It’s been 10 years this week since Superstorm Sandy took her demonic march through our state, pummeling our coasts with 14-foot storm surges and 100 mph winds, wrecking 350,000 homes, ripping power away from 2.6 million residents, and killing 38 New Jerseyans.
It was the most expensive natural disaster in our history, with $37 billion in economic losses, and it should have been a wakeup call – one that would force politicians, planners, builders, and residents to acknowledge the devastating impacts of climate change, and to build smarter, safer, tougher and higher in areas vulnerable to flooding.
But for reasons no one can adequately explain, New Jersey kept slapping the snooze button after that wakeup call when it comes to taking action on inland flooding, so join us in a sincere slow-clap to the Murphy Administration for finally proposing new rules for inland flood plains, which give developers new construction guidelines for those low-lying spaces along rivers and streams.
It’s been 33 months since Gov. Murphy issued an executive order directing the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt new land use rules on flood plains “within two years” to save communities from getting washed away. Feel the urgency? Not so much.
In Jan. 2020, the governor affirmed that the flooding damage from climate change “is not abstract for us. This is real. The dangers are there.” He said that long before Hurricane Henri “crushed” our state, to use his term. Long before Hurricane Ida killed 29 New Jerseyans. Long before Murphy promised that our state would take “a quantum leap,” because “we have an infrastructure that is built for a different reality.”
Then political reality intervened.
The DEP had planned to take emergency action many months ago. And suddenly it was no longer a Murphy priority, because business groups and developers pushed back on the DEP’s argument that we face “imminent peril” without new rules.
The agency finally announced its plan on a webinar Tuesday, but now the plan takes longer to implement under the regular rule-making process, a process that should have begun in earnest – say it with us — 33 months ago.
Vince Mazzei, the DEP’s expert in flood risk management, said the proposal “will be filed immediately. In substance, it’s the same material we discussed when we were contemplating the emergency ruling.”
The bullet points: They will raise flood elevations by two feet, and require engineers to use adjusted flood maps based on projected rainfall that factors in climate change, rather than using the outdated maps based on records of past rainfall. The timetable for adoption is sometime next spring, though some experts consider that optimistic given the longer, 60-day comment period.
Mazzei acknowledges the current maps underestimate flood risk – particularly in non-coastal areas – and that most of our older developments (houses, buildings, bridges, and roads) were built with little regard for that risk. That problem must also be addressed, says Christopher C. Obropta of the Rutgers School of Environmental Engineering, a green infrastructure expert.
“A lot of New Jersey was developed prior to the stormwater regulations,” Obropta said. “The state needs to require municipalities to begin retrofitting existing development with stormwater management if we have any hope to reduce flooding.”
New Jersey has chronic flooding problems — we’re No. 3 in flood insurance claims nationally — and this Sandy anniversary “should be another reminder that we’re making things worse by building in these flood prone areas,” says Jeff Tittel, the former director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey.
Now another hurricane season is upon us, but the building trade and their unions – the kind of folks who bankroll presidential campaigns – will undoubtedly fight the new rules. The question is this: Is Murphy willing to fight back?
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