Four Years After Sandy, Rising Sea Levels Loom Over New Jersey Recovery

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An elevated house being rebuilt following Superstorm Sandy in Toms River, N.J, October 21, 2015

For most of the last century, modest, one-story summer bungalows lined this private strip of road that dead-ends at Vision Beach. Then Sandy made landfall here on Oct. 29, 2012, obliterating them. 

Today, except for the occasional vacant lot, the street has been transformed into two rows of gleaming, brand-new, three-story homes.

The main floors are about 14 feet off the ground, perched on pillars. Below, instead of an enclosed ground floor, many have parking spaces or picnic tables. Jay Lynch, the town’s planner, calls the new developments “canyons” because of the heights of the buildings.

Similarly towering construction is occurring on almost every nearby road.

At first, Sandy seemed to be the calamity that was finally big enough to rouse the country to the arrival of climate change’s many risks. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, spoke of, “a wake-up call and lesson to be learned here.”

In Toms River, Mayor Thomas Kelaher, a Republican, said he now accepts the evidence.  “Sea level is rising,” he said, “I am absolutely convinced.”

But even as the inevitability of rising seas and extreme storms settled in, a chasm opened between the actions necessary and what would actually get done. 

As people in towns like Toms River rushed to rebuild, they did not retreat from the coast. Instead, so much at the waterfront — houses, businesses and sand dunes —is coming back bigger, stronger and taller than ever before.

Toms River is being buffeted by powerful forces—emotional and psychological, economic and scientific, political and bureaucratic. They are propelling the area toward rebuilding in zones that may well be inundated with water by the end of the century. Those forces include:

  • In drafting new flood zone maps, the authorities chose not to include Sandy in their models.
  • Gov. Chris Christie has put a billion-dollar bet on an Army Corps of Engineers’ dune-building project that outside advisors call a costly stopgap.
  • Economic imperatives to restore property and preserve the local tax base have combined with sturdier building codes to produce a mentality of fortification, not retreat.

Still, town planners say they are aware that changes will have to be made. The town recently completed a community vulnerability assessment for the first time, which looks at the long-term effects of climate change and includes suggestions for planning. It will introduce its findings at a town meeting in November — and planners say they know residents may not want to hear its conclusions.

Cheryl Palko stood by the shore on a placid day last month. Her grandparents spent $6,000 in the 1950s for a modest shack on Vision Beach that was miraculously spared by Sandy’s surge, and Palko has been coming here all her life.  She believes in building back to sturdier codes and going about businesses as usual.

Climate change “is always in the back of your mind,” she said, “but do you base what you love on what may or may not happen?”

Federal Enablers

Sea level rise is not something that may or may not happen. It’s among the most durable predictions and most rigorously-measured signals of global warming.

But the federal government has inadvertently conspired with Toms River and other coastal towns to help residents put off the reckoning.

Long before Sandy, the New Jersey shore had felt climate change disproportionately for a variety of reasons, including land subsidence and changes of currents. Since last century, sea levels have risen more than one foot. But that is nothing compared to what will likely happen this century, as sea level is expected to rise between 1.7 and 3.1 feet under minimal warming scenarios — as much as 4.5 feet if high levels of carbon emissions continue.

Already Toms River, a township of 92,000 people just 75 miles south of Manhattan, has proved to be very vulnerable; it was crowded with homes built long before federal floodplain zoning took hold, and many bay front homes and condos sit on marshes that were filled and buttressed by bulkheads.

As of July, property owners in Toms River had received $583 million in flood insurance claims since 1978; that was more than double the amount paid to any other municipality in New Jersey and more than paid to all but 12 states. And while local residents think of Sandy as a freak occurrence, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) records, 466 properties in Toms River have had repetitive flood insurance claims.

  
New York State has taken a different approach, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a “managed retreat” experiment. WNYC went to Staten Island to see first hand.

“Toms River is in a class of its own, in terms of claims paid,” said John Miller, the legislative committee chair of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management. 

Nevertheless, he explains, flood money can be barely enough to cover full recovery costs. So in a perverse reaction, state officials in New Jersey actually loosened some regulations to allow denser building at the water to let businesses make up for lost revenue. “If you had a marina, you might build back a marina and a restaurant because you think you need more income,”  Miller said.

Lost in translation: Science to Regulation

Then there is the subtler question of the science behind the insurance maps.

Every 30 years FEMA tries to update flood maps which determine two things: cost of insurance and guidelines for building standards. Property owners get lower premiums if they meet or exceed FEMA’s standards.

What is not commonly understood is FEMA’s limitations. It is not allowed to use predictive science. It is supposed to use the present and past as guidelines, but it has not included Sandy’s impact in drafting the most recent maps that the communities are using to rebuild.

Andrew Martin, a regional risk analysis branch chief for FEMA, explained that the flood insurance rate maps are only a snapshot of today’s risks — they cannot, by regulation, include future risk assessments such as models of sea level rise from climate change. (In a bizarre bit of contrast, President Obama has ordered federal agencies to plan their own buildings with the climate models in mind.)

One such study, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, demonstrated these rising risks in New York City.

“The frequency of Hurricane Sandy-like extreme flood events has increased significantly over the past two centuries and is very likely to increase more sharply over the 21st century, due to the compound effects of sea level risk and storm climatology change,” it said.

Flood maps in Toms River were drawn in 1983. In 2009, three years before Sandy, FEMA began the grueling process of updating them. To do that, it goes block by block, taking into account past storms, the local topography and what has been built along the coast.

After the storm, communities desperately wanted updated maps to guide them on rebuilding. To accomplish that quickly, FEMA decided not to include Sandy in the modeling. In this sense, it learned nothing from the storm.

For example, Sandy’s storm surge broke through the barrier island in the town of Manatoloking, next to Toms River, allowing the bay to rise 4 feet in an hour. But FEMA modeled no such scenario.

Toms River Sea Level Rise    
Even under best-case warming scenarios, sea levels could rise from 1.7 to 3.1 feet, but if warming proceeds unchecked, it could go much higher. (InsideClimate News / njfloodmapper.org)

FEMA's Martin said that it  included enough storms similar to Sandy — but in the next breath, he said, “Sandy was unprecedented in recorded history. It was so significant that if we had included Sandy in our models it would likely have increased base flood elevations by 6 inches to a foot in some locations. When you increase base flood elevations, it would increase the flood zone in areas that are relatively flat.”

Asked if this might be misleading to local communities, Martin said, “In order to provide the best information to communities, we need to actually produce a product. If we are continually revising our analysis as new information comes available, we’d never finish a map.”

This confounds people like David Kutner of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable land use and growth policies. He said with a sigh that “nothing in the regulatory environment is yet responsive to the massive changes coming.”

Kutner argues that helping people simply survive the next Sandy is keeping them from addressing the risks realistically. He calls it “absolutely critical that they start looking down the road so they are not just putting people back in harm’s way.”

So his group sends planners into the worst-hit shore communities to help them envision a radically different future. “A lot of communities feel that the answer is to elevate homes,” he said. “How are you going to serve that home when roads and utilities are under water?”

Dunes: Another Expensive Stopgap Measure

The sense that the shore can be secured has been fed by Christie. Making the rounds on late night shows during the recovery, the governor talked tough about moving families out of flood zones. “There are some people who are upset about this,” he told David Letterman, “but my feeling is that you shouldn’t throw good money after bad.”

Yet while neighboring states began mapping out a long-term future that paid heed to climate science, by 2015 Christie was running for president and his stance on climate science had grown more doubtful.

In fact, almost none of the $100 million in federal aid that New Jersey has spent so far for relocation of flood-prone communities has gone to ocean shore communities —  the vast majority has gone to river or bay front communities. Christie made the state’s tourism motto “Stronger than the Storm.”

In particular, Christie put stock in two defenses: elevated building height and dunes. He championed the Army Corps of Engineers’ approach of building up enormous dunes across all 126 miles of the Jersey shore. So far Congress has approved $1.2 billion for the dunes. Christie has argued that towns with Army Corps dunes survived Sandy without much damage.

Others call the dunes another expensive stopgap. “Think of sand castles at the beach,” said Miller, the floodplain manager. “No matter how monstrous you build them, eventually they are going to be washed away.”

The Next Time Around

Toms River is doing its own long-term planning, advised by non-profits like New Jersey Future and New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance.

The Alliance, working out of Rutgers University, has focused on making climate science accessible to local planners. Robert E. Kopp, an author of the October PNAS report, says that even without storm surges there will be daily tidal inundation on most waterfront properties within decades.

Those kind of conditions, said Lynch, the township planner, will mean those communities are no longer able to sustain themselves.

For now, the 10-year plan he will present to local citizens won’t be about moving people. It’s about educating them and discussing whether to give financial incentives to encourage those with shore homes to consider moving inland.

“For us to go tell people you gotta move, they’d kill you,” said Mayor Kelaher, “but as time goes on, people are going to have to move because they keep flooding.” It may take another storm, he guesses, for a real wake up call, “The public needs to be smacked again like they were by Sandy.”

This piece was reported as part of a collaboration between WNYC and InsideClimate News.