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Publication Date 03/29/2012
Source: New York Times Online

In the Region | New Jersey: Flooding Risk Rises Statewide

FOR those living or working near flood plains along New Jersey's ocean or river fronts, it's been nothing but bad news lately.

A new study measuring the threat that rising seas pose to coastal communities found that among states with municipalities at elevated risk of severe flooding, New Jersey was tied for third place (with North Carolina). And inland, towns along the Raritan, Passaic and Delaware Rivers have recently been walloped by a series of intense storms that left thousands of home and business owners reeling. The increased frequency of these flood-causing events has scientists wondering if this is the "new normal" for New Jersey, while public officials, engineers and insurance companies grapple with how to respond.

"We don't know what normal is anymore," said David A. Robinson, the state climatologist, noting that 2011 was the wettest year on record in New Jersey. "We don't know if it's a trend, or just an episode. We know humans are having an impact on global temperatures, and there's some suggestion that that's triggering more rainfall."

The study of rising sea levels and an accompanying report, "Surging Seas," released in March, predict that the ocean could rise a foot over the next 30 to 40 years, increasing the vulnerability of the 3.7 million Americans living less than four feet above sea level. Like North Carolina, New Jersey has 22 municipalities in which more than half the population lives below the four-foot mark, according to the study. (Florida has 106 such communities, Louisiana 65.) Produced by the nonprofit Climate Central in Princeton, the study (http://sealevel.climatecentral.org) includes an interactive map that outlines the threat levels to 3,000 coastal areas. Along with Atlantic City and Cape May, the more vulnerable sites in New Jersey include two cities that surprised Benjamin Strauss, the studys author: Hoboken and Jersey City.

"When you talk about rising seas," he said, "people automatically think of houses at the beach. But you get that gentle slope back in places like Hoboken that can cause more trouble."

Rivers, too, can cause trouble. New Jersey's inland riverfront communities have been hit harder than coastal areas by nearly annual storms in recent years, including Hurricane Irene at the end of August and Tropical Storm Lee in the first week of September; both caused severe flooding.

Responses have run the gamut - everything from dismantling houses most directly in harm's way to fortifying their peripheries with retaining walls and systems to redirect water.

Manville, at the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan Rivers in Somerset County, has been flooded repeatedly in recent years. "We've had our fill of it," said Gary P. Garwacke, the borough's administrator and engineer, who has joined with his counterparts in neighboring towns to form the Raritan-Millstone Flood Control Commission, in search of long-range plans beyond buying out or elevating homes deemed to be under threat.

After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the state joined forces to buy out and raze 44 badly flooded homes in Manville. Since Irene, Manville has received $3.9 million in federal and state funds to buy and dismantle 15 houses, Mr. Garwacke said. In Wayne, close to 50 houses are in line to be bought and torn down.

Manville's neighbor Bound Brook has also been victimized by flooding. But damage was less severe last year as a result of an Army Corps of Engineers effort begun in the 1970s, the Green Brook Flood Control Project, a complex system of levees, flood walls and bridge alterations that cost $120 million. With 85 percent of the project complete by the time Hurricane Irene struck (and the rest scheduled for completion later this year), downtown Bound Brook got three feet of water last August, versus the 12 feet produced by Floyd, said Dale Leubner, a project engineer, who added, "It lessened both the area affected and amount of water significantly."

Somerset County was particularly hard hit last year, and many towns are still recovering, to judge by the results of a door-to-door survey of 1,400 county homeowners just completed by the Somerset Area Disaster Recovery Committee. Lynn Weckworth, a volunteer on the committee, said some people had yet to move back into their houses, and others had yet to clean out their basements.

"Some people were so overwhelmed, they just couldn't deal with it at all," Ms. Weckworth said, explaining that the survey offered a way "to see the scope of needs and prioritize where we should be addressing first."

Development has only worsened flooding, with paved surfaces and culverts giving heavy rains fewer places to soak into the ground. In response, some new building projects are including plans to reopen waterways. One such project was recently completed at the former Magic Marker site in Trenton, which is being redeveloped for affordable housing and green space. The engineering firm Princeton Hydro was hired to open up a piped-in water system, re-exposing 1,200 feet of natural stream known as Petty's Run. Geoffrey Goll, a founder of Princeton Hydro, said that only minutes after the waterway was reopened, "kids came down and started picking frogs out of the stream."

Houses carrying mortgages are required to carry flood insurance if they are in flood plains. But once a mortgage is paid off, homeowners often drop their flood insurance, said Jeff Wyrsch, a vice president of Van Dyk Insurance in Beach Haven Terrace. He added that those living outside of flood zones rarely bought flood insurance.

"For all the flooding we've seen in New Jersey," Mr. Wyrsch said, "most of it has not been at the shore. It's along the rivers where people don't think about getting flood insurance. The only time we have people coming in asking for it is after they've been affected. It's always in hindsight."

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company
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