Reflecting on “What’s Next?” in Local Sandy Recovery

January 25, 2016

In the three years since the establishment of New Jersey Future’s local recovery planning manager (LRPM) program, three LRPMs have been embedded in six New Jersey municipalities that experienced considerable damage during Hurricane Sandy. Working directly with local staff and officials, they have provided direct assistance and necessary additional capacity to plan, manage and implement community rebuilding and recovery.  Funded primarily the Merck Foundation and the New Jersey Recovery Fund, the program is the only one of its type in the state – and the most expansive in the nation.

Initially the LRPMs concentrated on helping local officials with immediate recovery priorities – returning residents to their homes and restarting local businesses. They secured more than $8 million in grants to fund a wide array of projects, from living shorelines to flood protection of a historic lighthouse to acquisition of emergency communication equipment.

Obtaining these funds was critical to building trust at the local level. But New Jersey Future recognized that the towns also needed to start considering their longer-term future. To help facilitate forward-looking planning, the organization developed a detailed assessment of each town’s property and financial exposure to future flood inundation based on projections of sea level rise – linking these risks directly to municipal costs.

The analyses show that as sea levels rise, large areas along the coast will be under water or damaged by regular flooding. Many areas will no longer be viable and over time property values will decline and property tax revenues will shrink significantly. These assessments, as stark as they are, have been instrumental in focusing local officials and community residents on the issues of vulnerability and preparing for “what’s next.”

Sandy damage, Tuckerton Borough Courtesy Jenny Gleghorn, borough manager

But confronting the reality of future flooding risks along New Jersey’s coast is difficult, because the stakes are high and the prognosis isn’t good. Discussing these issues is made more challenging by the absence of state policies that acknowledge sea-level rise and the dearth of voices at the state level insisting that it be addressed. This is why New Jersey has been ranked lower than other Northeastern coastal states for climate preparedness.

As part of its new report on the LRPM program, New Jersey Future distilled some important recommendations for changes to state policies to make it easier for vulnerable communities to respond realistically to their future risks. Among the organization’s recommendations:

  • Adopt official sea-level rise projections. The state and each county and municipality should map areas likely to be flooded today and in 2050 and adopt these maps as part of their land-use plans and hazard mitigation plans.
  • Fund forward-looking municipal planning. As a prerequisite to the use of any recovery planning funds, the state should require risk mapping, and establish a source of adequate funding to enable all vulnerable communities to perform such mapping.
  • Revise and coordinate the State Hazard Mitigation Plan to use vulnerability as a key factor in prioritizing capital investments to upgrade tunnels, roads, parks, rail storage and other assets. Require local governments to do the same.
  • Increase freeboard standards: Currently the state mandates for all structures one foot of “freeboard,” or additional clearance, above the 100-year flood level. But projections show that won’t be enough in 2050 when sea levels could be significantly higher than today. The state should increase freeboard standards for coastal areas by a minimum of two to three feet, with a finer-grained analysis required for large public infrastructure assets such as water and wastewater treatment plants and areas subject to wave action.
Sandy debris removal, Sea Bright, 2012 Courtesy Kristi Jacobs
Sandy debris removal, Sea Bright, 2012
Courtesy Kristi Jacobs
  • Revise the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) to require that hazard mitigation planning be incorporated into community master plans.
  • Promote strategies that shift development away from areas at risk: Consider developing municipal revenue-sharing strategies that can offset ratable losses related to buyouts. Consider developing regional transfer-of-development rights and life-rights programs to encourage alternatives to rebuilding in vulnerable coastal areas.

Federal Policies

Federal policies, like state, considerably influence disaster response and preparedness. New Jersey Future also included in its report recommendations for changing federal policies, including:

  • Align federal disaster-recovery guidelines to account for sea-level rise projections: Federal guidelines on post-disaster rebuilding that require only that infrastructure be returned to its pre-disaster condition need to be revised to reflect the directives of the January 2015 White House executive order requiring all federal projects, or projects to which federal funds flow, to incorporate sea-level-rise projections into their planning.
  • Revise the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to reflect the true risk faced by coastal areas: Continuing to subsidize flood insurance in vulnerable areas merely serves to keep people and property at risk. In 2012 the NFIP was revised to raise flood insurance premiums to actuary prices, but subsequently the reforms were rolled back for primary residences. Since financial incentives and disincentives are likely to be the most powerful drivers to shift development from flood prone areas, FEMA needs to implement these changes.

David Kutner is the planning manager at New Jersey Future. 

 Photo at top: Sea Bright Borough, Oct. 29, 2012 (courtesy Kristi Jacobs)