Under Water: New Jersey’s Battle for our Families and Future

“It is important for the people of New Jersey to realize the effects climate change is having on our community”- Tricia McAvoy, Brick Township-based community leader

Sandy Pre-Storm Surge: Atlantic City, NJ October 28, 2012.
Sandy Pre-Storm Surge: Atlantic City, NJ October 28, 2012.

New Jersey is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In particular rising sea levels, frequent flooding, and increasingly intense storms affect communities.  According to the Washington Post, New Jersey is one of the fastest warming places in the country; we’ve already crossed the 2 degrees celsius measure the Paris Accord intends to help the world avoid.   As we face the seventh Anniversary of Superstorm Sandy it’s clear that climate impacts have arrived in New Jersey and that their effect is likely to increase.  Not only have we seen record storms like Sandy that caused an estimated $70.2 billion in damage, but we also see tidal flooding, or what scientists call “nuisance” or “sunny day” flooding.  Tidal flooding is the temporary inundation of streets and communities, usually during exceptionally high tide events (like full or new moons), extreme rain, or storms.   

The photo below looks like there’s a similar amount of water as the preSandy storm surge, shown above.  But it was actually taken in Atlantic City in 2018 during a new moon high tide.

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Just how vulnerable is New Jersey today? New Jersey is no stranger to flooding.  Almost 95% of New Jersey municipalities have submitted and received a payout from a flood insurance claim between 1978 – 2007. In total during that period, New Jerseyans have submitted more than 190,000 claims, with about 83 percent paid a total of $5.9 billion.  Even with outdated and under-inclusive flood maps, New Jersey currently has 508,000 residents who live in a FEMA 100-year flood plain, or have a 1 in 100 chance of flooding each year.[i] Many residents who face frequent or extreme flooding have learned the hard way how vulnerable we are.   We spoke with some of those residents for this project, and our 2015 report on Sandy Recovery, “The Long Road Home.” 

In October, Stockton University released a poll of New Jersey residents who live both inland and in shore communities.. Seventy-three percent of New Jerseyans believe climate change is already affecting NJ.  More than 70% of those polled believe flooding, worse hurricanes and warming of the earth are major, not minor concerns.  While people are experiencing climate change, they may not agree on the cause, or the action needed to address the cause. They are uniformly agreed though, that action is needed, and soon, to address the impacts.  In the same poll, more than half of respondents supported tax increases to pay for mitigation projects even though they themselves do not live near water and 80% of the respondents support offshore wind farms coming to NJ.  These findings are similar to what we found in talking to hundreds of community members and in the stories you see here.  

We learned from our research on the impacts of Sandy that flooding and severe storms have major health and economic impacts for many residents.  In The Long Road Home, of 500 households who responded, fifty-six percent had trouble paying bills and/or affording food and gas since the storm.  And, strikingly, more than 70 percent of respondents reported they developed new physical or mental health problems or a worsening of pre-existing health conditions since Sandy. Many individuals described anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, often in combination with respiratory, cardiovascular, or other physical conditions. Many people also described an increased dependence on alcohol, tobacco products, or drugs. Of families with children, nearly 40 percent reported that their children’s school performance suffered because of the difficulties their family has faced since the storm.  Clearly, there are significant human costs from flooding and severe weather events, as well as from inadequate preparation.  

Looking at New Jersey’s future vulnerability through the lens of climate change reveals even more risk than we currently face and as such even more vulnerability for residents.  New Jersey is one of the most vulnerable states to future sea level rise with 62,000 homes at risk of chronic inundation by 2045 and 261,000 homes at risk by 2100.  The communities who are most vulnerable are the ones least likely to be be positioned  to adapt. For example, Monmouth Beach and West Cape May have elderly populations and 15% of homes at risk by 2045; Atlantic City and North Wildwood have lower income populations and 40% of homes at risk by 2045.  Almost all of Atlantic City’s residents live in FEMA-designated flood areas; an extraordinary 80 percent of the city is at risk for flooding in 80 years

The news is mixed. In good news, just as we are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we are uniquely positioned to act to prevent and mitigate worsening effects.  There are two key ways to do that. First, shift to renewable energy as expansively and quickly as we can. Second, work with vulnerable communities such that they are able to address current climate impacts and prevent future flooding through mitigation, adaptation, and other infrastructure projects.  On the first, we’re leading. But, on the second, we’re almost not in the game.  

In 2017, New Jersey set what was at the time the most ambitious offshore wind goals in the country with a plan to achieve 3500 mega watts by 2030. This will start the path of NJ’s goal of heading toward 100% renewable energy in 2050, with a 50% clean energy goal by 2030.  New Jersey Board of Public Utilities’ first award of a 1,100 Megawatts (MW) offshore wind project was announced on June 21st. Once this offshore wind farm is complete they will be able to power half a million homes and businesses .  Wind energy can provide safe, good jobs for residents. New industry can translate to upgraded and new infrastructure and local jobs that can help mitigate current flooding and future storms and provide financial support to local families.

Unfortunately, we are not leading to address the current and future flooding we face in the same way we are leading on renewable energy. This year the Surfrider Foundation issued their report which graded states based on their coastal resiliency and sea level rise plans. New Jersey received an F based on sediment management, development, coastal armoring and sea level rise.  The long delay in addressing climate change has left us far behind in adaptation planning. In 2018 NJ Department of Environmental Protection began it’s Coastal Resilience Plan which looks to create awareness and help municipalities adapt and mitigate. This is a start. However, for the plan to work, directly impacted people need to be part of the entire process, including bringing in solutions they know will work. Community members need access to resources and for dealing with the water we live with and will be living with in the foreseeable future.  

We’ve been talking to our neighbors. In January of 2019 New Jersey Resource Project began talking to community members in Atlantic City and the towns of Ventnor, Union Beach, Keansburg, Middletown, Atlantic Highlands,  Brick and Lacey Twp, New Jersey. We knocked on over 3,700 doors and had conversations with 840 residents. We held community meetings in Ventnor, Brick and Middletown and spoke to over 200 community members who are in some way still impacted by Sandy or anytime flooding and created an online survey asking residents about their flooding experience and their thoughts on offshore wind energy.  In over 1000 conversations in five communities who were impacted by Sandy there were stark commonalities. 

We’re Experiencing Flooding: 

  • Nearly half, or 48% of community members who responded at the doors or via a survey reported that they experience flooding on their property.  
  • Of those that flood, 38% are flooding at least once a month

We are Eager for Solutions and Progress, including Renewable Wind Energy:  

  • Of the community members we spoke to through door knocking, only 34% had heard that offshore wind was coming to NJ.
  • 59% of community members who were asked how they felt about offshore wind energy were excited offshore wind was coming to NJ whether they knew about the incoming wind farms before the conversation or not.  

 

  • Only 21 community members or 6% were concerned about offshore wind.  Two were worried the turbines would impact tourism revenue because they thought the turbines would be closer to shore and 3 were concerned about avian wildlife. 

These conversations were great opportunities to educate community members.  Between the distance from the shore, timing construction and testing outside of migratory seasons, there will be minimal impacts to wildlife.   It was also great to hear from residents about the opportunities they saw, from training and good jobs to reefs for recreational fishing, we were focused on opportunities and solutions.  

We are not seeing enough solutions or progress on tidal flooding and severe weather: 

  • 60% percent of households believe their town is not doing enough to mitigate flooding;
  • Only 12% believed their town is doing what it can; and
  • 27% were unsure of what their town is doing or even can do.

Many residents who did not access mitigation funds or programs through Sandy expressed a need for help making their home more resilient.  Both those same residents and community members who had or were in the process of lifting their homes through Sandy recovery expressed a need for community level mitigation projects to address roads or bulkheads, or neighborhood level inundation.  

Community members are not just living with flooding.  They are eager to talk to other community members and decision makers about the solutions they need to protect their homes and the communities they are connected to.  They are clear that solutions are not just tied to mitigation to control current flooding but long-term plans that include renewable energy and cutting emissions. Here are the stories of Sandy Survivors who are looking toward the future as told by students from Stockton University as part of our partnership.  

Click here to view data from our canvass.

[i]      Crowell, Mark, Jonathan Westcott, Susan Phelps, Tucker Mahoney, Kevin Coulton, and Doug Bellomo. 2013. “Estimating the United States Population at Risk from Coastal Flood-Related Hazards.” In Coastal Hazards, edited by Charles W Finkl (Springer), pp. 151-183. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5234-4.

 

 

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