Commentary

Seven Years After Sandy, We Still Haven’t Learned Our Lesson

By JEFF TITTEL | Oct 30, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

On the seventh anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, we reflect on our resiliency in the face of the next superstorm. Sandy was supposed to be a 1-in-100-years storm, but now it is predicted major storms will increase to one in every 25 years because of sea level rise. We are not stronger than the next storm, and the storms themselves are getting stronger. According to a 2018 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we may have as little as 12 years to reach critical levels in stopping emissions before Earth reaches a dangerous temperature.

Many lives, communities, homes and coastal areas were devastated during Sandy, and they are still vulnerable. We still haven’t learned the lessons of the devastation the superstorm left. These extreme weather events are happening way too often and with more frequency. New Jersey has put more people and their property in harm’s way.

What is even more concerning is that we are 17 times more likely to have another storm like Sandy, yet the Murphy administration shows no sense of urgency to strengthen any mitigation programs. Sea level is rising, and storms are coming whether we like it or not. We need immediate action from the Murphy administration to prepare us and protect us from climate impacts. We need to adapt and mitigate.

Given climate change and sea level rise, some of the fastest growing places in New Jersey are the most vulnerable. A new study based on data from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows New Jersey with nine communities among those in the nation with the greatest percentage of homes at risk of chronic flooding by 2060 and 2100. Hoboken is ranked No. 2 on the list, trailing only Miami Beach, Fla. Atlantic City is ranked No. 3. The report was produced by 24/7 Wall Street, and ranked the 35 cities most threatened by sea-level rise. New Jersey is also No. 1 when it comes to states with most homes in the 10-year flood risk zone. A Rutgers study notes that sea level may rise almost 3 feet by 2100.

We are still building in vulnerable areas and granting permits under Christie-era regulations that don’t protect against climate change or storm impacts. Gov. Christie waived regulations that if you rebuild infrastructure at a certain elevation, projects would need permits. The majority of the infrastructure that was rebuilt after Sandy is at the same height. Some of the worst areas for flood risk are in Ocean County, where they are just growing and building. Other areas in New Jersey, like Cape May County, Monmouth County, Avalon and more, have built the most new houses in risk zones in the nation. We must start taking real actions to fight climate change now. We are still the only state in the region without a climate adaptation and mitigation plan. We need to move forward with a coastal commission; the state Department of Environmental Protection also needs to use the latest science to put climate and sea level rise in its rules.

We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change in New Jersey, and it’s getting worse. Fish are already living in storm drains on Long Beach Island. Some roads go underwater every time there’s a full moon, and we’re losing coastal wetlands at an alarming rate. According to the Washington Post, New Jersey is one of the fastest-warming states in the nation. Its average temperature has climbed by close to 2 degrees Celsius since 1895 – double the average for the lower 48 states.

There are some direct and immediate actions the Murphy administration can take in the meantime to begin strengthening New Jersey. Gov. Murphy can create a cabinet-level committee to coordinate all efforts in coastal resiliency and in reducing greenhouse gases. This includes updating all state regulations to include climate impacts, re-doing the Water Supply Master Plan, using up-to-date data in our mapping and planning, and buying out flood-prone properties. The Murphy administration needs to move forward on strengthening important water protections and regulations including the flood hazard rules, water quality management planning rules, CAFRA and wetlands.

In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a letter of opposition to the New Jersey DEP’s proposed stormwater rule. The agency stated in its regulatory comment filed with the state that the DEP’s proposal does not account for the likelihood of more intense rainstorms due to climate change.  The New Jersey Sierra Club opposes the DEP’s stormwater rule. The club along with 15 other groups submitted a joint comment on the rule, stating there are serious flaws in the rule that will not mitigate our state’s flooding and pollution problems.

The DEP’s stormwater rule is taking a broken current system and adding some green veneer. Even President Trump’s FEMA opposed this rule. FEMA said it was troubled by the rule because it does not account for sea level rise, nutrient pollution or proper green infrastructure, and will just increase flooding. This shows how flawed and bad the DEP’s rule really is. To avoid more pollution and flooding, the DEP needs to pull its proposed stormwater rule.

During recent weeks, towns across New Jersey have been hit hard by storms. Several shore towns are trying to replenish their beaches from tropical storm Melissa, which caused major beach erosion and tidal flooding. High tides from the storm washed away mounds of sand at some beaches and created scarps close to 15 feet high. Sinkholes even formed in areas like Sea Bright. The recent “bomb cyclone” nor’easter created strong winds and major flooding, leaving over 7,000 people without power and many fallen trees behind.

Last week’s rainstorm shows the quality of the state’s beach replenishment projects under sea level rise and storm surge where we saw millions of dollars of sand washed out into the sea. Instead, New Jersey needs to create a comprehensive approach to the shore that includes mitigation of climate change, adaptation for sea level rise and restoration of natural systems. The state does not currently have a program that requires towns to protect and maintain their dunes, which is what we need. Money funded by taxpayers should go toward more-sustainable projects, like dune restoration.

Climate change is happening and happening even faster. The U.N. climate report warns of a global tipping point by 2030, so it is even more important to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as we can. Our state has the ability to regulate greenhouse gases but has yet to do so. If the DEP were to begin regulating, including a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, we could prevent making climate impacts worse.

Gov. Murphy must put in place a moratorium on all new fossil fuel projects. There are over a dozen fossil fuel projects proposed in New Jersey that would increase greenhouse gases by over 32 percent. We need to focus on renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, that does not release harmful pollution that exacerbate the effects of climate change.

Gov. Murphy talks a lot about climate change, but other states are running circles around him. Gov. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Inslee of Washington are going 100 percent carbon free by 2040 and by 2030. Eight states are going 100 percent renewable by 2050; even states with Republican governors, like Maryland, Vermont, and Massachusetts, are moving quicker on electric vehicles and regulating carbon dioxide.

The Trump administration is making our situation worse by attacking the environment and climate change protections on a national level. The president has weakened 24 air pollution rules. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and disbanded the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. He also revoked Obama-era orders to make infrastructure and building standards incorporate sea level rise and flooding projections. He has eliminated the Clean Power Plan, revoked the California Clean Waiver Rule and increased limits on methane leaks.

New Jersey needs to be stronger than the next storm, especially when President Trump is creating his own storm against the environment. On the anniversary of Sandy, we know another storm will hit New Jersey. Our state is still dragging its feet, and we must take extreme actions to plan for climate change and sea level rise. We must prevent offshore drilling, unnecessary pipelines and fossil fuel expansion by committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Nature is already planning for us with flood after flood. We must build a “green wall” around New Jersey to fight back against climate change and protect us from the next storm.

Jeff Tittel is director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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