homes that will have to be raised up on stilts an average of ten feet if they want to comply with FEMA's new flood elevations maps. So Nolan and the Highland's environmental commission is considering a big idea that locals hope will alleviate the extreme flooding that happened after Sandy. They are looking into raising the entire town up.   

Galveston Texas raised itself up in the early 1900's after a notorious hurricane killed thousands. Stephen Szulecki who chairs the Highlands’ environmental commission read about Galveston and told the Mayor about it.

"The idea is rather simple: you know you’re in a flood plain and wouldn't  the best idea be to take the town out of a flood plain?" 

 Szulecki says the town’s well defined natural boundaries – water to the east, steep hill to the west, make it an ideal candidate for this approach.

“It’s the only real permanent solution that would release the town from the shackles of flooding and allow it to really flourish.”

Barry Heffernan of Tri-Bar Services is working on raising Regina Yahara-splain's home in Highlands, NJ [ABOVE]

Town officials know it can be done.  Residents don’t doubt that.  But they do have one burning question about this plan; how will they pay for it?  Mayor Nolan estimates it will cost $250-million dollars and would like to see a combination of federal, state and private dollars pay for it. 

But that federal money and state money Mayor Nolan talks about, that is taxpayer money, that critics say would be wasted on this plan.

Regina Yahara-splain's home in Highlands, NJ is being prepped for raising up on pilings. She has been displaced since Sandy and is eager to get back to her home. [ABOVE]

Rob Young runs the program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. 

"Especially when there is a desire to use public funds, at some point you have to ask the question, how much money is it worth spending, to protect one little town, and who should be paying for that cost?" 

Young says after all is spent and done, it’s unlikely a higher Highlands would be able to outrun rising sea levels and increasing storm intensity:

“It may make them safer for the next few Noreasters, but I’m not convinced it’s going to save them from another Hurricane Sandy.”


Regina Yahara-Splain hopes that once her home is raised up, she can help others navigate the "confusing" process. [ABOVE]

It would be hard to convince Mayor Nolan of that.  He says the town’s going to pay, one way or another. 

"The reality is  how much are we going to pay if we don’t raise up the town? No business is going to stay if we flood every year. This is two years in a row that people lost everything they have in homes and businesses…who’s going to stay?"

The Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of studying the Highlands conundrum, but in a statement, a spokesman said "the corps is not specifically investigating…the town’s Lift and Fill alternative."

photos by Amy Pearl


More in:

Comments [10]

jared from from highland live in nc

i used to live in highland i
think it is a wonderful place but i am only 12 and im not sure what sandy was like because i was in the hospital but i watched the news and herd from people and haw they described it was nothing like the new and i dont think highlands will be the same with all the houses raised up and it would cost so much and not every one i wealthy so we should make a stand and help historic highlands

Jul. 18 2013 12:40 PM
Jon from Highlands, NJ

Does anyone know how likely it is for this work to happen? Who has to decide? I live in Highlands and it seems like a great thing to do for the town.

Jun. 27 2013 10:06 PM
Oliver from Highlands,NJ

@ Dennis: I read the same article (quoting the $25M). Frankly, I think $250M is more realistic if you consider the work to be done to raise it (i.e. how Galveston did it).

May. 24 2013 03:19 PM
alex from highlands NJ

so happy to see this house lifted... after the storm i found a picture a few miles away in the river. I posted on careforsandy and the got an email from the owner's daughter. she told me the pic i posted it was her mom.. i returned the pic to them. and today I am very very happy their house has been raised. I still never met them but wish them their best. and hope they can be home soon!

May. 23 2013 11:04 PM
Enrique from NYC

This doesn't sound like a wise use of tax dollars. We have to realize that some areas will just become unlivable because of our overuse of cars and other carbon producing instruments of civilization.

I'm sorry about Highlands, NJ but fact and reason has to outstrip emotional decisions.

May. 23 2013 08:37 AM
Louis from Jersey Shore

The town is famous for their Sea food restaurants.But the State should buy them out on some % on the dollar.The whole Jersey shore is in danger now. Unfortunately only the wealthy will be able to live by the ocean.Sea bright and Monmouth Beach is in the same predicament.

May. 23 2013 05:01 AM
Rose from new jersey

My heart goes out to the families and businesses who lost everything. But taxpayer money to fund private homes in a flood plain that has flooded two years in a row. Not my tax dollars thank you. With the knowledge we have about rising water and climate change we as a nation and world need to think about where we are building and at what cost.

May. 22 2013 07:48 PM
Dennis from NYC

NYT article of 02/23/2013 says refering to prof. Steve Szulecki that raising of the town would cost 25-30 millions. How come the mayor estimates that this would cost 10 times more?

May. 22 2013 12:24 PM
Nancy Barrett from Highlands

Quite an undertaking.

May. 22 2013 11:36 AM
rosemary flannery from Highlands, NJ

Thank you for the coverage of our beloved Highlands. We need all the recognition and help we can get. As one of the persons who lost their home in Sandy, it is just heartbreaking to see everything that all of us worked so hard for just destroyed. But on the upside so many businesses have come back. I just hope that the town is able to figure out a solution to stave off flooding but more importantly to help residents get much needed funds to raise our homes.

May. 22 2013 10:25 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by