Posted on October 9, 2023
The bayside town that became the poster child for some of the most severe devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is making progress on a $395 million federal project that’s been in the works even longer than that.
“Union Beach began discussing a flood protection project back three years after the 1992 nor’easter,” said Mayor Charles Cocuzza. “I’m excited to see it finally come to fruition.”
To see excavators, bulldozers and cranes finally hard at work in Union Beach is gratifying for locals, the mayor said this week.
“The residents see it,” Cocuzza added. “They see what’s going on down there. It does bring a sense of relief.”
That’s also true for JakeaBob’s Bay owner Angelita “Gigi” Liaguno-Dorr.
Liaguno-Dorr, who first opened her bayside restaurant in 1999 and has periodically reopened it following harsh storms, said she is happy to see the work advancing on the shore.
However, she said some of the berm construction has taken up part of her deck area and thus cost her 21 tables. Those make up about 72 seats of her roughly 400 total customer capacity.
“It’s for the betterment of the town,” said Liaguno-Dorr on Friday regarding her support of the project and not wanting others to experience what she did during Sandy.
“I just need some answers,” she continued. “Those are our most desirable tables. Our business is predicated on people dining out on the water … I’m not against the protection of the town. I understand that. I lived it. I just want to make sure I’m protected too.”
Liaguno-Dorr said the borough has been “wonderful” and project managers informed her of construction plans with advance notice that part of her deck would be dismantled at the end of September. They even allowed JakeaBob’s to remain open for two weeks after Labor Day (she typically serves from May to early September) to make up for some business lost due to recent rain.
Nonetheless, she said, she’s waited since the end of June for answers on the feasibility of rebuilding elsewhere on the property following the loss of her seating.
Caryn Shinske, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, on Friday referred questions about the berm construction to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Businesses interested in rebuilding may apply for the appropriate federal and state permits to do so,” Shinske said.
Federal project managers with the Army Corps could not immediately be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Stopping just storm surge, for now
While Tropical Storm Ophelia slightly delayed sand dredging for the current $50 million portion of the Army Corps project, the low-lying community escaped any significant damage from the latest storm.
But that’s not always the case.
A federal Army Corps report found that during Sandy about 90% of the land in Union Beach was flooded, with areas seeing between 2 and 10 feet of water. The town reported 60 properties destroyed by Sandy — including JakeaBob’s — and more than 600 properties with substantial damage.
While discussing the aftermath of the major storm during its 10-year anniversary last October, Cocuzza said the borough’s population declined from more than 6,200 residents to just about 5,500 — in part because people couldn’t afford to stay. Paying to re-build or elevate homes was too costly for some. Others simply feared another big storm wiping away their property or worse.
On Friday, the mayor said residents were glad to see the town and Army Corps get closer to building two terminal groins and making progress on pumping about 607,000 cubic yards of sand onto the beach as part of the first phase of the project.
As of Sept. 28, town officials said, about 177,500 cubic yards of sand were delivered to a burrow area on-site. That’s almost 30% of the total sand needed.
Cocuzza said additionally he is working to help get more clarity for Liaguno-Dorr on what options she may have on hand for regaining her seating.
State and local officials announced the start of the $395 million Union Beach project, the “Union Beach Coastal Storm Risk Reduction Project, in March.
The town provides residents updates on its progress here.
In addition to more than 3,000 feet of dune in the first phase, future project work — when complete — is slated to add two tide gates, three pump stations, about 1.2 miles of levees and nearly 1 mile of flood walls, according to local officials and a Army Corps project outline.
The federal government will cover about 65% of the total project cost and the remaining 35% is split — with the state covering 75% of that and the borough paying the other 25%.
In all, the project may end up costing more than $395 million and funding for it has not all been acquired, the mayor said.
“The contractor is currently working on the west groin and sand placement. The overall project is expected to be complete by spring of 2024,” Mackenzie Adams-Zamara, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps’ New York District, said in a statement Friday morning.
Eagle-eyed residents may have seen what looked like rubber mats and old tires amid the equipment on the town’s shore during construction.
Army Corps spokesman Michael Embrich explained old tires are used as “matting” for excavators to traverse over rock.
“We do have rock mattresses that are used for the base of the groins that do look similar to the rubber, old tire mats,” Embrich said. “Rock is being used for the groin construction and sand for the dune and berm.”
In hopes of managing expectations, Cocuzza was very clear about the work currently happening at Union Beach. Phase 1, he clarified, will ostensibly replenish the borough’s beach, construct jetties to reduce erosion and build dunes and berms to ease the impact of waves — prone to grow due to sea level rise from climate change.
“I don’t want people to get confused by what Phase 1 is,” Cocuzza said. “Phase 1 is meant to stop storm surge, that’s not going to stop the normal coastal flooding that we see on our roads during full moon high tides.”
The Union Beach mayor said additional design work is needed to complete the remaining three phases, which may take a decade or more to reach the finish line.
Phase 2 construction may not start until 2026, as that timeline is based on when the town starts the process of acquiring properties it needs to move forward. If that begins in January 2024, it may be as long as two years to see more major beach construction, he said.
“We are eager to see the other phases begin,” said Cocuzza. “It took a very long time to get to this point, to start it. And we would like to all be here when they complete it.”