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Ida’s floods force a new reckoning for NJ

Sept. 2, 2021: In Somerville in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida

Posted on September 28, 2021

There’s a building boom in flood zones as climate change brings more rain, damage

When it comes to flood risk, New Jersey has the unfortunate distinction of leading the nation in several categories. Now, as the state recovers from the fury unleashed by the tail end of Hurricane Ida, the news gets worse.Before Ida’s historic and catastrophic deluge earlier this month, the state’s climate resilience strategy was focused primarily on the impact of rising sea level at shore communities. But Ida’s rainfall came with volume and pace like never before, leaving at least 29 people dead and countless millions of property damage in its wake — including in numerous places that had never experienced serious flooding before.

In the days following, Shawn M. LaTourette, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, called the storm’s impact on New Jersey “a new reality.” David Rosenblatt, the state’s chief climate and flood resiliency officer, conceded we were, and are “unprepared.”

It is no secret that when it comes to flooding, New Jersey has a serious problem, arguably the worst in the nation. Not only are air and water surface temperatures increasing, the ocean rising and extreme weather events becoming dramatically more frequent and severe, but New Jersey’s land mass is also sinking. The state’s Climate Change Resilience Strategy, released earlier this year, floated several strategic policy suggestions.

It now may be that Ida is forcing a rewrite.

After the Sept. 1 storm, Gov. Phil Murphy acknowledged New Jersey’s resilience plan simply isn’t keeping up with the rapid escalation of climate change. “We’ve gotta update our playbook for sure,” he told ABC News. “We gotta turn it up.”

Stricter building regulations?

“We’re creating that playbook right now,” LaTourette told NJ Spotlight News in an interview this week. For example, he said, by year’s end he will be proposing new, stricter regulations governing home construction in flood zones.

One strategy, known as “managed retreat,” is premised on buying out properties in flood zones and preserving the area as open space. LaTourette announced Tuesday he wants the state to seek additional funding for its Blue Acres program, which provides buyouts for flood victims in flood zones so they can move to higher ground and their property become open space. The program is voluntary.

“I don’t believe we have begun the mission of managed retreat. I don’t know that we are at a point culturally to know what it means,” LaTourette said, though he does want more funding for the Blue Acres program.

The DEP has spent over $200 million on the program since 1995, purchasing 773 homes, and demolishing 704 of them. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill that will add about $3 million a year to the buyout program. The program is widely praised, though it is underfunded and slow. And it doesn’t come close to keeping up with new construction in flood plains.

“It’s at least a 10-1 ratio,” Jeff Tittel, former director of the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club, said, describing the new building in flood plains versus buyouts.

More new homes built in flood-prone areas

New Jersey developers have built thousands of new homes in flood-prone areas over the past decade, far more than any other state — mostly in Ocean and Monmouth counties. Many of them were replacing homes that were leveled in Superstorm Sandy in 2012. DEP would not acknowledge if it tracks new construction in flood zones.

In 2019, Climate Central, a nonprofit based in Princeton, issued a sobering report, prognosticating the effects of climate change and severe weather.

“Take the state of New Jersey,” the report reads. From 2010 through 2016, “the housing growth rate was nearly three times higher in the coastal flood-risk zone than in safer areas. Around 4,500 new homes, worth some $4.6 billion, were added in the flood-risk zone after that year — most likely driven by reconstruction following Hurricane Sandy. None built more than Ocean City, New Jersey, a popular resort town in Cape May County, which put up some 500 new houses in the risk zone.”

Climate Central estimates that by 2050, 196,264 homes in New Jersey will be exposed to the kind of flood that typically occurs once a year, assuming moderate cuts in global carbon emissions. Over the same period, the group estimates about 134,000 homes will be vulnerable to bigger floods that are expected to occur once every 10 years.

And if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked, more than 800,000 existing homes worth $451 billion will be at risk in a 10-year flood by 2050, the analysis shows. Those numbers jump to 3.4 million existing homes worth $1.75 trillion by 2100.

Outdated flood maps

“Nothing changes,” says Tittel, who has studied the issue for the better part of four decades. “We keep building where God says no, and then we wonder why our homes get destroyed.” Tittel further argues New Jersey’s decision-makers are using flood maps that are 30-40 years out of date. “We are building homes in flood zones that aren’t even labeled flood zones.”

One problem is that the state’s 565 cash-strapped municipalities are for the most part left to their own devices in finding solutions while using outdated flood maps. It is virtual war, fought on several fronts: containing new construction in flood zones, repairing aging stormwater systems, and restoring natural mitigation sources, to name a few.

Murphy recently signed a law that orders New Jersey municipalities to identify potential effects of climate change and include in their master plans efforts to combat or prevent damage, such as zoning to ban building in future flood zones.

But “builders, land speculators and realtors carry a lot of muscle in New Jersey,” Tittel adds.

Credit: (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Sept. 7, 2021: President Joe Biden tours a neighborhood impacted by Tropical Storm Ida in Manville, Somerset County. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) looks on at right.

For decades there has been a tepid, ineffectual debate over building in flood zones, and the government’s role in private development. On Tuesday, J.B. Smith, a planner with the Army Corps of Engineers, weighed in.

“We need to also look at relocation and acquisition,” he said. “It has to do with mandatory versus voluntary buyouts and the use of eminent domain to do that, which may not be a popular topic, but that is something that we need to sweat with the state and our partners going forward.”

Smith’s remarks reflect a recent shift in the Corps’ flood strategy.

Eminent domain

In 2015, the Corps announced that voluntary programs were “not acceptable” and that buyout programs “must include the option to use eminent domain, where warranted.”

In 2018, Congress gave the Corps money to plan flood-control projects across the country. But the money comes with a new caveat: Local officials must agree to use eminent domain to force people out of flood-prone homes, or forfeit the federal money they need to combat climate change.

That choice, part of an effort by the Corps to protect people from disasters, is facing officials from the Florida Keys to the New Jersey coast, including Miami, Charleston, South Carolina, and Selma, Alabama. Local governments seeking federal money to help people leave flood zones must first commit to push out people who refuse to move.

Thus far, New Jersey has refused to force people out of their homes, and LaTourette doubled down on Wednesday, claiming it would be illegal.

“Unless there were a new statutory authorization of identified areas that cannot be utilized for residential development, say, there is not a mechanism for doing that,” he said.

Credit: (Andrew S. Lewis)
Though she said she loves her home in Manville and doesn’t want to leave, 18-year resident Maite Martinez said her daughter told her that, after Ida, it might be time to move.

Tittel believes eminent domain is a tool New Jersey must use, though sparingly. He does not endorse evicting people from their homes but says there should be a mandatory buyout for homes that experience chronic flooding and rebuilding. Eminent domain, he says, should be used to prevent rebuilding in those areas.

Federal Emergency Management Agency records show the state has 14,655 “Repetitive Loss” properties — those that have had at least two paid flood losses of more than $1,000 in any 10-year period since 1978. New Jersey also has about 1,400 “Severe Repetitive Loss” properties which have four or more flood insurance claims totaling more than $20,000 or have had at least two claims totaling the fair market value of the building.

‘No political will’

Hillsborough Township Mayor Shawn Lipani expressed the frustration felt by many mayors when he told CNN, “This has been going on for years. … It always seems to be the same homes and areas that are affected. We rescue the same people over and over again, and repair the same houses over and over again.”

Lipani said first responders in Hillsborough rescued over 100 people just on the first night of Tropical Storm Ida. There were two fatalities they could not save from the flooding. “What we have now is just not working,” he said. “We have a problem that can’t be fixed by putting up dams and levees.” The best solution, he said, is to come up with more federal funds to permanently evacuate homeowners from this recurring nightmare.

What New Jersey state government must do, Tittel asserts, is realize the gravity of the situation and assume responsibility to fix it by devising and implementing a strategically sound plan addressed at regions, using current data. The problem, he insists, is that “there is no political will to do that.”


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