It won’t take storms of Hurricane Sandy’s magnitude to wreak the same damage in the future, researchers who cited 100 years’ worth of data recorded in Atlantic City said Friday during a forum at Monmouth University.
“By the end of the century, all of these storms — if we were to have clones of them in the future — would produce water level as high, or higher, than Sandy,” said Anthony Broccoli, professor of atmospheric science at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University.
Monmouth University and New Jersey Future, a nonprofit specializing in land-use policies, invited researchers, federal officials and people involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans to speak at the public event, titled “Rebuilding a Resilient New Jersey Shore,” which drew a capacity crowd.
Sandy was unique in that it took a track unlike what most hurricanes and tropical storms before it took, hooking to the left toward the Atlantic City area where it made landfall.
“If Sandy had happened 50 years ago, we would have no idea what to expect,” Broccoli said, crediting forecasting technology with giving people advanced notice. “We were able to anticipate that sharp left turn just before it struck the coast of New Jersey.”
In the future, it might not take a storm as destructive as Sandy to cause damage, the researcher said. That is because storm surge will be atop sea levels that are higher than today, resulting in even more severe flooding. At the moment, scientists are unsure how much more the sea level will rise, but they are sure it is on its way up.
“There’s no uncertainty that the sea level will continue to rise,” he said. “How much, there is uncertainty. But the direction we’re certain about.”
The sea level, as measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through a gauge off the coast of Atlantic City, shows an increase of about 4 millimeters a year, or 16 inches over the past 100 years.
Some scientists say the frequency of tropical storms may decrease in the future, but the ones that do occur will be more intense, Broccoli said. Researchers have found this hard to prove because the technology to forecast and measure the weather has advanced so much recently that measurements made in the past are considered less reliable.
Flood maps, which show areas prone to flooding and are used by insurance companies, also are in need of updating, a process that already is under way, said Tim Crowley, director of the mitigation division for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New York. The work is about a year and a half away from being completed, although officials are in the process of releasing “advisory base flood elevations” and coastal hazard zones that will be made available sooner, he said.
“We’re going to provide you with the best available data,” Crowley said.
Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said he hoped Sandy would forever dispel the debate over dunes, which when built to the proper specifications help to protect homes, businesses and infrastructure.
“We shouldn’t be asking should we build dunes, it should be required in every community, period,” Mauriello said. “We should end the debate on lowering dunes.”
While officials and residents want to rebuild coastal communities, they may want to avoid areas that are naturally prone to damage, he said.
“The relocation isn’t wholesale but selective,” Mauriello said.
While Sandy was damaging, it was not as destructive as Hurricane Katrina, which left 85 percent of New Orleans underwater for nearly two months, said Ed Blakely, former executive director of the Office of Recovery and Development Administration in the Louisiana city.
The key to rebuilding the city is to not dwell on the past but look at how the storm has changed the community, from economic development to housing, he said. For instance, Katrina prompted some companies to relocate.
“We discovered this in New Orleans,” Blakely said. “Many firms that seemed to be permanent all of a sudden relocated elsewhere.”
The storm also affected the way officials viewed buildings, and instead of rebuilding a school separate from a library, they looked at consolidating resources and using the money to build a better facility that would combine both functions and could be used as an evacuation point, he said. Officials have also stressed emergency planning, requiring families to have their own plans in place.
Blakely also said FEMA requires its funds to be used only for repairs. In some cases, officials took money from other sources rather than FEMA because it gave them more flexibility.
“Think about money to rebuild and make it better,” Blakely said.
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