Sea Bright, New Jersey, is a great example of how difficult it is to truly prepare a Jersey shore community for the next big storm.
The low-lying community on a narrow strip of sand between the ocean and the Shrewsbury River floods regularly and sustained catastrophic damage in Superstorm Sandy. Its entire downtown business district was damaged, as were three-quarters of its homes.
Two years later, it is one of the New Jersey municipalities furthest along in post-storm remediation and planning for future storms.
Sea Bright is repairing its rock sea wall — the main line of defense against the ocean — with state help. It raised the level of elevation its homes need to have, created protective dunes, and planted dune grass atop them to help stabilize them. It widened its beaches, and bought out a riverfront condominium complex wrecked by the storm and is converting it into a park to remove a flood-prone structure, and provide a natural buffer for storm water. It added a new pumping station for storm water and raised the electrical works for its pumping apparatus to keep it from being submerged in the next big storm.
But even with all these accomplishments, Sea Bright — and most other Jersey shore towns that are not as far along in their post-Sandy retrofitting — won’t be totally protected from future storms. One of its main resiliency decisions was requiring new or replacement bulkheads to be built higher than the old ones. But, there is no requirement that existing ones be raised — or that properties without bulkheads add them. As a result, the level of bulkheads along the river will be uneven — preventing water from spilling over in some spots, but allowing it in others.
Mayor Dina Long, who still has not been able to return to her own home two years after the storm, said the borough did not want to impose a costly new requirement on a community still struggling to recover.
“We’ve got a community on its knees,” she said. “Many people are tapped out from elevating their houses, and we were unwilling to impose (additional costs) on them. We realize this is a flawed solution until there is a continuous, unified bulkhead. But we felt it was most important that we get started.”
Add to this a segment of the population that doesn’t believe climate change and rising sea levels are real, and tally the additional protective work the town would like to do but simply doesn’t have the money for, and the magnitude of the challenge becomes clear.
David Kutner of NJ Future, which promotes responsible development, said sea levels in Sea Bright are expected to rise by nearly a foot and a half by 2050, when most streets in the town will flood from normal high tides; a Sandy-like storm will cover the entire town with water, he said.
“The elected officials are scared about presenting these kinds of presentations to people,” Kutner said. “But how the hell can you not?”
Sea Bright resident Liz Homer said the best storm protection measures will only last so long.
“We live on the water,” said Homer, who raised her house 14 feet after the storm. “We have an ocean and a river, and eventually, (the town is) not going to be there. You can’t beat Mother Nature; eventually, nature is going to win.”
Long said Sea Bright has been aggressive about seeking grant money to help it do even more to harden its shores against future storms. The town started acting quickly after the storm because its survival depends on it. Soon after the storm, some environmentalists and scientists renewed their calls for flood-prone places like Sea Bright to be bought out, de-populated and returned to a natural state.
“My greatest fear is the next one comes and the federal government comes in and says, `OK, you’re done; you’re out of here,'” Long said. “That’s why I feel such an urgency to take action.”
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