Town official says planned measures changed little despite Sandy devastation
Twenty-seven years after state and federal officials started planning coastal flood defenses for Union Beach, a contract was signed this week to build a berm and other flood-control measures in the devastated Monmouth County town.
Although the project was finally funded after Superstorm Sandy famously pummeled the borough in October 2012, the measures that are due to begin this fall are little different from what was planned in 1995 when the process began, said Robert Howard, administrator for the town of some 5,600 people on the shore of Raritan Bay. He said the project was first approved in 2007 but didn’t attract federal funding until 2013 in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Howard said it was “hypothetical” whether the town would have fared better during Sandy if the new measures had been in place then, but he hoped it would have been completed. “I believe the project would have assisted with dealing with Sandy,” he said in an interview.
The new contract, worth $50 million, was announced Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone said the project will help to protect the town’s homes and businesses from the bigger and more frequent storms resulting from climate change and rising seas.
“Coastal states like New Jersey are on the frontlines of rising sea levels and stronger storms due to climate change,” Pallone said in a statement. “With this funding, the Army Corps will replenish beaches with a dune, build pedestrian crossovers and repair existing decking that will help protect residents from future storm damage and flooding events.”
A poster child
Union Beach was a poster child for the devastation wrought by Sandy almost 10 years ago. Some 80% of its buildings were flooded, hundreds had to be demolished or rebuilt and many more were later elevated in the hope of withstanding future storms. Some Sandy-related reconstruction is still going on, Howard said.
The destruction cut the town’s ratables from $473 million in 2012 to $402 million in 2013. Its tax base has since been recovering, but the population is still slightly below what it was pre-Sandy, Howard said.
Robert Howard: ‘I believe the project would have assisted with dealing with Sandy.’
After the decades of delays in implementing the coastal-defense project, Howard said the beginning of construction will be a big day for the town.
“It means a great deal,” he said. “A lot of people have put a lot of effort. The Army Corps, the DEP, Congressman Pallone and the New Jersey Senators have all worked very hard along with the municipality to get through the process.”
But he said the work due to begin in the fall is only the first of four phases that will take “years” to complete, and that it may encounter resistance from private property owners who must agree to easements that would allow the flood-control features to be built on their land. There are “hundreds” of private parcels that need easements, and not all owners will initially agree to the plan, he said.
The project is one of a series along the Shore that have been built or improved by the Army Corps of Engineers since Sandy. They include a 14-mile stretch of dunes between Manasquan Inlet and Barnegat Inlet that was completed in 2019, a dune and berm covering 2.6 miles between Ocean City and Strathmere, completed in 2020, and a dune between Atlantic City and Longport that was completed in 2019.
Heavier storms are expected
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit that helps Sandy survivors, said it’s hard to tell whether communities like Union Beach would have been protected from Sandy if current coastal defenses had been in place at the time. But she argued that they will be increasingly exposed if they are not given the funding they need now.
“We absolutely need to prioritize more funding for proactive mitigation in flood-prone areas, which frankly is much of New Jersey at this point,” she said. “We’ve got to support towns and communities in thinking through, strategizing and planning and then raising the funds for these projects.”
Amanda Devecka-Rinear: ‘Our system for preparing for the very intense storms we’re getting is 100% broken,” she said. “We’re setting people up. We need to do better.’
She welcomed the provision of disaster-recovery funding for flood-control projects that had not been funded before — as in Union Beach’s case — but said the changing climate demands the anticipation of heavier storms.
“Our system for preparing for the very intense storms we’re getting is 100% broken,” she said. “We’re setting people up. We need to do better.”
Concerns about the vulnerability of inland areas, too, rose during record flooding from Tropical Storm Ida in September last year, killing 30 people. In May, the DEP proposed a rare emergency rule that would have raised official flood plains by two feet, making it more difficult to build in those areas, but the rule was strongly opposed by the business community and was not implemented as expected in mid-June.
Union Beach Mayor Charles Cocuzza called the new funding “great news” for the borough. “Superstorm Sandy devastated our borough and only amplified the need to protect our residents from the growing threat of sea level rise and stronger storms,” he said.
Jon Hurdle, a freelance writer who regularly reports on water and other environmental issues, is part of the NJ Spotlight COVID-19 reporting team. Jon can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org new email.