By James M. O'Neill, staff writer
9 December 2012
(The Record) – The price of protecting New Jersey from rising sea levels and the devastation of future storms is breathtaking, making it seem at times that the problem is insurmountable.
Some options that have been floated include $7.4 billion to buy all 13,300 structures in the Passaic River basin at risk of being flooded by a catastrophic storm, or $2.7 billion for a tunnel to protect Wayne and other towns by guiding storm runoff out to Newark Bay.
While the huge engineering projects garner much of the attention, some experts argue that less glamorous, lower-priced and smaller-scale initiatives replicated over a wide area can often produce dramatic results. Many of these strategies — from rebuilding beaches and dunes that have been scoured away by waves, to improved building codes that help structures withstand storms — have already proved effective in New Jersey.
The specifics of certain proposals can be debated, but most agree something needs to be done.
Just in the past year or so, the state has been hammered by unusually intense storms that have caused damage in very different ways. Sandy pounded the Jersey Shore and the state’s electrical grid while swamping Moonachie and Little Ferry as well as the region’s largest sewage treatment plant. In August of 2011, Hurricane Irene caused historic flooding along the Passaic River. The October snowstorm of 2011 downed trees and put much of North Jersey in the dark.
“The results of Sandy were devastating and it wasn’t even a Category 1 hurricane when it hit,” said Lisa Auermuller, a watershed coordinator at Rutgers University’s Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences. “Storms are likely to be more severe over time. And with sea level rise, even regular tides are going to be higher. Some shore communities are already seeing that.”
President Obama on Friday asked Congress for more than $60 billion to help states affected by Sandy recover and rebuild — a figure that includes funding for some of the infrastructure projects local leaders say are needed to prevent future storm-related devastation.
When Governor Christie recently announced that New Jersey’s cleanup and recovery from Sandy will cost $37 billion, he included more than $7 billion for projects to protect against future storms. If Congress approves those funds, it could help defray the costs of a wide array of strategies in areas across the state, including flood-prone parts of North Jersey.
Rebuilding the Jersey Shore to handle storm surges, meanwhile, could require billions of dollars to replenish beaches swept away during superstorm Sandy, erect steel bulkheads at $3 million or more a pop, rebuild damaged seawalls, elevate thousands of homes on pilings, and buy out some neighborhoods.
Making the New Jersey transit system more resilient to storms could cost $800 million, and putting electric lines underground could average $724,000 per mile.
But experts caution that big engineering projects can have unintended consequences. “You can solve a problem for one group and create a problem for another,” said Tom O’Rourke, a Cornell University engineering professor. “We need to engage people, recognize there will be winners and losers, but optimize our solutions so there are as few losers as possible.”
Smaller-scale projects — like improved building codes along the Jersey Shore — can often produce dramatic results, experts say.
“There’s no magic formula for dealing with the situation,” said Karl Nordstrom, a marine and coastal sciences professor at Rutgers University.
John A. Miller, a member of Governor Christie’s Passaic River Basin Flood Advisory Commission who works at Princeton Hydro, a water and wetlands engineering consulting firm, agreed. “There’s no silver bullet,” he said. […]